Guest post by Ian McHugh
So, you’ve got your story all planned out, you know your beginning and you know your ending, you know all the key plot points along the way. Maybe you’ve even got it all mapped onto an act structure and you know how many words you’ve got to get from each point to the next. Now you just need to write it, and put the words down that take your characters from plot point A to point B to C to D etc to the end. Or maybe you’re a pantser: you haven’t really planned your story, you just have some idea of where you’re headed and you’ve launched, flying by the seat of your pants to get there. Or, you’ve drafted your story and now you’re into editing and re-drafting.
Whichever it is: you’re stuck. You’ve got your characters as far as point C and you suddenly find you’re completely stumped as to how best to get them to D. Or, you’ve hit a passage that’s just plain dull (or, if you’re editing, multiple passages that are). You know where you need to get your characters to next, but you are so bored by getting them there that you can’t even bring yourself to write it. And if you’re bored by what your writing, how can you expect anyone else reading it to feel any different?
And everything grinds to a halt. You’re stuck, blocked.
How do you get yourself going again?
I think there’s a couple of sides to the answer. One is just about focus. The other is about having the tools in your toolkit that can help you get around the blockage and get your story moving again.
Focus, first. If you don’t already: know your ending. As I’ve written about previously, the ending of your story is the fulfilment of the promise you made your reader at the beginning of your story. Everything in between should be in service of fulfilling that promise, of getting to that ending. (Looking at it this way comes from Pixar screenwriter and director Andrew Stanton.) Sometimes, just reminding yourself of that can be enough to make you look at what you’ve written slightly differently, and see the way through.
Sometimes not, in which case you need some tools or tricks to help you find the spark that seems to be lacking. Here’s a couple that I’ve come across:
The worst thing that can happen. (Credit to Chris Andrews for this one.) One of the simplest ways to raise tension in a story is for things to go wrong. At the place where your story is stuck, or flat boring, ask yourself, what’s the worst thing that could happen to my character at this point? Find the answer that fits the logic of your story, but don’t hold back for fear of doing too much harm to your characters – that’s what they’re there for.
An example: in the early chapters of my currently-in-progress novel, I establish that my protagonist, a veteran of Italy’s failed wars of independence in the 1840s, has a secret history of cowardice. A few chapters in, he leaves the mates he travelled to Australia with at the slumping Ballarat goldfield and heads off alone to Bendigo, which is booming. It gets him to the next main plot point, but without any drama: he leaves his mates on friendly terms and later in the book returns to them the same way. Booooring.
So, I asked myself, what’s the worst thing that could happen here? The answer was obvious: his cowardice is exposed and he flees Ballarat in shame. No, wait: his cowardice gets one of his mates killed and he flees Ballarat in shame and guilt… Oh, but hang on, I need both his mates for later in the story. Hmm. Do I really need them both? Yeah, I do. Oh, I know: his cowardice causes one of his mates to be crippled and he flees Ballarat in shame and guilt. Bingo. And suddenly I find that his already-established arc from there has much more impetus because he’s fleeing this burden of shame and guilt and, later on, when he returns to Ballarat I’ve put in place the basis for increased tension in his reunion with the mates he abandoned.
The worst thing may well throw you a curve ball that veers your story away from where you were planning to go. If that’s the case, it’s worth at least asking yourself whether the new direction is better that what you’d planned. If not, then ask yourself what’s the worst thing that could happen on the way to the planned next destination?
Throw random stuff at your brain. There’s a common thread to the very best story-generation exercises I’ve done over the years: they all throw random elements into the mix of ingredients you have to use in your story. In my experience, introducing an element of randomness into the writing process leads to ideas and stories you would never otherwise have written. Banging random things together can also give you the spark you need to get past a story blockage.
One method I’ve adopted from a friend of mine – who uses it for generating D&D campaigns – is throwing Crown & Anchor dice. Crown & Anchor is a gambling game, in which the dice have the French playing card suits (hearts, spades, diamonds and clubs) on four sides and a crown and an anchor on the remaining sides. Ascribe values to the different symbols (mine are: love, violence, wealth, hard work, a prize and travel), throw six dice and see what you get. (Obviously, you can use regular numbered dice, but I like the pretty pictures).
Another method I use is dealing myself playing cards and jotting down the tarot interpretation of the cards (Google is your friend. Or, you could use actual Tarot cards). I keep dealing until I get a spark of an idea or reach a pre-determined maximum number (eight or twelve, for me, or until I’ve dealt at least one of each suit).
Again, throwing random stuff at your story can obviously turn it in unexpected directions. So, again, you have to ask yourself, is this direction better? Generally, while I don’t necessarily use exactly what I get from the dice or cards, I find that there’s something in what the dice or cards tell me. Enough of an idea – even just a germ of an idea – to get some traction and get the storytelling wheels turning again and get past the block.
Thanks for this. Fairly timely at the moment, in terms of the story I’m currently writing, especially the tips about maintaining focus and writing the ending; I’ve done this with my two previous novels and it works best for me. The ending for my current story is a bit unclear so I think addressing this will be a very useful thing to do. I also like the advice about asking if a changed direction is better than the original; I think perhaps my original direction is getting a bit lost and it is the best one. I tend to not really plan my stories too much but start with a rough idea of where I’m headed or what I want; (thanks for explaining what pantser means, that was my guess). I think maybe I’m trying to link it all together too soon and not writing what’s really important to me about the story. I’m glad you’ve found that throwing random things into the mix has proven to be a useful thing to do; it makes me feel more confident about my own writing process. But if I get stuck I’m going to try the Crown & Anchor and Tarot cards methods. That would be interesting.
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Thank you for this! I needed it today. I’m stuck in a story and needed the extra tools for my toolkit. Thank +Chris Andrews for me too! What a great idea!