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26 April 2019 ·

If Your Story’s Stuck, Ask Your Protagonist!

The plot in my work-in-progress took an unexpected turn last week. I realised that what my protagonist had devised was much better than what I had been plotting for her, but there was a lot to come to grips with before I could write the next scene. What were her emotions about this dramatic development?

So I turned to a favourite technique I developed years ago for a writing masterclass: interviewing my protagonist, and letting her answer through my nondominant hand.

• I like to use a large, unlined notebook, or even scrap paper – you want to be as uninhibited as possible, and the scrap paper gives you a subliminal message, ‘Don’t worry, this isn’t important – no one’s going to see or judge it, you can throw it out.’
• Write the questions out properly in your dominant hand. ‘What do you think about the Lady?’ I asked Aissa while writing Dragonfly Song.
• Write the reply with your non-dominant hand. Use a fat pencil, felt-tip or gel-tip pen – something that would be easy for a young child to write with. Answer as quickly as you can and try not to think about it.
• If the answer doesn’t feel true, repeat it gently, in a non-judgmental way. The first time Iasked Aissa this question, she replied as politely as any anxious child questioned by a stranger, something like, ‘She is great and wonderful.’ So I asked, ‘But what do you really think about her?’ and Aissa used my left hand to write, ‘I hate her!’
• Keep on asking questions in this way from that lead.
• If it’s a plot question,  use the third person if that feels more appropriate. I only realised later why I used it this time: I needed an overview of how my protagonist was affected, not simply her own emotions. I also needed to know about how all the other characters were affected, and the interplay of all these intense emotions.
• As always with creative writing – remember that there are no rules! Experiment for what works for you.
• NOTE: As the non-dominant writing may be very hard to read, or may be repetitious or rambling, copy it out or summarise it immediately. The notes I made for the plot questions covered several pages, and so I grouped and summarised them. It was a couple of hours work, but was immeasurably helpful in moving the novel forward.

How does it work? Most likely because using the nondominant hand lets us tap more directly into the subconscious, which is where most fiction comes from. The conscious mind is too busy directing the forming of the letters to have time to judge and criticize.

I don’t remember exactly how I worked it out in the first place, but once I’d started playing with it soon realised it was a variation of various psychological and artistic techniques, a legacy of my previous life as an occupational therapist. I doubt that I’m the first one to use it in this way. All I know for sure is that I’ll be going on using it, and will be interested to hear of other people’s experiences or adaptations with it.

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Wendy Orr is a Canadian-born Australian writer. Her books for children and adults have been published in 27 countries and won awards around the world. Nim’s Island and Nim at Sea have also become feature films, starring Jodie Foster and Abigail Breslin (Nim’s Island) and Bindi Irwin (Return to Nim’s Island.) Her latest book is Cuckoo’s Flight, a companion to the highly acclaimed Bronze Age novels Dragonfly Song and Swallow’s Dance. Read full bio