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The rule of agreement (and also, dinosaurs!)

So I’ll be writing a first draft of something, and suddenly a surprise event that wasn’t in my original plan will pop up, or some character I’ve never met before will wander in, or the plot won’t be working the way I expected it to. Which is when realise I need to make a Decision.  There are two ways of making decisions. The first is the one where you think long and hard, weigh up options, ask yourself why, ask yourself why not, wonder whether it would be better if dinosaurs were involved*, decide that it could be, think about that too. Some of us – and by some of us, I basically mean me – don’t like this very much. One minute I’m making a decision. Next minute I’m rearranging furniture that suddenly desperately needs to be rearranged, or I’ll urgently need to reread some old book from my bookcase for the 83rd time, or it will be time to take everything out of the drawers in the kitchen and put it all back in again. Something in the writer part of my brain really, really hates this kind of decision making.

And I found out recently there is probably a good reason for that.

I’m reading this book at the moment called Blink, by Malcolm Gladwell. It’s about the other kind of decision making – the choices we make in the blink of an eye on instinct alone. These choices exist behind what Gladwell describes as a ‘locked door’. We can’t break into them with our conscious mind, the conscious mind that hesitates and analyses things and wonders if maybe it’s time to do some baking instead. No. These decisions are made from our unconscious mind. And they can be powerful decisions based on conclusions we could never have come to if we let our conscious mind chew on them and analyse them. And reading about this stuff, I can’t stop thinking how relevant it is to writing as well.

Gladwell uses improv actors as an example, and talks about how they create hilarious comedy for a live audience with no script and no idea what will happen next. How do they decide what to do? And how on earth does it turn out funny and entertaining, seeing as it’s made up on the spot with no plan whatsoever? Because of the first rule of improvisation, which is agreement. If the actors accept everything the other actors give them – so if someone walks into the scene and says that there are dinosaurs at the door selling insurance – then there are dinosaurs. No questions.

But how does this apply to writing?

Well, say you’re writing that first draft, and that random something occurs to you, something that you never originally planned for at all. It might be something a lot less crazy than dinosaurs. (Or it might be something a lot more crazy than dinosaurs). Either way, there’s a decision to be made. Don’t think about it, and especially, don’t angst about it. A lot of my favourite scenes in my WIPs have come about not through careful planning (although I do plenty of that as well) but by making that snap decision and agreeing. Even if I don’t always know exactly what I’m agreeing with until afterwards. Sure, sometimes thinking and considering can definitely be good too. But there are times when hesitating can paralyse us, when all we need to do is agree. So next time something surprises you in your writing, give the rule of agreement a go. Trust your instincts, trust the story you’re telling. Say yes. And then see where it takes you.

*Not that you should really have to wonder about this. Everything is better when there are dinosaurs involved.

Image: domdeen /

Leila Austin

Leila lives in Middle Earth, also known as New Zealand, and writes YA fantasy.

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  1. So, Malcolm Gladwell supports panters? ;)

    Go, Gladwell!

  2. This is good advice especially for first drafts.

  3. Now I have to figure out how to add dinosaurs to the story. hmm...

  4. I wholeheartedly agree about snap decisions in first drafts! I've definitely had some awesome stuff come out of things that were never consciously planned.

    And yes, dinosaurs make everything better. Always.

  5. Nice article. This happened to me recently in my first draft and I ended up putting a talking broom into the path of my heroine. That one odd character that just popped in allowed me to continue the plot line for quite a long time. A talking broom that keeps the paths in the forest clean. Who knew?

  6. You know, I read Blink by Malcolm Gladwell a couple of years ago, and it never occurred to me to apply it to writing--but you're absolutely right. Those snap decisions is something I love about pantsing a novel--an entire story can be decided based off of a split-second decision that could not have been predicted before the writing started.

  7. I don't know if I'd refer to it as a snap decision, but I always go with the flow when I'm drafting, even if it's against my original plan. The characters often know best. Once, I changed a character's name in the middle of a sentence.

  8. What a great post! I can now put a name to those times I just go with the flow. Agreement. I like it. Sometimes those occurrences turn into the best part of a book.

  9. Yes sometimes I wonder which one is better. Sometimes thinking it out works for me but yeah I also tend to get somewhat distracted too. Then again I sometimes go off on long tangents when I go on split second decisions. I think a balance between the two would be great.

  10. Good advice! The subconscious seems to be woefully underestimated in general. Have you read The Gift of Fear? It's how the subconscious sums up observations you haven't notice and tells you when a situation is dangerous (even if rationally it doesn't seem to be).


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Item Reviewed: The rule of agreement (and also, dinosaurs!) Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Leila Austin