One of the perennial challenges faced by discovery writers is how to extricate themselves from narrative corners. As a profligate “pantser” myself, the way I handle apparent discrepancies and dead ends not only determines whether my momentum gathers or loses steam at critical junctures, but also whether my settings and subplots turn out as thinly linear as something I could’ve dreamt up in one sitting, or as richly complex as something that’s attempted to approximate real life.
My general process for dealing with unforeseen complications or continuity errors goes like this:
(1.) Determine whether the problem can be solved via retconning,
(2.) If requisite retcons would cut too deeply into previous content, worldbuild like mad until the problem is solved.
As one might imagine, an inadvertent consequence of this approach is the “thickening” of setting and plot with incrementally-applied patches. Far from producing ad-hoc chaos, however, this “complexification,” if handled with consistent finesse, produces a secondary world that more credibly imitates our own, whose incalculable complexity has accumulated through millennia of geological and sociocultural patches.
A recent example of this process pertains to my magic system. I had previously sat down and figured out how to explain everything that was happening with magic in my story-world, graphing it out into a Universal Equation of Magic. Because explanation followed action, this chart was already rather complex. But as time went on, I began noticing little discrepancies. For a while I decided to attribute these to a separate magic system that I wouldn’t bother explaining, but then one day I noticed that a major component of my delineated magic was behaving in the exact opposite way that one would expect if one consulted my Universal Equation! No extenuating circumstance gave rise to this glaring continuity error: I simply hadn’t noticed the discrepancy in time.
So what I did was to add another layer on top of the magic system I’d already developed. And—lo and behold!—I discovered that this secondary layer swept up all those little discrepancies I’d grown used to ignoring. And then I discovered that I could actually use this secondary layer, with all its apparent discrepancies, as fuel for plot- and character-development. I had my characters start asking the same questions I’d been asking, and demanding answers, and struggling to discover the truth. By embracing complexity, by stepping into it instead of backing away, I turned what had been a debilitating problem into a significant source of in-world tension.
It worked like magic.