A long loved classic on my bookshelf is the Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander. It comprises five books, the second of which is The Black Cauldron, which Disney turned into an animated film back in the 80s. The movie wasn’t very good, but the books are wonderful.
One of the key moments early in the story is when Taran and his companion, Prince Gwydion, are captured by the wicked queen Achren. They are imprisoned in her dungeon, where Taran meets the Princess Eilonwy, who believes herself to be the niece of Achren and has lived her whole life in Achren’s castle. Eilonwy has figured out how to move furtively throughout the castle, and when Taran learns of this he asks her to help him and his companion escape. Now, Eilonwy knows of only one other prisoner in the dungeon, so she assumes that is Taran’s companion. She leads that person out and then returns for Taran.
While she and Taran are traversing the tunnels underneath the castle, Eilonwy makes a wrong turn and they end up in a secret burial chamber, where they find a magnificent sword and bring it with them. But the sword was somehow connected to the castle in a mystical way, so when they remove it the entire castle collapses, and they barely escape. When they reach the woods and the other prisoner, Taran discovers to his dismay that it is not his companion and friend Prince Gwydion, but rather a man called Fflewdur Flam, a rather shabby bard.
Now, there’s a point to all this, and it’s not a book review. The sword they removed becomes one of the most significant elements of the rest of the series, and Fflewdur Flam is a constant and valuable companion to Taran for the rest of his adventures. Both were introduced into the story as the result of mistakes.
Eilonwy’s mistake in assuming the other prisoner was Taran’s companion led to the rescue of Flewdur, who otherwise would have been crushed underneath the castle. Eilonwy’s mistake in navigating the tunnels led them to the burial chamber where they found the sword. The mistakes drove not just that portion of the story, but much of what happened throughout the rest of the story as well.
Think of stories you’ve loved over the years. What mistakes were made by the characters that led to major story elements? For instance, in Tolkien’s work, if the dwarves hadn’t assumed Bilbo could keep up in the mountains when they were prisoners of the goblins, they would have kept better care of him and he might never have fallen down that hole, and thus never met Gollum and found the One Ring. And later in the story, if when Frodo had the Ring Gandalf hadn’t mistakenly trusted Saruman (and if you’ve read the Silmarillion you would know he had every reason not to trust Saruman already), he would have been there to help Frodo from Bree on to Rivendell. Thus Frodo might never have been stabbed by that Morgul blade the Witch King carried, and much might have changed for him as a character.
Mistakes are a vital element of many good stories, because they are part of what helps us to relate to the characters. Sure, I could come up with a story about a superhuman character who identifies the villain, and using his powers strives up the mountain to the evil man’s fortress, breaks down the gates, charges into the throne room and casts down his foe. It would be epic, but it wouldn’t be all that interesting. You’d probably put it down and not pick it up ever again. Because you wouldn’t know how to relate. It might be a story about a simple man who becomes great, but he does so following what seems like a predetermined path because he never has any mistakes or mishaps along the way. It’s predictable and stale, and quite frankly not much fun to read.
Mistakes drive the story in directions that at once feel real and fantastic. They leave a reader wondering what will happen next. They give the reader something in common with the main character, that they both didn’t know something, or overlooked something, and now they are dealing with the consequences of it. Often what makes the story really great is not what was supposed to happen, but how the characters dealt with what wasn’t supposed to happen.
One of my favorite examples of this is the story Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. The entire premise of the story is based on one big mistake. Lizzy misreads the character of Mr. Darcy from the start, and virtually everything that happens from that point on is driven by her misunderstanding of his character and his intentions. In the end, what makes the book so wonderful to read is to see how Mr. Darcy is unflaggingly committed to overcoming and changing her perceptions of him and his character, and how Lizzy goes through a violent personality change as she is humbled and realizes how wrong she’s been, only to realize how much someone else could love her when she’s so undeserving of it. None of this could have happened, though, if at the start she had given Mr. Darcy a chance.
The question, then, is how do you allow your characters to make a mistake? It can be harder than it seems, because in order for it to truly be a mistake, it must be something unexpected. But how do we know what not to expect? A key is to ask the question, “What kind of mistake could be made here? What doesn’t my character know yet, and how could that lack of knowledge be exploited.”
Let’s set up an example. James Marshall wants to ask Sarah Davis out on a date, because she’s just so pretty and sweet. So he goes over to the grocery store where she works after school. Now, let’s think first on what kind of mistakes he could make right here alone. Could it be she had the day off from work, and he didn’t realize it? What could be the consequences of that? Would she be at home, suspecting he’s on his way to talk to her because he was looking at her just that way? And then because he went to the grocery store first, he runs out of time to go by her house, and so he loses his nerve, she’s disappointed. And the next day the captain of the football team asks her out by her locker at school.
But perhaps she is working, and the mistake is later on. Perhaps on the way he nearly gets hit by a car while crossing the street, and in anger he picks up a rock and hurls it at the car, denting the side panel. He arrives at the grocery store only to see the car in the parking lot. Maybe the driver is sitting in the car waiting for him, and beats him up and he has to be rushed to the hospital and so Sarah doesn’t learn of his affection for her, and by the time he gets out of the hospital and has a chance to talk to her, she’s already agreed to a date with someone else.
Or perhaps the driver isn’t waiting for him, but when he gets into the store he discovers that the driver is in fact Sarah’s father, who now disapproves of the young man because he believes him to be irresponsible and unable to control his anger.
So you see how thinking through the mistakes that could be made, and what the main character doesn’t know, could drive the story. If in our example we had simply allowed the young man to go the grocery store and ask the girl out, we might have the beginnings of a nice romantic situation, but we wouldn’t have a compelling and interesting story, unless we introduced a mistake of some kind later on down the road.
Once you have an idea of what kinds of mistakes could be made, it gives you a line to start following, a trail that sometimes can allow the story to, in a sense, write itself. You don’t have to spend a lot of time wracking your brain for some kind of creative story development to drive the action, because all you need to think of are the logical consequences of the mistake that’s been made.
Going back to the example of James being beaten up in the parking lot, we know that he would need to be hospitalized. Anyone who has spent time in the hospital or has visited someone in the hospital knows the kind of environment that is, and the restrictions to one’s freedom and how frustrating it can be. So James is experiencing all that as a natural consequence. And then when he gets out of the hospital he finds out that the girl he likes has been swept out from under him. How does he react? Hurt? Angry? Does he try to win her over despite the added level of challenge? Does he start to notice the girl who’s liked him all along? Does he do something crazy and dangerous instead? All these are possibilities, and they flow naturally from the situation brought on by the character’s mistake.
Many writers have reflected on the fact that their stories took directions they never planned or thought the story would go, and it usually is because they thought things should go one way, but then they introduced a mistake and followed its path instead, and found that they liked the end product much better than what they had initially planned. This isn’t something that requires a creative savant or a completely altered view of the world. It is a writing skill that can come simply from looking at the world in your story as living by the same basic rules we all live by in our world, that mistakes happen, and the consequences are often something we never expected, but the way we deal with those consequences says much more about us than the plan we had in the first place.
So next time you sit down to write, make a mistake, and see where it takes you. Happy writing!