Wednesday, December 09, 2020

5 Ways to Fix a Stalled Scene in Your Novel

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

It’s a terrible feeling when the scene you’re working on grinds to a halt—and you have no idea how to get it moving again.

Imagine it—you’re in the middle of a writing session, your fingers are dancing over the keyboard, and suddenly…

They stop.

The words, your fingers, your understanding of what comes next in your novel.

Your scene has stalled and you don’t know why, and what’s worse, you have no idea what to do to fix it.

We’ve all been there, and it doesn’t matter if you’re a brand-new writer working on your first story or a professional author with fifty published novels. Sometimes, scenes just stall. Ideas poof out of your head and leave you hanging. Your characters stop talking to you, and the last thing they said was so out of the blue that you can’t fathom what they meant by it or what they plan to do.

A stalled scene can derail a writing session, but it doesn’t have to derail your novel.

Stalled scenes happen when we don’t have the information we need to continue writing them. Maybe it’s uncertainty what the protagonist needs to do, or we don’t understand a character’s motives, or there’s a bit of world building we need to figure out. Whatever the problem, at the heart of it is, “I don’t know…”

To get the scene moving again, you just need to figure out what information you (and the scene) is lacking.

Here are five ways to find that information and get those words flowing again:

1. Give the character something to do.

Goals drive a scene, and if your protagonist doesn’t have one, the scene will stall. Look at your scene and ask:

Can you identify the goal? Your protagonist should be actively trying to achieve a goal or solve a story problem. Goals are also external, so if the goal is “sitting around thinking” in some way, odds are it’s not actively driving the scene. There’s a difference between “planning the next step” and “wondering what to do.” Planning provides forward action, while wondering is static.

Is the goal yet another tiny step in the plot? Sometimes scenes stall because your subconscious knows there’s no point to it, and a too-similar goal can trigger a “stop writing this” stall. Steps to a larger goal are good, but too many can drag the story down and make it feel aimless.

How many steps removed from the main plot is this scene? If it's more than three or four, you might be too far from the core conflict. Yes, you have a goal driving the scene, but achieving it doesn't actually matter to the bigger story, so the scene flounders.

Make sure your stalled scene had a strong goal driving it.

(Here’s more on Oh, Woe Is Me: Strengthening Character Goals)

2. Make the character work for it.

Conflict provides the tension in a scene, and without it, a scene can feel pointless. Maybe there’s no conflict to struggle against, or the conflict that’s there is too weak to drive the scene. Look at your scene and ask:

What’s in the way of your protagonist getting what they want? Getting the goal should be more than just following a list of instructions and they win. It should be hard, and require the protagonist to struggle to overcome it.

Is the conflict weak? Some conflicts seem like real issues, but they’re not tough enough to be a true problem. They don't cause the protagonist to struggle, or worry, or make a tough choice. It’s the story equivalent of climbing a mountain or fighting through traffic—yes, it’s hard, but it didn’t affect the story or the protagonist in meaningful way.

Is the conflict more of a delaying tactic than a real issue to overcome? Weak conflicts often fall into this category. The obstacle in the way is just that—in the way. Once the protagonist gets past it, the story continues. But if you cut that obstacle from the story, nothing actually changes. It delayed the story, it didn’t develop it.

Make sure there’s conflict to struggle against, and that it’s worth fighting.

(Here’s more on Don’t Make This Common Writing Mistake: Creating Cardboard Conflicts) 

3. Add horrible consequences if the protagonist fails.

Stakes make readers worry, and if they don’t worry, the scene loses importance. Maybe it doesn’t matter if the protagonist succeeds in this scene or not. Maybe nothing in the scene will negatively affect the protagonist or their goals. Look at your scene and ask:

What happens if the protagonist fails in this scene? There should be risks and consequences for failing—and sometimes even for succeeding. They don’t need to happen, but the threat ought to be on the protagonist’s mind.

What goes wrong? Often, a scene stalls because it’s a long description of how the protagonist does something. For example, “This is the scene where the protagonist yells at her mother for meddling.” But all it does is show the protagonist yelling at her mother. Mom never fights back, she doesn’t retaliate, and the scene unfolds without anything going wrong.

Are the stakes too high? Too low? The scene might have stakes, but they’re falling outside the sweet spot that makes readers care. If the stakes are “everyone might die” or “the protagonist might die” there aren’t really any stakes. Readers know the hero won’t die. Same with low stakes—a slap on the wrist isn’t a big deal if it doesn’t hurt the protagonist or their plans on some way.

Make sure there are risks, and the consequences for failure can actually happen, and are worth worrying about.

(Here’s more on Plotting for the Thrill: Making the Most of the Worst That Can Happen)

4. Give the protagonist a reason for being there.

Motivation provides fuel for the narrative drive—and the goal. Maybe the protagonist has no real reason to do what they’re supposed to do. Maybe they don’t care if they succeed not, or you’re asking them to do something they’d never do. Look at your scene and ask:

Why does the protagonist want to achieve the goal? Something is motivating them to act in this scene. Maybe they need something, or want to avoid something, or this is a step to a larger plan, but there’s a reason they’re putting themselves at risk here.

What are they afraid might happen if they don’t do this? Some motivations stem from fear. If the protagonist doesn’t act, those terrible consequences will befall them or someone they care about.

Why does it all matter to them? Sometimes a scene stalls because you don’t truly know what’s motivating your protagonist to act in the novel. They’re doing what plot tells them, but you never developed strong motivations that stem from a real emotional place.

Make sure the protagonist has solid motives for acting.

(Here’s more on Two Questions to Ask for Stronger Character Goals and Motivations)

5. Step back and determine what’s missing from the scene.

It’s possible the scene has all the right narrative mechanics, but something outside the story is the problem. Maybe you need to do some research so the protagonist or situation is believable. Maybe your setting or world needs more development. Maybe you’re missing a key piece of the plot, and this scene leads into that missing piece. Look at your scene and ask:

What’s the purpose of this scene? Some scenes get added to a novel because you feel they ought to be there, when they actually don’t. You feel you need to show X, but X doesn’t affect anything in the story. Maybe this is a scene you felt you had to write, bit it stalled because you don’t actually need it.

What do I need to figure out to move forward? The problem might not be this scene, but where this scene leads. Maybe this scene sets up something important in a few chapters, but you don’t yet know how that scene unfolds. As soon as you figure out the later scene, what this scene needs will become clear.

How does this scene fit into the larger story? The scene might have stalled because it’s just there to add backstory or infodump. You have to show a bit of history, or a character exhibiting a certain trait or skill that’s vital later, but there’s no other reason for the scene to be there. These scenes can usually be merged with others—just find a scene where whatever you need to do here will logically fit there.

Take the time you need to find whatever is missing from the scene. If knowing it won’t affect the outcome, you might try making a note and moving on. Such as [add detail] or [add emotional reaction].

(Here’s more on Busta Scene: Getting Past Hard-to-Write Scenes)

When the words stop flowing and you feel that sickening lull in an otherwise productive writing session, don’t despair. A stalled scene is usually nothing more than your subconscious telling you there’s a piece of the puzzle missing, and it’s giving you a chance to find it.

Treat a stalled scene like an opportunity to deepen your story and tighten you plot.

EXERCISE FOR YOU: Take five or ten minutes (or as much as you need) to study your scene and examine how it fits into your larger story. Look at each of the above options and questions and apply or answer them for your scene.

Do you have a stalled scene right now? What stalled it?

*Originally published September 2010. Last updated December 2020.

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.
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  1. Good point. Thanks for posting. I tend to not put enough "go wrong" in mine LOL

  2. I just wanted to tell you how wonderful your blog is! Whenever I feel burnt out on writing, I just mosey over here and read your archives. Full of wonderful information that writers of all skills can use.

    Thank you so much for keeping this wonderful blog!

  3. Great reminders for revising and even for first drafts.

  4. Good post. I've been doing some of the hacking and slashing lately and the mixing. This is all great advice for me in the stage of revisions I'm at. Thanks.

  5. This is why I love scene writing. It makes everything so much simpler. With my YA manuscript topping, ah, 170,000 words, I'll need to cut everything I possibly can...

    So thanks. A lot. ^.^

  6. Thanks guys! 170K? Eek Kim, you have your work cut out for you :) Good luck!

  7. @Kim - you sure you don't have two or three books, there?

    @Janice Hardy - I love how you can pinpoint what you're doing in revisions. I was mixing & mashing while writing my UF's first draft, but I wouldn't have thought to identify what I was doing.

    Now, to eye everything and make sure stakes are [i]increasing[/i] with each scene…

  8. Just letting you know that every time you do a new post, I make a point to go over your old blog posts in the archives. Very good stuff!

  9. Thanks Shannon! Soon as I get some time I plan to organize those old posts and make things easier to find. I want to make some kind of contents page where someone looking for certain topics can find relevant posts.

  10. Cameron Belle9/26/2010 7:26 PM

    Helpful advice! I'm reminded of a concept I learned from one of my favorite writing advice books, "Don't confuse delay with complication." Delay just, well, delays the protag's progress toward his/her goal. Complication makes it that much harder. The former can almost always be slashed. The latter is the guts of good conflict.

  11. Excellent points!! I tend to have an overload of bad things happening and then when I edit, have to cut down on that.

  12. So, I have a question... I have a scene that I've been feeling in my gut is just too long/too slow. Its a "thawing of the ice" between the male and female protagonists.
    It's not action, but its progress towards the goal of being on the same team. There is the beginning of romance, but not anything to get "excited" about.

    How, in relationship developing scenes, can you give it more punch without having them spill their guts in between punches from the bad guys? ;) I'm having a hard time finding the sweet spot.

  13. Amelia, too slow usually indicates there's nothing the reader wants to know or see happen next. They don't "care." You might try looking for ways to make them care. Perhaps information the reader might be wondering about, or a puzzle they want an answer to.

    Or, you can make the banter between the characters fun and entertaining, so the reader is enjoying watching these two verbally spar. They'll want to see who might get the better of whom. Maybe if they need to end up on the same team, you can craft it so the reader wants to see if one can persuade the other and what it will take.

    Think about your favorite shows where the plot is so formula and obvious you don't wonder how it will turn out, but you just love watching the interplay between the characters. (cop shows in all forms are good examples here) Look for ways to bring that interplay to your characters.

    You can also try mixing the interplay scenes with smaller goals so they have to do something while they banter. It might not be a plot-advancing goal, but the action itself advances the character arcs.

  14. I've been wrangling with a plot that seems to offer me infinite chances for things to go wrong. In draft, I'm letting all the mess happen, but I sense in revision I'll need to fiddle with it. Too many disasters in a row, with no reversals from bad to good, and a story becomes a farce. I think Robert McKee's _Story_ talks about audiences accepting only three positive-ending scenes or three negative-ending scenes in a row before a reversal is needed, or you lose them.

  15. I've got some revisions to do for a WiP and this information will be very helpful in addressing moments that may have action but no forward movement of the story. Thank you.

  16. I have a habit of being nice to my characters (do unto others...) which does stall the pace a little, but I can't just be mean to them, the plot needs to thicken.
    So, as usual Janice, you're spot-on! Your comment about making things worse versus making bad things happen makes perfect sense. I guess the latter is a bit like deus-ex-machina in reverse, and just as frustrating.

    (Damn, I can't have aliens come out of nowhere and kidnap my MC's grandmother in he middle of my historical romance!)

  17. Thanks Janice! I appreciate your comments. This is all good stuff. I need someone to clarify the structure so I can see what is the excess ornamentation. This is great, thank you!

  18. Laurel, interesting. I hadn't heard that formula before. Makes sense though, three is a pretty solid pattern for all things. Good luck with that draft! Hope the good spots shine through so revising is easy.

    Angela, most welcome, and best of luck! Let me know how it goes.

    Jo-Ann, nice writers do have it harder (grin). Us mean ones have the opposite problem--too nasty all the time. But, lay the groundwork for those alines and you're golden :)

    Amelia, glad it helped!

  19. I've discovered that, for me, when a scene stalls, I'm probably approaching it wrongly. I might be misunderstanding the narrator, trying to have the wrong thing happen, having the right thing happen but for the wrong reasons, making a side character say a line that's OOC—but something is wrong.

    Once I figure out what's wrong, I can keep going.

    I'm still new enough at writing that I'm not all that efficient at getting myself unstuck. I'll check this post next time I do to start compiling my personal "checklist for when I'm stuck".


  20. Carradee, I think making a checklist of personal things to check when you're stuck is a great idea. We all have are own blind spots and bad habits, and no one else can make a list for us :)

  21. I'm grateful you compiled all these posts about stalled stories together. I'm going to attempt a rewrite of a scene from another character's perspective. Even though the main action of the scene doesn't focus on them, that is where the conflict is...the character who the scene is "about" is getting what he wants, but the conflict lies with this other character. Thanks for your thoughts. :)

  22. My fantasy story is around 100k words. I try hard not to add scenes like you talked about. But, now that I think about it I'd better go through the chapters and check.

    Might as well, this pairs well with another article I read that talks about putting in to many action scenes, over injuring the characters as a convenient way to move the plot forward. As too much of that and readers stop caring. I got rid if one scene that was so over the tip cruel and turned one of the antaganists into a card carrying baddy. - embarrassed -

    This is great, bookmarking this.

  23. This is such a helpful article, Janice. I'm adding a link from my next blog article to this one.