Friday, January 29, 2016

Where Do I Go From Here? Plotting Through “What Happens Next?” Part One

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Getting past a sticky point while plotting. 

Whenever I’m not sure where the plot goes it’s almost always due to a goal issue. I've usually lost sight of what the protagonist was after and why she wanted it in the first place.

The rough part is, I often know what happens next in the plot, which makes he whole thing ever harder to manage. The story needs to go there, but I can't quite figure out how to get the protagonist from point A to B.

When you find yourself in the same situation, step back and look at the scene from both a macro and micro perspective. Keep drilling down (or pulling back) until you find where the problem lies.

What's the protagonist’s story goal? 

The protagonist’s story goal defines the novel: The protagonist is going to have a lot of goals over the course of the novel, but look first at the overall story goal (the core conflict). The big one that drives all other decisions. For example, if the protagonist’s goal is to find out how and why an old friend died, then everything in the story is going to lead to answering that question (even if it leads there in a roundabout way). Looking at the problem scene with this in mind, helps us figure out how this scene helps that larger goal.

(Here's more on the core conflict)

What's the protagonist’s major turning point goals?

The major decisions and turning points provide the framework for the novel: There are three to five moments that make up the major turning points of a novel, and work as guideposts for the plot. This is where the plot is going. For example, the protagonist decides first to find out how and why her friend died. The steps to answering that question and resolving that goal might look like this: She uncovers a vital piece of information that will lead to the answer. She is blocked in some way by something significant. She’s surprised by something she was never expecting to find. She encounters something that puts her in inner conflict or turmoil. She finds the last piece of the puzzle. She figures it all out.

These are very rough steps to a basic plot, but they fit classic story structure format and give us a framework to figure out what yo do next. Find the specifics to fit those general pieces and we find the plot. (Of course, change them if need be, as not every story has to follow this exact format. These are general guidelines)

(Here's more on common plotting structures)

Sometimes working backward helps, so look at the end result and examine how the protagonist got there. For example, at some point the protagonist will find out how the friend died. How does she do that? Say she talked to the right person and uncovered some piece of evidence. Then step back: What action did she take that revealed this evidence? What led her to that moment? Something put her on the path to this revelation. She overheard a conversation that suggested she speak to/go to/investigate that final piece of the puzzle. Step back again: What was she doing when she overheard that conversation? What got her there? Keep stepping back until you get to the sticky point.

Don’t like working backward? Start at the beginning and consider the various steps involved in how the plot could unfold. How would she begin investigating a friend’s death? Maybe she'd check hospital records, interview medical staff, talk to family and friends. Now think about what might prevent those people from helping the protagonist (conflicts and obstacles). What does she have to overcome to get the information she needs? Remember that no one should be eager to help her, since that eliminates the conflicts and makes it even harder to plot. Look at every person who has the ability to help her and think about why they can’t or won’t (it doesn't have to be a mean or spiteful reason, just plausible).

(Here's more on why the characters shouldn't help your protagonist)

What's the protagonist’s character arc goals? 

The places where the protagonist is put into inner conflict: Don’t forget to examine the character arcs as well. These are moments rife with conflict, and good places to discover missing or weak goals. Look for situations that not only block the protagonist from getting what she wants, but choices, obstacles, situations that also affect her growth. Look for ways to push her outside her comfort zone. Does she have to break the law to get the information? Ignore a belief she holds deal? Make a sacrifice?

Also check the theme. Are there any ways to illustrate or explore the theme in the obstacles she finds or the choices she has to make? For example, in The Shifter, being trapped is a theme, so I often had my protagonist dealing with people trapped in some way (literally and metaphorically). Being trapped caused or influenced the problems my protagonist had to overcome. How might the theme guide your obstacles?

(Here's more on creating inner conflict and character arcs)

What's the protagonist’s scene goal? 

What the protagonist wants in that scene: Finally, look at the scene that isn't working. What does the protagonist want at that moment? Something she has to do? If you can’t think of anything, go back scene by scene until you find a spot where she does want something and work forward from there. Odds are that’s when then plot went off track. Are the other characters in the scene doing everything they can to stop or block the protagonist? (Even if they want to help. Obstacles are about things being in your way, not just someone trying to stop you). What’s the next major step she's working toward? What are the smaller steps leading up to that? Can the protagonist be trying to achieve one of those steps?

(Here's more on creating scene goals)

Telescoping from macro to micro goals can help you keep the whole story in your head and suggest places you can draw from for goals and plot points. Everything your protagonist does will lead her toward solving that core conflict or growth as a character (often both at the same time). Think about what she has to do to solve that story question: in that scene, in that chapter, in that act, and even the whole book. If you’re stuck on the micro issues, look at the macro and vice versa.

Sometimes not knowing what to do next can also be a motivation issue, but that’s another post.

Where do you find yourself getting stuck on where to go next? Does outlining help? Who do you think gets stuck more often: pantsers or outliners?

Looking for tips on planning and writing your novel? Check out my book 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.

Website | Facebook | Twitter | Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound


  1. Great suggestions on how to not be stuck. I think having those 5 key points in your story already at least in your head would help not get stuck. But I think for both people who outline and who are pantsers that there are points it's hard to figure out what comes next in between those 5 key points. You have some great suggestions for working through those points. Thanks.

  2. Great advice as always. I find that if I outline or pants it too much I'll eventually get stuck and need to switch to the other to keep the story moving.

  3. Love how you broke down story, arc, and scene goals. So straightforward and helpful!
    Edge of Your Seat Romance

  4. I have recently started writing the scenes I know need to be in my story and then playing connect the dots to get the points connected. Gives me the freedom to jump from a scene that isn't working, knowing that eventually it will all be connected.

  5. This is a very helpful article. Even with the key points in your head, you can still get stuck, but reviewing this would certainly get an author back on track. I find that too frequently writers forget that each scene should have a goal (otherwise, you don't need the scene), and that the all the characters have agendas at that moment in time.

  6. This is so helpful it's ridiculous, Janice. I'm planning a novel where the story goal is for my MC to steal a MacGuffin, but I've been focusing so much on what happens while she's being used to steal this item that I forgot to give any thought to the actual planning and stealing part. Just because I know she's not going to be very successful doesn't mean *she* knows. Enter scenes of information gathering and recon and planning. Duh, Self, and thanks, Janice.

  7. Natalie, thanks! What makes the key points work for me is that at the very least I have a goal to work toward. I don't have to try to plot the entire book at once. I can work toward that one small bit and then deal with the rest later if I'm unsure.

    Paul, I'm in the middle as well. Just enough structure to provide guidance, but not so much it stifles.

    Raquel, Thanks!

    Tasha, good plan. I have a friend who writes that way. I've also been known to write a short description of the scene and (fix later) at the end :)

    R. Ann, exactly. Goals are so helpful. They keep the scene from becoming pure description or flat information.

    Sophia, I've had that very same revelation. Our characters don't know what we know. Much more fun (and compelling) when we let them wander on the dark and giggle at them.

  8. I was so happy to get this guest post in my inbox - and then to revisit and absorb its simple, clear advice. A really helpful approach for me right now. Thanks!

  9. I guess I'm more of a pantser, but I'm finding my NaNo novel is taking me a lot of places I didn't expect. I had certain things mapped out, and some of those are still happening, but a lot of other plot twists have developed in the process of getting everything written. While I was concerned that this may leave the narrative a bit scattered, the plot/character goals you mentioned will help narrow things down and only keep the most important plot/character elements in place. Thanks (as always) for such relevant info!

  10. Tina, most welcome!

    TWL, you're welcome! Goals make such a huge difference. If you know what your characters want, it's harder to get yanked off track.

  11. Great advice! Thanks! I have one set of characters that have me more than just a bit stuck. LOL!! I'll attack them with this and see what shakes out.

  12. SM Blooding, good luck! Hope they find their way. Another thing you can try, is to look at your ending. Often when I get stuck, it's because I really don't have a clear idea of how it ends, so I'm don't know what to do next to get there.

  13. A timely kick in the pants, thank you! I liked the reminder about people being unhelpful.

    1. Unhelpful is a great tool. Just disagreeing with your protag can be useful, too.

  14. "Are the other characters in the scene doing everything they can to stop/block the protagonist?" This is an extremely useful question, because it is easier to get characters in a scene to cooperate with each other in achieving a goal - and that is exactly the wrong thing to do.

    If there is no drama, no conflict, no going the wrong way first, the scene feels flat. The reason the scene is in the book - to achieve a particular goal - isn't satisfied unless the goal is hard earned.

    So I have to go from a rough draft in which the scene accomplishes its goal to a finished draft - that makes it seem, almost to the last minute, that the goal will NOT be achieved, and then the scene fights through the mess and the fog until that goal is accomplished.

    It is a lot of work - and it is extremely necessary.

    That little insight - and the way you worded it - is going to make it possible to finish the current scene. Thanks!


    1. Oh good! It's always helped me to think about what the goals of the other characters are, and what they'd do if this were their story. It's too easy to make everyone get along and help the protag when they won't always be that eager to do so.

  15. This is where beer really helps. Not for everyone I know some of you prefer wine but sometimes the muse wants to party and you gotta get the old girl 'tanked' if you follow...

    1. That's certainly one option (grin). Like hitting the reset button.

  16. During the middle of this first draft, I've had some "what next?" moments. I like your advice of remembering the mc's goals. And scene goals. I need to improve that part!

    1. The middle is almost always a place where things bog down. One trick you might try, is to end scenes with a place to go for the next one to pick up on. Decision made, next scene is trying to achieve that.