Unless you're incredibly lucky, at some point in your writing life you're bound to fall into a rut. The novel you loved yesterday feels flat today, all your ideas sound "meh" and nothing really excites you about your current manuscript. It happens, and scary as it can be, there are ways to knock your muse out of her slump and get things moving again.
Sometimes the best way to get out of a rut is to look at the novel from a different perspective. It can shake loose preconceived ideas and allow you to see the story and characters in ways you hadn't considered before. These different views often spark ideas that breathe new life into a novel that needs it.
Years ago I read a hilarious description of The Wizard of Oz that was "accurate but misleading," that stated: “Transported to a surreal landscape, a young girl kills the first person she meets and then teams up with three strangers to kill again.”
Yes, this technically does describe the movie, but it's not exactly what the movie is about. It does, however, change the whole tenor of the film. Suddenly Dorothy's the villain, and that opens up all sorts of delicious possibilities and changes how other characters might react to her when they encounter her. The Wizard wasn't trying to be a jerk, he was just trying to get this murderer out of his city before she hurt anyone! (See if you can guess the movies below)
Besides being fun, the "accurate, but misleading" game is a great tool to look at your own novel in new ways. Think about how the various characters in the story might describe it--even if it's not how you would. Every character feels like the hero in their own story, and that affects how they see the overall plot or their role in it. What about their views might be accurate but misleading, and spark that sleepy muse? Ask yourself:
How would your antagonist describe the plot?
This can open up some new ideas on where additional conflict might work, or where the antagonist might appear more sympathetic. Bad guys readers can understand and even relate to are often the most compelling. It's also useful if the antagonist isn't "bad" or a villain, just a character in opposition to your protagonist's goal. Ethical gray areas can keep readers guessing what will happen next, or what they'd do in that same situation.
#1: "An imposter infiltrates the White House and attempts to push through his own agenda."
How would the secondary characters describe it?
This can reveal subplots that might bring in added conflict or tension, or be the perfect red herring for the core conflict. It can also show you where your other characters might disagree or how they might solve any of your current plot problems. Seeing how they view or fit into the story might even help you find more layered ways those characters can contribute to the novel.
#2: After his family is murdered, a young man runs away from home to avenge their deaths.
How would the supporting characters describe it?
Minor characters can have opinions, too. This can expose some currently helpful characters who might not want to help, but are doing it since the author told them to (and author is The Boss). What if they had a different view on the matter? What happens to the plot then? If readers never know who might be willing to help the hero, who might try to hurt them, or might have an agenda all their own, the novel will be that much more unpredictable and interesting to read.
#3: A security team fights off a group of hackers trying to destroy vital government infrastructure.
How would you describe the plot if you were trying to be as accurate, but misleading, as possible?
This can force you to look at your story from a variety of new perspectives and see connections, themes, or mirrors you hadn't noticed before. Maybe you always saw the love interest as being a good guy, but if you gave him ulterior motives it changes the entire dynamic of the novel for the better. Maybe a truth about the world or society isn't at all what you thought and could be a rich layer to draw subtext from. You could even discover questionable allies for the protagonist among the antagonist's crew.
#4: A mentally disturbed father goes to dangerous extremes in order to see his children.
Not every new perspective is going to work, and trying to fit them all in would probably ruin the story, but you're bound to find gems mixed in that will get you out of your rut.
How would you describe your novel that is accurate, but misleading? What about your favorite books or movies?
Answers: 1: Dave. 2: Star Wars. 3: The Matrix. 4: Mrs. Doubtfire.
Looking for tips on planning your novel? Check out my newest book Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel.
Janice Hardy is the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now. She lives in Georgia with her husband, one yard zombie, three cats, and a very nervous freshwater eel. Find out more about writing at her site, Fiction University, or find her on Twitter @Janice_Hardy.