By Janice Hardy,
It happens to the best of us.
We’re writing along, happy as can be, and then WHAM! Our story stalls. We write a scene, scrap it, write it again, move pieces around, cut and paste the same paragraph in nine different spots, but nothing works.
We’re not blocked, just…stuck.
Most of the time, getting stuck is due to a plot or story issue. We just don’t know what happens next, so we get frustrated, and that frustration builds until we walk away from the keyboard and consider taking up botany (or the random hobby of your choice).
But once we figure out what we’re missing, the words start flowing and we can get back to writing.
It's figuring out that “what’s missing” part that gets us.
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.
Look at your protagonist's motivations. What does she really want? What's at stake if she fails? Odds are high she’s lost sight of what she’s trying to accomplish and that's making it hard to go forward.
Since stories are about overcoming a problem and avoiding the repercussions of failing, not having a strong problem with high stakes gives your characters nothing to overcome.
Maybe the conflict is more idea than a solid challenge to resolve, and you need to focus more on the specifics of how the protagonist solves that conflict. Maybe the stakes aren’t high enough so it doesn’t matter if the protagonist succeeds or not.
Think about the steps and tasks that must be completed to fix the plot problems, and what happens if that conflict isn’t resolved.
I know, sounds crazy, but sometimes you can't move forward because you haven't laid the right foundation for the story. You might need to add more information to provide the drive needed to move your protagonist to the next step. Or maybe you need to revise some history so it fits what the protagonist is doing now.
Sometimes plots change as we write them and what we thought was going to happen turns out to be the wrong thing for the novel. Has your plot changed? Did it veer off to a more interesting direction?
Take a few minutes and look at the big picture. Maybe you’ve found a better way to tell your story, or you’ve followed a tangent too far off track.
Your subconscious might be spotting a problem with a repeated scene you haven’t noticed you’re repeating. Are you duplicating an event or plot point? For example, this is the third chase scene in row, of the second time your protagonist has had a heart-to-heart about the same issue. Or maybe you’re contradicting something from earlier in the story.
Trust your instincts. Sometimes they try to keep you from making a terrible mistake.
Sometimes the right scene is in the wrong place—as in setting. The scene itself is fine, but the setting is stealing the conflict, or not adding enough tension, or not taking advantage of what’s going on.
Would the scene work better if you changed where it took place?
If a scene feels like it ought to work, but doesn’t, that could indicate it’s in the wrong place in the novel. It might need more build up, or maybe it needs to happen before (or after) the character has learned information or experienced a critical moment in the book.
What happens if you move that scene to another spot in the novel? What if it happened earlier or later?
If the antagonist isn’t causing trouble, the protagonist has nothing to overcome or fight against. A weak antagonist makes for a weak plot, and your muse might be picking up on that.
Have you been spending so much time on your protagonist that your antagonist's goals and motives are now weak or unbelievable? Maybe you need to shore up the villain's plan to get back on track.
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 as if you were telling a friend—no pressure, just casual conversation.
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.
When all else fails, grit your teeth and write, even if you know it's more than likely going to suck. Sometimes the only way to get past a stuck scene is to brute force you way through. Take heart in the fact that it probably won't be as bad as you expect it to be, and you'll be able to revise it later.
If writing it doesn’t work, leave a note of what happens (as best you can), and skip to the next scene. Maybe you just need to see where the story goes before you know the right thing to happen in that particularly sticky scene.
Most “getting stuck” issues come back to a weak goal, conflict, or stakes, so look there first when you run into a wall with your scenes.
Often, getting stuck is our subconscious telling us we’re missing something vital for that scene, and it’s trying to keep us from writing the wrong words. Step away from the keyboard and think about what that might be. Odds are once you free up your brain to consider the options without all that pressure to write, the solution will appear.
What do you do when you get stuck in your story? Share your tips with us down in the comments section!
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Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy. When she's not writing fiction, she runs the popular writing site Fiction University, and has written multiple books on writing, including Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It), Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, and the Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series. Sign up for her newsletter and receive 25 Ways to Strengthen Your Writing Right Now free.
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Thanks for having me back!
Of course! We've missed you here at WITS. 🙂 Thanks so much for the wonderful post!!
I agree with all these. Another thing I do is work on critiques for my partners. It's not "my" story, but it moves my brain into writing mode. I will also revisit their critiques of my work. Often I dismiss some of their feedback as "they're reading in chunks and probably forgot what happened before" or I just think they're missing my point. A second look makes me thing some of their feedback was spot on and exactly where I was floundering.
Great tips! I've had moments of "am I doing that?" while doing critiques, so I can totally see that working to jar loose a stuck scene.
That reading in chunks quandary is tough sometimes. Is something really an issue, or would it be fine for an actual reader?
Such good points! Thanks, Janice. And I love what Terry says about critiquing the work of our partners when we're stuck on our own writing. That process has come to my rescue more than once.
Another helpful trick I've used is to do something Donald Maass suggests in his craft books: have your character do something unexpected. Brainstorm off-the-wall reactions for your characters and use one that's, well, out of character. Surprise your readers (and yourself!) by bringing in an emotion for, say, the antagonist, that no one expects. That technique has freed my imagination a time or two.
Most welcome. I love that, too. Ooo, nice tip (Maass always has great ones). A lot of times those twists come from little things we dropped in and didn't even realize it. It's like finding hidden gems in your backyard!
Great tips, Janice! I find that when I'm stuck I need to give my body something mindless to do while my brain grinds away at the problem. I'll take a walk, go for a bike ride, wash the dishes...whatever physical activity is available to keep me occupied while my mind wanders.
Me too! Washing my hair usually does the trick 🙂
When I get stuck on a story, I do one of two things - write whatever throwaway scene comes into my head about that book, or write a short story. It's why I have so many short stories...I get stuck A LOT. 🙂 The act of writing something completely different, or something that I know no one might ever see, usually gets things moving again.
Great way to stay prolific. Sometimes I'll re-read old manuscripts or notes for other books.
These are fine ideas. Thanks for sharing them!
Thanks! Glad you enjoyed them.
These points are great, Janice! I am using #10 a lot for NaNoWriMo and so far it's helping.
When I get stuck I walk away from the laptop, stretch out on the bed or floor and ponder nothing. Going blank seems to leave room for more creativity. The only thing I'm missing is our dog. He used to plop down next to me on the floor and help me not think. LOL.
Thanks! The going blank thing really does work. Seems like everyone has some version of that. My cat will plop down with me, but he expects pets the whole time, hehe.
Love this list! I use number 10 regularly in my writing. I'm looking forward to trying out the others to see if they gel. This post is especially helpful during NaNoWriMo, too!
Thanks! Anything that keep us writing is great for NaNo. Though sometimes it's best to just hit a few hard returns and move on to the next line you can think of!
These are such great, practical suggestions, Janice! I'm including a link to this piece in my next FoxPrint Editorial newsletter. Thanks for such a useful post.
Thank you, Tiffany!
Most welcome, and thanks for the share 🙂
I'm currently stuck, so this was very timely. Thanks!
Here's hoping you get "un-stuck" quickly, Jeanne!
My pleasure! Glad it found you right when you needed it. Hope you get those scenes moving again soon.
I try to find a fresh workaround.