When characters rip the story away from you.


WHEN IT COMES to writing a novel, the author has three jobs.

Sit down.

Shut up.

Stay out of the way.

When the author tells the story, it falls flat. In reality, the author is nothing more than a stenographer or a court reporter. The author listens. The author writes down what the characters do and say. That’s all.

For example, an author might tell this story:


Ambrose Lincoln sat down with Dr. Sloane, a psychiatrist, and let her probe his conscious and subconscious mind. She learned he had been wounded while meeting with a dubious business associate during a conflict somewhere in Germany. It had been a cold night, and he picked up the box he had been assigned to deliver. He had not expected the fight or the gunshot. He could not remember the details. He only recalled that he had awakened in a prison cell, and men he did not know had come to take his memory away. The name on the box had been Lincoln Ambrose. He took it for his own.

I read it. I yawn. I close the page.

So when I write the passage again, I rely on dialogue and let the characters tell the story for me. Why not? They know a lot more about the story than I do.

Here is the new version.


Dr. Sloane stood up, walked around to the side the desk, sat down, tilted her head slightly, and asked softly, “What do you remember, Mr. Lincoln?”

He closed his eyes and tried to scrape his way past the pile of salvage scrap metal that had buried his distant past. Or was it last week. Time was the great illusion. Now you see it. Now you don’t. Now you have it. Now it’s gone. “I know it was winter,” he said at last. “It was cold. The snow had been falling for weeks. It was night. The whole city was dark. No lights. No moon. Nothing. Just darkness.”

“What were you doing in the cold?”

Through the faint haze that had been draped across his memory like a piece of surgical gauze, Lincoln again saw himself walking through the snow. The cold had not seared its way to his bones.

“I had gone to meet a man,” he said.


“I was being paid.”

“By whom?”

“The mailman.” Lincoln grinned. “He brought the checks.”

All of his yesterdays had become as empty as the narrow and ancient street that stretched far beyond his gaze. His mind was as pitch black as the night that had swallowed him in a cold, deadly mist.

Dr. Sloane asked again, “Then what happened to you?”

“I woke up in a prison cell.”

“Why?” she asked.

“Wrong place,” he said. “Wrong time. Wrong town.”

“Were you tried in court?” Dr. Sloane asked.


“Why were you convicted?”

“There were two of us in the alley,” Lincoln said. “He had a gun. I didn’t.”

“What were you convicted of?”

Lincoln shrugged. “Wrong place,” he said again. “Wrong time. Wrong town.”

“Were you injured?” Dr. Sloane asked.

“I healed.”

The bullet wound had not killed him.

He ignored it.

He kept the details to himself.

“What was the fight about?” Dr. Sloane wanted to know.

“I had something he wanted.” Lincoln smiled sadly. “It was something he wasn’t supposed to have. He took it.”

“What did you have?”

“A box.”

“What was in it?”

“I wasn’t paid to look in the box,” Lincoln said. “I was paid to deliver it.”

“Who was supposed to receive it?”

“The man in the newspaper.”

“What was he doing in the newspaper.”

“Obituary,” Lincoln said.

“Who was he?”

“The name on the box was Ambrose Lincoln.”

“How did you acquire the name?” she asked.

“I stole it.”


“What about your own name?” she asked.

He shrugged.

“They took it away from me.”


“The men in the shadows.”

Dr. Sloane paused and looked up toward the harsh light. She sighed, glanced over her notes, and began again.

“Was there a fight over the box?”

“If so, I must have lost,” Lincoln said.

“Does that bother you?”



“It’s not something I dwell on.”

“What do you dwell on, Mr. Lincoln?”

“Waking up tomorrow in no worse shape than I am today,” he said.


Somewhere along the way, the author lost control. The characters ripped the story away from him.

I know.

I’m the author.

And I never had control of the story again.

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