Wednesday, July 17, 2019

The Perils of Not Knowing What Happens Next in Your Story

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Getting stuck in your writing doesn't mean you've got writer's block.

At some point, we all hit a wall in our writing. We get stuck, we don't know what happens next, maybe we know where we need to go, but not sure how to get there.

Hitting a wall can freak us out and make us panic, because it feels a lot like writer's block. We get stuck and fear the words won't come anymore, and struggle to get anything down, and nothing works. But most of the time, we're not blocked at all--it's just our subconscious telling us we're missing something we need to move forward.

Next time you hit a writing wall, take a deep breath, step back, and diagnose what the problem might be:

1. Re-Examine Your Characters' Goals and Motivations

Most of the time a stalled plot stems from lack of the protagonist's goal or a reason to move forward with the goal you originally planned for. The plot says do X, but there's no way the protagonist would do that and your subconscious knows it. It's keeping you from writing a major plot hole into your story.

Try looking at your character's motivation. What do she want? What's at stake if she fails? Maybe she's lost sight of what she's trying to accomplish and that's making it hard to go forward. Perhaps her goal has changed and the outline needs to changes as well.

(Here's more on Goals-Motivations-Conflicts: The Engine That Keeps a Story Running)

2. Examine Your Characters' Backstory

Sometimes you can't move forward because you haven't laid the right foundation for whatever you have planned for the scene. It's not the scene itself that's the problem, but something about the character that isn't working. Maybe your protagonist needs a history that matches something he needs to do. Maybe he needs a past connection with another character or the situation. He might need a fear to provide stakes, or a shift in beliefs to offer more conflict.

Try adding more information to provide the missing needed to move your protagonist to the next step. Sometimes you can slip that backstory into the scene you're struggling with (often all it takes is a line or two--you don't need to write paragraphs of it), but it's just as likely that the problem lies in an earlier scene. Look for places where you can add the necessary backstory, trait, or skill before this scene, so that by the time your protagonist gets here, it's works as intended.

(Here's more on We Have a History: Making Backstory Work for You )

3. Look Where Your Plot Is Really Going

Your plot says you have to do X, but maybe that's no longer the right move for the story. This is especially true for those who outline every scene and know the plot before you start to write. You focus on sticking to the original scene and forget (or don't notice) that the story has shifted a little as you wrote it.

Try retracing your steps and see where in the story you went off of the outline. Maybe you need to adjust a plot point or change a set piece to make the scene work again. Or it might be as simple as ignoring what the outline says, and seeing where the plot has actually gone. Just rewrite the outline to match so it all tracks.

One note's not a bad idea to look over your remaining outline at this point. If you've shifted from the original plan, odds are you'll run into other scenes that don't quite line up either. Take some time to revise your outline before you hit another wall.

(Here's more on Clarifying Thoughts: Revising Your Outlines to Make the Writing Easier)

4. Look Where the Story Has Been

Sometimes you hit a wall because you're boring yourself. You've started writing essentially the same scenes over and over and there's nothing new for you or readers to discover. It's also possible that there's something in the story that contradicts what you want to do next. You know it's not right, and your instincts are letting you move ahead until you fix it.

Try reviewing the manuscript from the start, looking for anything that might be keeping you from writing. Look for too-similar scenes, or scenes that would make what you want to do next unlikely, implausible, or just flat out wrong. It's not uncommon to have to revise what was to fix what's yet to come.

(Here's more on 6 Tips on Making Similar Scenes Feel Different)

5. Look Around 

It might not be the scene that's wrong, but the setting or the location in the story itself. Would the next scene work better if you moved it? Either the place in the story or the place in the book itself? Maybe it's out of place and would have more impact later in the story.

Try changing the setting, or moving the scene to another location. If the problem is in a conversation, sometimes moving that dialogue to another scene fixes it. It's just the wrong place to have it.

(Here's more on Creating Story Tension: Rooms with an Unexpected View)

6. Talk to Your Bad Guy

Have you been spending so much time on your protagonist that your antagonist's goals and motives are now weak and unbelievable? Maybe you need to shore up the villain's plan to get back on track. Perhaps she needs to step up her game and be a little smarter, or more villainous, or maybe you're not giving her enough time to plausibly react to what the protagonist does, so the plot is feeling contrived.

Try examining your antagonist's plan and what she's been doing all book. Make sure there are plausible reasons for her actions, and that what she does is the result of what the protagonist does (where applicable of course). Sometimes, we have the antagonist doing something when the only way she could possibly do it is if she was watching the protagonist 24/7 and was ready to act the instant the right moment appeared--which is usually not likely or plausible. Remember--cause and effect.

(Here's more on Being Evil: Plotting From the Antagonist's Perspective)

7. Sum Up What You're Doing

The less you plan a story, the more likely it is you're just not sure what to do next. Perhaps you've gone down a dead end storywise, or you've written that idea out as much as you can. It's not so much the scene that's the issue, but you need another brainstorming session to figure out the next chunk of the book.

Try sitting down with a blank page and just write out what you feel is supposed to happen. Describe it like you were telling a friend--no pressure, just casual. 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.

(Here's more on How to Create an Editorial Map)

8. Just Do It (Or Not Do It)

When all else fails, grit your teeth and just write. Sure, odds are it'll suck, but you'll get through it, and then you can fix it later when you figure out what's wrong. Sometimes the only way to do that is to just dive in. It probably won't be as bad as you expect it to be, and you'll be able to revise once it's down.

Of course, sometimes you hit a wall on a scene because that scene doesn't need to be there. You can also try skipping that scene and writing the next.

(Here's more on Dancing Out of Tune: Writing Scenes Out of Sequence to Enliven—and Maybe Even Finish—Your Novel)

If the issues is just that you need to let the story simmer in your head a little, there are also some non-writing things you can do to get past the wall:

Take a break: Walk away from your writing for a bit and let your brain recharge. You've probably been struggling to plot or write and your frustration level is high. Go do something fun.

Read a favorite book: Reading great books is a terrific way to free your mind and get back into the writing groove.

Take a shower: There's something about hot water, washing my hair, and rubbing the brain that always seems to help. I can't tell you how many times I've figured out what to do while in the shower.

Hitting a wall is perfectly normal, so don't let it worry you. Just step back, take a breath, and find the way to climb over.

What do you do when you hit a wall?

Find out more about plot and story structure in my book, Fixing Your Plot & Story Structure Problems.

Go step-by-step through plot and story structure-related issues, such as wandering plots; a lack of scene structure; no goals, conflicts, or stakes; low tension; no hooks; and slow pacing. Learn how to analyze your draft, spot any problems or weak areas, and fix those problems.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Fixing Your Plot & Story Structure Problems offers five self-guided workshops that target the common issues that make readers stop reading. It will help you:
  • Create unpredictable plots that keep readers guessing
  • Find the right beginning and setup for your story
  • Avoid the boggy, aimless middle
  • Develop compelling hooks to build tension in every scene
  • Craft strong goals, conflicts, and stakes to grab readers
  • Determine the best pacing and narrative drive for your story
Fixing Your Plot & Story Structure Problems starts every workshop with an analysis to pinpoint problem areas and offers multiple revision options in each area. You choose the options that best fit your writing process. It's an easy-to-follow guide to crafting gripping plots and novels that are impossible to put down.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
Website | Facebook | Twitter | Pinterest Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound


  1. I love this post!!! This is exactly what I needed! I have recently been running into a block and I think this information will be a huge help!!! Thank you so much for writing it today!

  2. Most welcome! Another commenter mentioned being stuck, so it seemed like a good post to do :)

  3. This is a great post. I find riding buses works almost as well as taking showers, but it's a bit more hit and miss - the method doesn't work if you read or listen to music and get too absorbed!

  4. These are all great suggestions. I usually go for a run to free up my mind. But the writing related questions that you are asking are pure gold. When we get stuck sometimes it's like being in a hole. Your suggestions remind us to climb out of the hole and look around instead of just staring at our feet.

  5. If you're in the middle of the scene, writing out everyone in the scene (or nearby) and what they're doing and could do can help. That helped me find an obvious character action that I was missing.

    If you're having to start a scene anew or go in another direction with a scene, it can help to write out everyone in the scene, then mark out the ones who could be cut and/or who could replace them. (Like, instead of the insane guy who wants to kill her, it could be the lunatic's boss--or even the landlord who's sold her out to them.)

  6. I do a lot of my best thinking in the shower. It's a great place to brainstorm!

  7. I get this happening to me. Typically the moment I sit down to write. Whereas if I'm not writing, I know exactly what should happen next.

    Stupid brain.

  8. Ha! The shower works for me, too. I keep a journal close by so I can write notes as soon as I'm out. The treadmill and elliptical machines work well, too. Mindless, repetitive action.

  9. Thanks for this post! I was just sitting down to work on a short story that I need to finish for school but was hitting a block and this post really helped. Every time I have a problem with writing I seem to find all the answers I need on your blog. Thanks!

  10. Shower's great for those big walls, but for the little ones I take my dog to play frisbee. He gets some exercise, and I can talk out loud to myself with no one listening.

  11. I'm also a shower thinker! We were just discussing this a couple nights ago on Twitter at #yalitchat and someone suggested I get a waterproof shower notepad- I just might! :)

  12. Fantastic post!! Usually breaks work for me because I know I'm puzzling out something in the story.

  13. Thanks for this timely post. I've hit a wall about 50,000 words in. I've already taken a long break. I think now I'm just going with 8. Just do it. Accept the suck and go on. Usually something shakes through, especially if you don't think and worry it too much.

  14. I especially like the advice to grit and write. It may suck, then again, it may not. Wonderful things can happen accidentally.

  15. Super helpful. I'm currently stuck and agonizing. Have been using the plow through it method but asking more of these questions will help. Thanks!

  16. Thanks for being with us on WITS, Janice. This is my Waterloo. If I can calm myself long enough to get on my bicycle, there's something about the attentive inattention of riding that losens the knots in my brain. Really, it's a miracle!

    Great post!

  17. I’ve hit many walls in my efforts to write, some of which have taken me years to get over! Looking back, I can see that my problems were always caused by not knowing where the story was heading. Now I take the time to create a detailed outline before I jump into the first draft, which I find works much better for me.

  18. I can't tell you how often "take a shower" is my advice to people (including to myself). It's amazing how ideas come about when you're shampooing your hair. Great post!

  19. Lately I've become a huge fan of the "Sum it up" technique. It doesn't always work, but when it does, I'm always glad I did it. And it "feels like writing" so I don't have those little bits of guilt about not having my butt in the chair and fingers on the pen (or in my case, body flumped on bed, pen to paper).

    Great post, thanks for the other suggestions.

  20. It is just too bad our subconscious can't be more conscious. It so often recognizes something I am missing. Most of my scenes are written in the shower or in my big bathtub. My Eliptical sometimes does the trick while I am running with the music up. Water is better though. Great advice - thanks.

  21. Ellen, that would work, too. Anything that lets your mind wander.

    Paul Greci, that exactly why I prefer to say I'm stuck vs blocked. Stuck means you only have to find a way to break free. Blocked means you can't get past.

    Carradee, good tips. I do something similar with looking at it from the antag's POV.

    Xan, it really is :)

    Paul, hate when that happens. You might try writing out a quick summary of what the scene is about. That helps me shake loose the cobwebs.

    Heather, exactly. I'm no longer surprised how many writers use thew shower trick. :) I hear it all the time.

    Sarah, oh good! Best of luck on that assignment.

    Kendra, ooo nice. Talking through a scene does help. Never thought about doing it with a pet!

    Amy, or those soap crayons you can write on the tile with.

    Traci, breaks are awesome. That's one reason I'm not an everyday writer. I need time away from the keyboard.

    EP, been there, and yep, it does work. Good luck with you manuscript, and let me know how it goes!

    Angela, they do indeed. It's also good practice for when you're on deadline and HAVE to work no matter what.

    Stephsco, good luck! Taking a break might work. Take the pressure off yourself :)

    Laura, thanks for having me! Bikes are nice. I don't get out on mine nearly enough since we moved to GA. Too many hills!

    Wendy, I'm an outliner so I get that. The goal thing is almost always what gets me stuck.

    Anna, isn't it? I always thought I was weird until I mentioned it. Now I see how many do the same thing.

    Eden, saved my butt on more than one occasion. I also like making notes on things to come back to later.

    Glacier, I wish I could let it run the show sometimes :) I'd get so much more done.

  22. One of my most useful writing tasks is to go for a walk. But not just any walk: it needs to be along a familiar route that I know and won't be distracted by. My normal journey from home to the second-closest railway station is a good example.

  23. Staticsan, I like that, a familiar walk. Makes sense :) Helps you get unstuck and it's good for you to boot! Win/win

  24. Or you're a pantser, in which case not knowing may be a continual state.

    1. Exactly! Didn't I excuse pantsers from this? I do try to when I know something isn't their process at all.

    2. Bless you, I was getting a bit irked. For the Pantsers out there it's easy, ask your characters. just write and they will speak up. Read in that, 'let the subconscious taker over', it knows a whole lot more than you do. And try to keep up.

    3. My subconscious is a much better writer than I am. :) It's always a challenge to be balanced in the articles, because everyone is different, yet there are so many similarities in writing. Not everything is going to apply to every writer.

  25. I hit a wall today for these very reasons. The plot no longer fit my characters. I took a step away and did some brainstorming, which really helped. Thanks for the great suggestions here!

    1. Glad it helped! And glad yo hear you got past your wall.

  26. I've been waiting a long time for this advice. A couple of years ago I began a project and was just getting to the middle point when the story ran out of steam somehow. I knew what the ending was supposed to be but I was lost where I currently was [and still am]. With this list of detailed tips I'm hoping to continue on my merry way to the end of the story. Thank you, Janice. <3

    1. I hope it gets you past that wall finally. Sometimes a story just isn't ready to write for whatever reason, and we have to let it simmer.

  27. Such great points/exercises here, Janice! I tend to be heavy on quirky character development and then the plot...needs some attention. I've been out of the loop for a bit, but am very excited to see what you've done with Fiction University. Yay, you!

    1. Thanks! You're not alone. I think us plot vs character folks are pretty evenly split down the middle. Welcome back! Nice to see you back in the online world again :)

  28. This advice is so on time, I have hit a wall and was about to give up.

    1. I hope this helps you get past it :) That wall can be so frustrating. Don't give up, but don't be afraid to walk away from the project for a bit if it's really making your miserable. Sometimes working on something new helps jog loose whatever what getting you stuck in another project. Send good luck and good writing vibes your way!

  29. Love these tips, especially the last two. I often find I'm most creative when I'm doing something other than writing - there's nothing like staring at a blank page to freeze my brain!

    1. Thanks! yep, sometimes we just need to walk away and let the brain work in the background. Forcing the words doesn't always make them appear.