The other night I took a break from an editing marathon to watch a movie. This will not surprise anyone who knows me. I love movies. Especially movies you haven’t heard of yet. Like this one.
Phoebe in Wonderland.
It’s the story of 9-year-old Phoebe (brilliantly played by the other Fanning, Elle) and her apparent Alice-in-Wonderland-flavored struggle with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (which turns out to be something else but I’m not telling because I think some of you are going to rent this movie now that I’ve mentioned it and it’s always more fun to discover Important Plot Points in the context of your own experience rather than through the eyes of another).
There are a number of reasons I enjoyed this film, but I’m only going to talk about one: I got lost in it.
Not lost in a “where is this going?” way (though a certain amount of that kind of lost is actually a good thing), but more in a “where did the time go?” way.
Phoebe (the movie, and the character) took me on a gentle, unexpected expedition. I felt as if I were actually wandering around in this uniquely blended mix of the real and unreal where Phoebe and her parents and sister and peers and a brilliantly odd drama teacher and more than a few fictional characters lived. It’s not that the story was a meandering mess – the structure and plot and point eventually revealed themselves. But for much of the story, I didn’t care about that.
I was having too much fun with the beautiful uncertainty.
I wanted to wander. I wanted to get lost.
Here’s the thing you already know about wandering: the point isn’t to end up somewhere, it’s all about wondering. (Didja catch that clever wordplay?) Wondering what’s around the next corner. What’s under the rug. What’s hiding in the tree. What’s lurking. What’s in the box. What’s making that noise.
Movies like Phoebe bend narrative rules a bit. They break out of the expected plot lines and invite viewers to experience snippets of the created world from the unique perspective of one of the characters. (See also: Finding Neverland and, if you’re not frightened by cardboard, The Science of Sleep.)
What does all this have to do with novel writing? Well, it’s simple, really. I’m telling you to get lost.
Go ahead and plot your story if that’s how you like to write. But once or twice or a thousand times, steal away into the novel’s world and allow yourself to step off the plotted path. Explore the stuff that’s not obvious, that’s not there.
You might be thinking “yeah, well my novel isn’t fantasy so I don’t see how this applies to me.” After slapping you silly with a waterlogged gnome hat, I’ll ask you to take back your words. It doesn’t matter what genre you’re writing – the world you’re creating is bigger than the story arc you’ve imagined. It’s deeper and wider and taller than the words on the page. You can’t point readers to that expanse unless you’ve been there yourself.
When you lose yourself in the world of your making, that world can grow, expand, and offer up things you’d never thought of. This can be a scary prospect, especially if you’re a write-by-numbers person. It might feel like being asked to strip naked and chase saber-toothed bunnies in a blinding sleet across a frozen lake. And it’s quite possible you could run in a hundred different directions and never discover a single thing you can actually use in the novel. But at least you will have gotten some exercise. And more than that, you’ll have discovered what you want your readers to discover – that there’s a great big living, breathing world behind the page.
If you follow all the writing advice books and blogs and tweets, you can learn to write a perfectly serviceable novel. Maybe even a really good novel. Tension on every page? Go for it. Flawed characters? Sure. Use all the tips and tricks you want. But before you type “the end” please take some time to wander. Here’s a helpful tip: If you find there’s nowhere to wander? Well, you might just need to start over.
There. That’s it.
Now get lost.