It's no secret I love doing terrible things to my characters. "How can this go wrong?" is one of my favorite writing techniques. But believe it or not, sometimes having things go wrong all the time isn't the best thing for your story. Sometimes it's a good idea to step back and ask...
Am I making the story better, or just creating an obstacle course for my protagonist?
Things going wrong is great, but if nothing is made worse overall (and thus raise the stakes), it might not do anything to advance your story. Look at your manuscript. Do you have passages that are exciting, but you've gotten feedback like, "This is all good stuff, but I feel like the story isn't going anywhere." or "What's the point of all this? It's starting to feel episodic."
If so, you might be causing unnecessary trouble.
Fixing a Stalled Scene
Do a Goal Check
Look at your character's goals. Are they actively trying to do something to solve their big story problem, or is this just one more tiny step in the plot? Steps are good, but too many can send the story off track and make it feel aimless. How many steps removed from the main plot if 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.
Add a Conflict Conundrum
What's the conflict in this scene? Is any thing or any one in the way of your protagonist getting what they want? Lack of conflict is another common culprit in scenes that aren't working. Lack of conflict means a lack of stakes, because there no sense that the hero will fail. What can you do to add conflict back into the scene? Who or what can be between the protagonist and their goal?
Raise the Stakes
If the stakes aren't going up even though things are going wrong, that's a big red flag that it's just extra trouble and not a real plot obstacle. How can this problem make the risk higher? Personal risks to the protagonist are usually best, but you can also make things worse for another character if they're important to the protagonist. Look at internal and external goals, and think down the line as well as immediate problems.
Mix and Match Scenes
Can this problem be combined with another one that does raise the stakes? Multiple things going wrong at once can make for some gripping scenes, and allows you to layer plot and add depth through inner conflict. One external problem might work well with an internal problem and turn a good scene into a wow scene.
Hack and Slash Scenes
Can the scene be cut? Trimming the scene might pick up the pace and get you to the important plot elements faster. If you can't cut the scene, ask why you can't? That will give you an idea of what really matters in that scene, and you can either use that to fix the scene or find a way to combine scenes. Or find a way to make the scene work overall.
There's a difference between making things worse and making bad things happen. If your trouble enhances the overall story, you're on the right track. If all it does is delay the plot, it can probably go. Because the last thing you want, is a reader rolling their eyes and thinking, "Oh, come on."
Do you have any stalled scenes right now? Have you looked at the goals and the stakes? What about the conflict?
Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel.
Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now.
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