By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy
When your story stalls take heart—it’s not the end of your novel.
It stinks, but every writer gets stuck from time to time. Some days, it’s a short stall and you struggle with a single scene for a few hours before figuring out how to move forward. Other days, the problem is bigger than a scene, and it keeps you from writing for days or even weeks at a time. You write a scene, scrap it, write it again, but it just doesn’t want to work. You get frustrated and that keeps you away from the keyboard.
Which can actually be a good thing.
Getting stuck is your writer’s subconscious telling you there’s a problem, and keeping you from making it worse.
Your brain knows there’s something not right and it’s putting on the brakes before you write nine chapters and then realize you have to scrap the whole things and start over. Yes, it’s hard, and de-motivating, but so is throwing out all that work—or worse—forcing it into the story when it doesn’t belong there.
Most often, getting stuck is due to a plot or story issue. Once you figure out what you’re missing, the words start flowing and you can get on with your manuscript.
Here are ten ways to get moving again:
1. Look at your protagonist’s goals and motivations. Is it the wrong goal or the wrong reason?
The wrong goal or motivation can keep a story from moving forward. Maybe the plot says the protagonist needs to do X, but your subconscious knows there’s no way she’d do that and it doesn’t let you write in the wrong direction (and so you get stuck in that scene).
What does the protagonist really want? Forget what you think she ought to do for the plot, what does she want now, based on everything you’ve written? Sometimes characters grow as you write them, and their goals and motivations shift.
Why does she want it? Maybe the goal isn’t the issue, but she’s lost sight of why she’s pursuing that goal and that’s making it hard to go forward.
Identify what your protagonist wants and why she wants it, then check if it’s still fits and works with the planned plot. If not, brainstorm ways to adjust either the plot, or the character.
2. Reexamine your external conflict. Do you have one?
Since stories are about overcoming a problem, not having an external conflict gives your character nothing to overcome.
Maybe the conflict is more of an idea than a physical challenge to resolve, and you need to focus on the specifics of how the protagonists solves that conflict. It’s hard to plot individual scenes with a concept.
Make sure the conflict facing your protagonist is an external problem he can physically interact with. For example, “finding loving” is impossible from a plotting standpoint. It’s too vague, and gives the protagonist nothing specific to do (and nothing for you to write about). But “asking friends to fix me up” is a task the character can physically do, and that specific action moves the story forward.
3. Double check the backstory. Is it serving the story?
Sometimes you can’t move forward because you haven’t laid the right foundation for the story. The protagonist’s backstory doesn’t support her reasons for acting, or maybe she doesn’t even have one. It’s possible something in her past is actually contradicting what she needs to do for the plot to work, so her actions feel wrong for the scene and trigger your “something’s not right” writer sense.
Try adding information that provides the drive needed to move your protagonist to the next step. Or maybe revise the character’s history so it fits what the protagonist is doing now, and supports her goals and motivations.
4. Reevaluate the story itself. Has it changed from your original idea and outline?
Plots can change when you write them, and what you thought was going to happen might turn out to be the wrong thing for the novel.
Review your plot objectively. Has it changed? Did it veer off to a more interesting direction? A less interesting direction? Has a subplot developed that’s drawing more attention? Is a character arc overshadowing the main story? Is the plot overshadowing the character arc?
Look at the story you’re actually writing versus the one you set out to write. Maybe it’s time to throw away (or revise) that original plan. If not, then maybe it’s time to start over, or find where you veered off track and begin from there.
5. Review what you’ve written. Is something wrong?
First drafts are brain dumps, and not everything you dump onto the page is a keeper. Look at the draft so far. Is there something in the story that contradicts what you want to do next? Are you duplicating an event or plot point? Has a character acted out of character? Have you written something that is going to mess up something else you have planned?
The subconscious is really good and noticing problems, and it might be trying to rein you in before you write any further in a direction that’s not going to work.
6. Check the setting. Is it right for the scene?
Not every location serves the story, and the setting in a scene might not work for that scene. Maybe it’s not creating the right emotion in your characters, or it’s not providing any conflict to add tension to the scene. For example, if it’s supposed to be a tense scene, but there’s nothing tense in the setting, that might be leeching the worry from the situation. Are there ways you can tweak the setting to support the emotion of the scene?
Also consider if the scene would work better if you changed where it took place. If you need your character to feel uncomfortable, don’t set it where the character feels the most relaxed.
7. Rearrange the scenes. Do they flow better in a different sequence?
If a scene feels like it ought to work, but doesn’t, that could indicate it’s just in the wrong place. Maybe the protagonist needs to experience something before that scene takes place, or maybe he knows too much by then, so the scene falls flat.
What happens if you move it to another spot in the novel? What if it happened earlier or later? Pay particular attention to how the stakes and/or tension escalates. A low-tension scene right after a high-tension scene might not have the same impact, and could even kill the pacing instead of tightening it.
8. Check in with the antagonist. Are they all in or just going through the motions?
Sometimes the bad guy is bad for no reason, so their actions and “evil plans” feel two-dimensional and weak. A weak antagonist gives the protagonist nothing to struggle against, so all their actions end up feeling weak as well (which often stalls the story).
Have you been spending so much time on your protagonist that your antagonist’s goals and motives are now weak and unbelievable? Maybe you need to shore up the villain’s plan to get back on track.
9. Stop writing. Maybe you’re trying too hard?
It’s easy to get caught up in the text itself, so try sitting down with a blank page and writing out what you feel is supposed to happen. Describe it like you were telling a friend—no pressure, just casual. Sometimes writing it down before you “write” it down helps jar the sticky points loose. At the very least, it gives you the freedom to brainstorm and see how you can fix it.
Stepping away also gives your brain and that crafty subconscious time to work the problem. Go for a walk, take a shower, do some chores—anything that lets your mind work in the background. I can’t tell you how often I’ve solved a problem while washing my hair and not thinking about the problem.
10. Reconsider the scene. Do you really need it?
Sometimes a scene gives you trouble because deep down, you know it’s not necessary for the story. Something has changed, or the story unfolded a little differently, or the characters evolved beyond it, so the scene no longer works.
Don’t be afraid to skip a scene if it doesn’t want to be written. Either you’ll discover you didn’t need it, or you’ll figure out why you couldn’t write it later on in the story. Often, a missing piece turns up in later scene, and that piece fixes whatever didn’t work early on. This is especially true in opening scenes—it isn’t until you write the last chapter that you figure out what the first chapter needs to be.
When we get stuck in a story, it’s because we haven’t figured something out, and we aren’t sure what to write next. Most often, that “something” is a goal, motivation, or conflict issue, so look there first. Focus on “How can I fix this?” not “How can I force this back on track?” If the scene was working, you wouldn’t be stuck in the first place, so don’t try to “make it work” without identifying why is it’s working.
Most of all…Don’t stress when you get stuck. It’ll be okay.
Getting stuck in your story is no fun, but there’s always a path out of the mud. Take a deep breath, step away from the keyboard, and approach the problem wit