Sonia is a speculative fiction writer and member of the MetroWest Writers’ Guild Board. She has never* caused an explosion in real life.
Once upon a time, not so very long ago, I was a writer in a bind. It was 2020, the world was falling apart, and I was writing a futuristic fairy story with time travel, monsters, and thinly disguised fascism. What can I say? It was 2020. I couldn’t decide whether I wanted escapism or a manifesto.
The crux of the story involved a woman being trapped in a bubble of frozen time for seven years. When she emerges, not realizing what happened, her daughter has grown up in her absence and disappeared. The world has changed, but all she really cares about is finding her daughter again. Act Two is her search, involving grouchy crows, a kitsune, a probably-pirate, and kidnapping.
It was my first attempt at writing in tight first person. My main character (unnamed for 81K words – it was NaNo, don’t judge me!) only knew what she could learn on her own. The reader only knew what she knew. As a result, a lot of stuff happened “offscreen” and I had to figure out what that stuff was and how it affected the story without showing it. This is really hard, y’all. It became especially hard as Act Two ended* with her finding her now eighteen-year-old daughter, Lily.
Do you remember being eighteen? Are you eighteen now? Teenagers are powerhouses of emotions, ideas, and energy. After being abandoned (in her view) by her mother at age eleven, Lily didn’t just sit around; she did stuff. She’s had seven years of life to work with and her mother knows nothing about it.
Unfortunately, by the time I wrote the reunion scene I also had no idea what Lily had been doing for seven years. I was stuck. I sat around moaning for quite a long time until eventually my husband Eli, who frequently helps me name characters and fix plot, got sick of it. “Just throw an explosion in there,” he told me, fed up with my whining.
The following is my evolution of reaction:
“This is supposed to be an emotional scene!”
“I hate emotions!”**
“I don’t have emotions!”***
“I can’t write emotions!”****
“…Why would there be an explosion?”
“I don’t know, you’re the writer. Just make something explode, you’ll feel better.”
Fine, I thought, I’ll show him. I’ll put a stupid explosion in and then it’ll serve no purpose and I’ll just have to take it out later but at least I’ll get my words in for the day.
I wrote the explosion. It shook the room and derailed the conversation, and all of a sudden I knew what Lily had been doing for the last seven years. The rest of the book unfolded in a glorious origami of plot and is the reason I like the story so much. In revision I may make Lily a POV character specifically because her offscreen life in the first draft is so cool.
Not every story will require a physical explosion, but I stand by them as a phenomenal way to move your plot forward when you’re stuck. We as writers become stuck for lots of reasons, but it’s often because the action has also become stuck. The scene I was writing before that explosion was boring. I was bored writing it and it is boring to read. I was stuck because the story wasn’t going anywhere – I hadn’t thought about what would happen after my two characters reunited. I hadn’t accounted for Lily’s agency and life at all. I knew more or less what needed to happen AFTER that scene, but I had no idea how to get there, and in the meantime my characters were stuck having a boring, circular conversation in what should have been a highly emotional moment.
There is nothing less boring than an explosion. I use explosion here to symbolize a drastic change in atmosphere, or something totally unexpected. Are your main characters having a dull date in your romance novel? Introduce an unwelcome ex, drunk family member, or disruptive mariachi band to the situation and watch it become much more interesting. Are the academics in your school story dragging like math class on June 14th? Make someone in another classroom set the filing cabinet on fire. Are the characters in your merry band of fantasy adventurers interminably traveling cross-country to get from Plot Point A to Plot Point B? Lion attack! Dragons! Giant spiders! Captured by elves!
The point is to upend the scene in a way that forces your characters to do something interesting. During the spider attack, for example, perhaps you discover that one of your characters is arachnophobic and another is a born commander. When the ex shows up to dinner and makes a scene you will learn how your characters handle stress in public, while trying to impress someone else. An unplanned fire in a school creates literally endless possibilities for hijinks, trysts, and escapes. I climbed out a window in middle school once; kids will do anything to get out of class.
I also want to point out that almost nothing is too weird to put in a story. Dead Like Me, a TV show I remember fondly, killed its main character in the first episode by dropping a toilet seat on her head from space. You can just Do Stuff. You’re the author, you get to do that!
*I will revise this story eventually, and one of the things I know will change is that Main Character will find Lily about two thirds of the way through Act Two. It might even turn into the midpoint. My pacing was WAY off in the first draft.