You’re chugging along with a story, novel or memoir, when Bam! Your writing is stuck.
Writing Tip for Today: Here are a few tips for getting your writing unstuck:
Review Your Character
Whenever I feel stuck in writing, I look to my Main Character first. I evaluate my character’s goal to see if it’s worthy of my character’s (and my readers’) time. I check to see if goals are clear and not too easily attained. One way to increase the stakes of any story is to imagine the consequences if the goal isn’t realized. This is the So What? factor. If your character doesn’t get the goal, so what?
Part of this So What? answer will speak to your character’s motivations for pursuing this goal. To learn more about your character’s motives, do some back story exercises. This is one place where it’s okay to write back story! Detail all the emotional reasons why your character is passionate about the goal. Some writers pen letters from their character to the writer, unlocking subconscious info about your character.
After you’ve looked at your Main Character’s goal and motivation, review the supporting characters. Is a secondary character stealing the show or more interesting than the protagonist? And don’t forget the antagonist. Be sure your character’s foe is as three-dimensional (human) as your Main Character.
Review Your Action
Many writers get stuck about the midpoint of a novel or story. Sometimes this is due to the writer shooting the whole wad of action too soon—there’s that adage about not burning down the whole tree in the first chapter. Your goal should be rising action, where each scene has a bit more tension and conflict than the scene before.
Ratchet the tension by imagining the consequences of actions, like dominoes falling into each other. Be aware of any tendencies to be passive aggressive in your conflicts—that is, don’t start a fight (or argument) your character can’t finish. If your character leaves every scene unresolved (as to win/lose), the story will quickly run out of steam. Readers crave forward movement.
If you simply can’t get past the midpoint, I recommend James Scott Bell’s excellent booklet, Write Your Novel From the Middle. In it, Bell shows you simple techniques and diagrams to help you visualize a forward-moving path of action.
Ratchet tension by imagining consequences of actions.
Review Your Story
If you’re stuck midway through a story/novel, it’s often helpful to see your effort as the forest instead of the trees. Use any one of a number of storyboarding techniques to construct an at-a-glance picture of your entire story, scene by scene.
I like to use sticky notes, where I jot down a one sentence summary of each scene, then place them in order on a board or other surface. Stand back and read the summaries to get a better idea of how your story unfolds. Are your scenes in the best order? Ask yourself what would happen if you moved scenes or deleted redundant scenes or added to the scene list.
As you review all these aspects, don’t be afraid to play around with your original outline or idea. The wider the story stakes influence the world outside your character, the higher they’ll tend to be. Getting your writing unstuck takes effort, but your readers will benefit from your diligence and hard work.