Oh look, there is a purple hippopotamus!
Who is this purple hippopotamus? Well, it is what I like to call a character or an event in a story who was just not supposed to be there. There are those who embrace this purple hippopotamus with open arms (Pantsers!), and those who frown upon this unlikely creature before carefully reworking their plot to make sure that he does not intend on sticking around (Plotters!). And then there are those in between, who are content to take a ride across the river as long as the story does not stray too far. These are those who are partial Plotters and partial Pantsers. I am one of them.
What is a Pantser you may ask? A pantser is someone who flies by the seat of their pants. Literality. Perhaps not everyone on this list is bouncing across the ceiling with the hope of catching a plot idea that interests them, and perhaps that is not the best analogy, but I hope you get the idea.
There are many discussions about the best way to prepare for beginning a novel or a story of any kind. And everyone seems to be leaning in a different direction. However, there is one thing that I believe almost anyone could agree on, it is all about personal choice. The decision to either make a list of each detail in your story, or simply start writing a first sentence and see where it goes is one that often depends on what you are writing as well as what works best for you.
Truly, I believe that it is often a question of trial and error. The first novel that I finished walked onto the page on its own. I started with the first line of the first paragraph, a name for the main character and a big cup of tea, and then I sat and wrote word after word until I got an idea of where it was going. It was then that I turned to a bit of planning by writing down a list of events that I wanted to happen in the expected order. This list was not aways accurate, and I was always tweaking it, but I found that it was a great starting place for understanding where the novel was to go.
This obscenely unorganized form is the way that I prefer to work. There are times that I will try to plot more out before I begin writing, and there are times that I will jump in without any ideas at all.
Why is any of this related to the preverbal purple hippopotamus?
Each form has a different amount of open space for our big nosed friends.
Most plotters do not welcome purple hippopotamuses as they can disrupt whatever plan you thought you had. This can lead to a frustrating amount of rewriting or reworking. However, there are some who sit down to have tea with these unexpected visitors and listen to what they have to say. Again, it is a personal choice.
Pantsers on the other hand usually have no idea where their story is going to take them. Purple hippopotamuses can be very helpful in this respect. The lack of an outline often makes it easier for them to become ingrained in the arc of your story.
Of course, one of the difficulties of having a purple hippopotamus is deciding whether or not you will allow it to stick around. Purple hippopotamuses can be as big as an underlaying plot that you did not think existed, or as small as a plant in your charter’s dentist office. Most purple hippopotamuses are willing is disappear if you decide not to use them, but there are some that will keep showing up again and again. This is where I usually find it helpful wonder if my plot is going in the direction that it should be.
But then, I am one of those who usually likes purple hippopotamuses.
When can purple hippopotamuses be helpful?
They are usually most helpful when you are not quite sure where your story is going. Or whether you like where it is going. However, they will often show up when you think that things are going well. Rethink that concept, perhaps things are not truly going the way you want them to, or perhaps it seems as though something is missing. Test out your purple hippopotamus with a what-if. You never know and you can always decide to discard the idea.
When are purple hippopotamuses not helpful?
This is usually the case when you have a well defined plot outline that you like. Usually, the more you know about your plot, the less helpful a purple hippopotamus can be. As a general rule, I like to go over the what-if in my mind before deciding what to do next.
Even if you do not use your purple hippopotamus, thinking through your story can help you understand why everything is happening the way it is and, possibly, what to do next.