Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Five Ways to Jump Start a Stalled Story

By Eleri Stone, @EleriStone

Part of the How They Do It Series

Hitting the writing wall is never fun, but it's not the end of the world or the end of your story. Fantasy and paranormal author Eleri Stone is here today to share a few tips on how to bust past that wall and get your story going again.

Eleri was born and raised in New Jersey. She graduated from the University of Iowa, married her college sweetheart, and settled in the Midwest where she still lives with her husband and their three children. A lifelong fan of fantasy, she started reading romance as an adult and was instantly captivated by the strong female protagonists and character-driven storylines. All of her stories have some element of speculative fiction and they all end with a happy-ever-after.


Take it away Eleri...

I used to be a serial story starter. I would write the first five chapters or so, lose steam, maybe set the manuscript aside for a while, and then eventually toss it so I could move on to the next shiny idea. It wasn’t that these stories were irredeemably flawed or anything, it was just that somewhere along the way I would lose interest in finishing them. It took me a long time to figure out where I was going wrong, so today I thought I’d share a few tips on how to jump start a story that’s stalled out on you.

Are your characters too passive?

For me, the number one thing that will stall out a story is when the main character becomes passive to the plot. In the beginning, that’s not a problem. You have a great idea that so captured your imagination you decided to sit down and write a story about it in the first place. You’re figuring out what makes your characters tick and everything is fresh and exciting. Then, the story starts moving forward and everything falls into place like tumbling dominoes.

The problem is you can only stare at falling dominoes for so long before you get bored, and if your characters are only reacting to the events set in motion in the early chapters, then it’s really easy for a story to lose steam. How to fix it?

After you’ve set everything up, it’s important for your main character to make a decision or take action in a way that both complicates the plot and moves it forward. Bonus points if it’s a decision that you don’t agree with! Those are more interesting to work through as a writer and that means it’s more interesting for your reader too. This decision doesn’t necessarily have to relate to the main conflict. It can be along the way of introducing a subplot—a relationship risk, a lie told, a secret withheld. You do need to address the consequences later in the story.

Don’t get distracted

Another problem you might run into is that a secondary character or subplot will start to take over the story. Pat yourself on the back that you’ve created such a well-developed character or twisty little side story and then get back on track. Sometimes it’s helpful to write through the main story and just leave a note within the manuscript about how you’d like the subplot to progress. Then, you can come back and write those scenes later. I know a lot of people cringe at the idea of writing a scene out of order but sometimes by doing that you can prevent your main story from losing momentum.

Remember the stakes

If you’re starting to get bogged down, try refocusing your attention on exactly what’s at stake for your characters—what do they want to accomplish, what do they fear the most, what’s this story really all about? Refocusing attention on those things will help to build tension and keep your story on track at the same time. Speaking of staying on track…

Come up with a plan

Let’s be honest, panster to pantser, sometimes we wander around in the story because we’re just not sure about where we’re going and we’re waiting for inspiration to strike.

I used to hate outlines but as time goes on I’m beginning to appreciate their beauty…or at least their usefulness. You don’t have to write a full outline or even stick to it if you come up with a better idea. But if you’re stuck, it can help to brainstorm several scenes ahead so you have a better idea of where you’re going.

You could also a break for a few days and then do a read through to take a fresh run at it. This was always dangerous for me (see above with the re-starting of new stories) but sometimes it’s necessary to take a big step back just to clear your head.

Keep writing

The whole ‘butt in chair, fingers on keyboard’ thing. Sometimes the only way to push through a rocky patch in a story is simply to push through it. After all, we are talking about rough draft here. Don’t put so much pressure on yourself. At this point, everything can still be changed. You might not even know what the story really needs at that point until you can look at it as a whole and figure out what’s missing. So be gentle with yourself, keep writing, have fun and don’t give up!

About Reaper's Touch

Abby is a Ranger, part of an elite group who defend the border against Reapers—humans infected with a parasite that turns them into mindless cannibals. Rangers are immune to Reaper infection, and as one of the only female Rangers, Abby is expected to settle down and breed more Rangers—a fate she’s keen to avoid. When she’s ambushed on the plains, she’s ready to go out with guns blazing—until a mysterious, handsome cowboy rides to her rescue.

Jake has his own motives for helping Abby, beyond aiding a damsel in distress. He’s a Reaper, and while he’s learned to wrest control of his mind from the parasite, the effects won’t last without a permanent cure. And he needs Abby to get it.

Abby and Jake are natural enemies and unlikely partners. But when their search reveals a conspiracy between Reapers and the rich industrialists who own the mountain cities, they must work together to find the cure—or lose the border, and each other, forever.

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  1. "Brainstorm a few scenes ahead."

    Ohh. That makes sense! THAT'S what I need to do! Thank you, fellow pantser!

    Also, I read your book blurb. My first thought was, "Huh. Zombie story." And then I finished and my second thought was "Hmmm, *interesting*!!" I especially love the lines about Abby refusing to settle down and breed :)

    1. It's not exactly plotting but it does help me get my bearings when I start to feel lost:)

  2. Great tips, I like the idea of having them make the wrong decision. I mean that usually leads to a lot of trouble!

    I love the premise for the Reaper's Touch too.

    1. Thanks! It's my favorite trick for when things start to bog down.

  3. Good stuff, Keep Writing. I pants too....

    1. It usually means a little more revision time but it's a lot more fun when you don't know exactly where the story is going to take you.

  4. These are terrific tips. As a pantser, I definitely need to be reminded to stick with an idea and finish it, not get distracted by something fresher. Thanks!

    1. I SO sympathize with wanting to chase after the shiny new idea. I have a file full of story ideas I hope to get to someday:)

  5. Hi Eleri
    Great post, thanks.
    Some good tips in there, but I think the first one's the key. It's so easy to create a character and throw them in at the deep end, but until they make that conscious decision to want something, or achieve something, they're just being carried along and that's when it get's tough to write (and boring:)

    1. Agreed. And if they never take that initiative, it's easy to walk away from the story both for the reader and the writer.

  6. These are great ideas. I have to admit, sometimes all the problems I throw at my characters do end up boring me, so it's nice to hear about 5 solutions!!