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August 27, 2013

5 Tips for Getting Unstuck in Our Story

Brick wall with text: Facing a Wall? 5 Tips for Getting Unstuck

A couple of weeks ago, I was stuck in my latest work-in-progress (WIP). One scene wasn’t progressing because I couldn’t figure out why my character was doing what he was doing. I just knew that he was doing it, even though he knew the action was a Bad Idea (TM). Why, character, why?

Some writers might be able to skip that scene and move on to the next one. I’m not that kind of writer. *smile*

I write by the seat of my pants in a linear order. The story reveals itself to me, scene-by-scene, like a movie in my head, and I just take dictation. This style of writing doesn’t work for everyone, but it works for me because the linear path of the storyline keeps the cause and effect chain intact.

If I try to skip ahead, I have trouble getting into my characters’ heads. Imagine if a friend went through major trauma and we didn’t know it. We’d be blithely ignorant of what they were going through. In other words, skipping ahead means I’m back where I started with not knowing why my characters are doing what they’re doing.

Obviously this becomes a problem for me when the “stuck phase” lasts for a while. I can’t move forward and I can’t skip forward, what’s a frustrated writer to do?

My inability to use the typical “skip ahead” advice means I’ve had to find alternate methods for getting unstuck. If you struggle with “getting stuck” in a story as well, maybe these tips will help.

Tip #1: Go Back Two Steps to Move Forward One

Sometimes the problem is caused by losing touch with the story or with our characters’ inner thoughts. We all struggle with interruptions from real life: car pools, work schedules, and that annoying need to eat and sleep occasionally. During those interruptions, we can lose connection with our subconscious’s insights into the story.

If we go back a scene or two—maybe the last scene that felt right or the last scene in a problematic character’s point of view—we might find the lost thread. I’m not advocating for editing those drafted scenes, as we don’t want to get caught in an editing loop and not move forward.

However, if we read from that scene forward, we might pick up the threads our subconscious wove along the way. Recovering that mindset can reforge the connections to our story and characters, which might allow us to move forward with our drafting.

Tip #2: Tweak the Previous Actions

Stories are made up of actions and reactions. Everything is a reaction to what came before. So if we’re having trouble moving forward, maybe it’s because the actions leading up to the stuck section are off.

If we tweak the actions leading up to our stuck point, the story must react differently. Different reactions might erase our stuck point entirely.

Tip #3: Identify Where the Story Doesn’t Go

(This is my favorite of these tips, at least this week—mostly because this was what got me unstuck this time.)

Think of how the story doesn’t proceed or how the characters don’t react. Then figure out why the story doesn’t go that way.

This sneaky trick can unlock our subconscious. In my case, by thinking of all the reasons my character didn’t have for doing his action (“Well, it wouldn’t be because of abc because he thinks xyz, and it wouldn’t be because of…”), my subconscious reminded me of some of his personality traits. More importantly, my subconscious reminded me that the heroine probably goaded him into his choice. Heh. Well, that explains it.

I’ve used this technique in a similar way to lure my muse out of hiding. By purposely thinking of ways to mess up the story, we might force our muse/subconscious to reveal the truth (“No, you idiot, this is how it’s supposed to go.”). *grin*

Tip #4: Brainstorm with Others

We can use this tip along with the others. In my case, brainstorming with my alpha reader (“Did he do it because of abc?”) triggered all those reminders from my subconscious that solved the problem.

In other words, we’re not necessarily asking our brainstorming buddy to come up with solutions. Rather, we can ask them to come up with questions. Why this and not that? Why did the character think xyz? Why wouldn’t abc happen?

Those “why” questions can be fantastically helpful at seeing where the problem lies. Is it with the previous plot event? Are we missing an action the character is reacting to? Did we zig when we could have zagged?

Tip #5: If All Else Fails, Take a Guess

Even with the hint of my character’s motivation, I still didn’t know all the details. I could have fretted over that and remained stuck. Instead, I took a guess at my character’s motivations and came out with something that felt “close enough” to move forward.

It’s okay if we have speed bumps in our draft. Our draft isn’t supposed to be perfect. If we can guess close enough that we’re encountering speed bumps and not solid walls, we’ll be able to fix it later.

To put it another way, I can’t skip past a whole scene. That’s like skipping a whole song in a rock opera—it messes up the storytelling. But if the guess feels close enough to be like a badly out-of-tune song, I can deal with the imperfection.

We’ve heard the advice many times: We can’t edit a blank page. Our goal here is to get close enough that we can regain our drafting momentum. A page worth of speed bumps is better than no scene at all. *smile*

Registration is currently open for my workshop on how to do just enough story development to write faster, while not giving our pantsing muse hives. Interested? Sign up for “Lost Your Pants? The Impatient Writers Guide to Plotting a Story.” (Blog readers: Use Promo Code “savethepants” to save $15 on registration.)

Do you write linearly, or can you skip around? What do you tend to get stuck on in your writing? Have any of these techniques worked for you? Do you have a favorite method for getting unstuck? Do you have other tips to add to this list?

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Serena Yung
Serena Yung

Ah, I love these tips! And I can see them all working–in fact, I can prove that they work because I’ve recently done some similar things for something I was stuck on too! Like you, I was stuck on why this character did what she did too. Well to be precise, I couldn’t figure out why or how she became what she became: she suddenly pulled out of a devastating depression and reverted to her original optimistic, cheerful self. I gave a reason how that happened, but when I came to edit this story, I thought this reason was insufficient. There must have been something DEEPER that was going on. So like you, I kept guessing and brainstorming all those possible reasons. At the same time, I kept on thinking of reasons that could not be true, and I agree that thinking about the impossibles and obviously-wrong-reasons made her personality even clearer to me—or rather, it made her personality stand out to me more. And when I did manage to guess a “most likely” reason for how that female character abruptly recovered from her severe depression, I had to, like you said, go back to add in and change some of her actions that didn’t make sense. My theory is that when you go “cruising in that other world”, you sometimes make mistakes–you sometimes “mis-see” things, where you believed that this happened but actually that happened. My brain plays tricks on me like that all the time. 🙁 And when…  — Read More »

Stephen del Mar

I so write the same way. When I get stuck it is usually because I’m trying to “force” the story (read “outlining”). When I get out of the way and just let the characters do what they want and not worry about it, things just work out somehow.

Great post, thanks!

Karen Walters

What an opportune post Jami because I am so stuck right now. Typically, I put what I have written aside and brainstorm what could/would/must happen in a scene and know I’ve hit upon the answer when the words start flowing again.

I love it that you intentionally mess up to get your muse out of hiding! That is awesome! Does it ever get mad at you for doing that?

I am a combo plotter/pantser and linear writer. My outline is bare bones so I have an idea where I want the story to go but I’ve learned that I also have to let it unfold naturally because only then can I sense the connections between everything. That is the coolest thing to see happen! Also, if I skip around, I’ll just get lost and end up writing drivel that has no business in my novel.

Stacy

I love it. Tip 4 and 5 is what I use! Great post and I am sure it will help may of us. I had been struggling with my NA Fantasy and I unblocked because of tip # 3!
Thanks Jami.

NicoleW

I write linearly. If I write out of order I’ll spend lots of time writing down the scenes I do know, polishing them to death, and then never doing the work of trying to figure out what actually happened to connect those scenes.

I’ve never tried these unsticking tips but I’ll probably end up giving all of them a shot. I need a new ending for my second novel; I realized during revisions that the twist ending I’d come up with during NaNoWriMo last year added nothing of value and would only muddle the storyline of the next novel in the series. I’d like to get the ending of the latest novel squared away before starting the next one in November!

Carradee

It’s helped me to realize that getting stuck = something’s wrong. Maybe somebody acted OOC a few scenes ago; maybe I don’t know what my genre or theme are and I’m at the point wherein I need to. Maybe I haven’t figured out my core conflict yet, or maybe I’m just afraid of how readers will react once it’s completed. Maybe, maybe, maybe. Once that “maybe” was that my first person narrator was essentially insane and I’d not realized it, so I was ever-so-slightly off in how I was describing certain things—the core that made details of her personality not contradictory was missing. I’d gotten stuck at a point wherein that core aspect took over—I kept trying to write her response to the situation as if the usual part of her was dominant, and it wasn’t working. In any event, I’ve lately been able to find what’s wrong by stopping considering, “What’s wrong here?” (Perhaps because I now know all sorts of things I’m looking for. Which helps a ton.) I make sure I know my genre, tone, and core conflict. (I have a quick questionnaire for short stories; I might draft the cover copy for novels.) I’ll make sure I know what my next goal point in the story is (which might be internal, as in “J realizes he loves L,” or external, as in “X breaks R’s legs”). If that’s all in place, I check the scene I’m working on—am I handling it wrong? I also look for…  — Read More »

Taurean Watkins

Glad I’m not alone in not liking the “Charge ahead just because” method. As I struggle through my current novel, my insightful beta-reader tends to favor the barrel through approach. I don’t work well that way.

I’ve tried to embrace this, in part because I want to draft faster so I can have more than one book to query (Because different books click at different times), but I’ve never liked the results, I just prefer going in a straight line, and sometimes I feel most of my writer friends (Many of which are time starved parents with three or more day jobs) don’t understand that writing parts out of order doesn’t work for me, and I often to work through this alone since they get crazy busy now that kids go back to school, and I’ve been trying to find new beta-readers who don’t have as much on the plate that I click with, because there’s a LIMIT to the “Be my own best editor” shtick, you know?

I’m either too hard on myself or not hard enough. I can edit a “complete” draft out of order, I just can’t draft a new story out of order.

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[…] Writing is a very emotional experience. Kathryn Craft examines how to manage our emotions to write well and navigate our careers effectively. One of the most emotional events when writing is writer’s block. Kristen Lamb explains why the single largest cause of writer’s block might not be what you believe, while Jami Gold shares 5 tips for getting unstuck in your story. […]

Elle Lee Love
Elle Lee Love

Hi Jami,
I love your blog. Every post is a treasure waiting to be found, when I need it.

I was stuck in the muddling middle of my first novel. Life interfered with my subconscious insights into the story. I lost touch with my characters and their inner thoughts. I had to use Tip #1 and go back to the last scene that felt right. Thanks for your help. I’m back on the writing journey using your blog as a roadmap to guide my way.

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[…] blog posts suggest ideas for how to get unstuck in our story, get in touch with our muse, or deal with writer’s block. Today, I want to focus on one […]

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