Serendipity is one of my favourite words, the sound as well as the meaning; ‘occurence of events by chance in a beneficial way’. The element of surprise is wholly satisfactory. Fate, fortune and happenstance take us into the realm of risk; the chance might be good or bad. As planning and plotting in real life never guarantees a smooth run, why should it do so when writing fiction?
I often begin with characters in a particular situation and I have blogged previously of my lack of control over them as the plot goes forward. A plan that they will do something, behave in a particular way, develop as I originally intended, rarely happens. Much of the time I’m grateful that they have become real and wish to circumvent my original idea. Unexpectedly Monica in ‘Ladybird, Ladybird’ did this, redeeming herself by the end of the novel, becoming a character to admire, which was not how I originally perceived her.
I rarely start with any plot planned; there might be a vague idea of a theme, an ending to work towards. With ‘A Retrospective’ I followed a first paragraph which was originally written as one of many in an exercise of ‘openings to grab your reader’. Fortunately that was the one that took hold of me. I had to know why he, who became Edward, killed his mother and how he would deal with the aftermath of what he’d done, physically and emotionally.
‘The Angel Child’ began as a short story whose ending could not be conclusive; ‘until the balloon man came’, made me find out who on earth he could be.
Which is why I was delighted to hear two authors speak recently of how their work, to some extent, occurs in that way, the nagging, uncontrollable and serendipitous element of writing. Colm Toibin in a ‘Desert Island Discs’ interview spoke of how an idea comes to him as a rhythm which, if I can quote roughly what he said, insists on being listened to and pursued. Patricia Cornwell, who as a crime writer, I assumed would plot to the nth degree, told us how this is not her style. Much happens by chance, characters go off at a tangent, or she waits for them ‘to do something’. Though I’m sure she nudges them or gives them a good shove.
Finally I have to say that those fortuitous instances may be good, bad or risky, but it is only getting words down on the page that makes it turn out all right in the end.