Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Getting Your Novel to the Finish Line (Part One: Getting Past Getting Stuck)

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

I’ve spoken with a lot of writers over the years, and “actually finishing a novel” is high on the list of problems they run into. Although there are many specific reasons for it, I’ve noticed they often fall into two general camps: the story stalls, or the writer gets distracted.

For new writers, it’s frequently a matter of skill level. They just don’t yet know the things they need to move forward, and once they learn that skill, they’ll be okay.

For experienced writers, it’s typically story specific. A plot, an ending, a major turning point—something about the story itself still needs to be worked out to move forward.

For both, it’s discipline. For whatever reason, they’re not putting their butt in the chair and writing, or they’re not focusing on one project long enough to get anywhere.

Let’s focus on the easier of the two to fix first:

Getting Past a Sticking Point in Your Novel

It’s been my experience that the number one reason writers get stuck on a story is that they don’t know the protagonist’s goal well enough to move forward.

This might be a scene goal, or a major goal that affects the core conflict and climax, or the ending itself. Often, the writer knows what the story is “about” on a general premise level, but the actual steps needed to resolve that conflict are missing. It’s also common in these stalled stories to not have a solid clue what the ending is.

(Here's more on fixing a stalled scene)

Step One: Determine Where You’re Stuck

Are you stuck in a scene that’s giving you trouble or do you not know where the story is going at all?

If you know where the story goes past this scene, but can’t quite figure out how to get there, odds are you’re facing a minor plot problem (even if it’s a tough problem) and some brainstorming and a little rewriting will get you through it. Ask:
  • What is the protagonist trying to accomplish in this scene?
  • Why are they doing it? (Their motivation and the plot reason)
  • What is the obstacle or people preventing them from doing that?
  • Why are these people trying to stop them?
  • What’s at stake if they fail?
  • How does this problem and scene goal lead to the next scene?
  • Why is this scene important to the overall story, conflict, or character arc?
  • Why do you as the writer want this scene here?

If you can’t answer one (or more) of these questions, that’s probably where the sticking point lies. Try adding a stronger goal, strengthening the motivations, raising the stakes. Consider if the scene is necessary at all or if it needs to be cut. You might be stuck because your subconscious knows this scene doesn’t belong.

(Here’s more on creating goals for your characters)

If you don’t know your ending or how the protagonist resolves the core conflict, you have some more plotting to do still. You can’t move forward because you have no path leading you there. Ask:
  • What’s the core conflict of the novel?
  • What is the one thing that has to be done to resolve the core conflict of the novel?
  • How is the protagonist going to reach or accomplish that one thing?
  • Why does the protagonist want to resolve this issue?
  • Who or what is trying to prevent them from resolving that core conflict?
  • Why are they preventing it?
  • How is resolving the core conflict going to change the protagonist’s life for better and for worse?
  • What are three to five plot steps needed to accomplish and resolve the core conflict?
  • How far along those steps is your protagonist?

If you can’t answer all of these questions, your ending and core conflict probably aren’t fleshed out enough yet for you to get there. Try spending time figuring out your ending and what has to happen to resolve your core conflict. If you discover you have no core conflict (not uncommon in these situations), take a hard look at your novel and find that core conflict.

(Here’s more on building your novel’s core conflict)

Step Two: Plot Past It

Flesh out or rewrite whatever question areas you couldn’t answer in Step One and see if they get you past your sticking point. Write a summary of where the story goes until you feel you’re back on track and can see the clear steps to get from where you go stuck to the next clear step of the plot. Pantsers will resist this, as it goes against their very nature, but do your best to plot past whatever is keeping you from writing.

Sometimes to move forward we need to go back to the beginning, so if you’re still struggling look at the beginning of your story and ask:
  • What is my protagonist trying to accomplish?
  • What do they hope to gain or fear they’ll lose?
  • What is motivating them to move forward?
  • Why is any of this important?
  • What changes to drive the story forward?

Sometimes a novel’s setup doesn’t give it enough fuel to keep going, and the problem lies in how the story got started. Often, it’s the protagonist’s motivation that’s tripping things up, so look there first. The protagonist is acting only because the author told them to, not through any personal need of their own. So when things get tough later I the plot, they don’t care or need to fight for it.

(Here are two questions to ask for stronger character motivations)

Getting stuck almost always equates to “I don’t know something I need to know,” so taking a step back and examining your plot or characters usually fixes the problem.

Next week, we’ll look at staying focused and avoiding the shiny new idea that often leads writers astray.

Have you even been stuck in a novel? What helped you get past a sticking point?

For more help on plotting or writing a novel check out my Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure.

Go step-by-step through plotting and writing a novel. Learn how to find and develop ideas, brainstorm stories from that first spark of inspiration, develop the right characters, setting, plots and subplots, as well as teach you how to identify where your novel fits in the market, and if your idea has what it takes to be a series.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure offers ten self-guided workshops with more than 100 different exercises to help you craft a solid novel. Learn how to:
  • Create compelling characters readers will love
  • Choose the right point of view for your story
  • Determine the conflicts that will drive your plot (and hook readers!)
  • Find the best writing process for your writing style
  • Create a solid plot from the spark of your idea
Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure also helps you develop the critical elements for submitting and selling your novel once it’s finished. You’ll find exercises on how to:
  • Craft your one-sentence pitch
  • Create your summary hook blurb
  • Develop a solid working synopsis And so much more!
Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is an easy-to-follow guide to writing your novel or fixing a novel that isn’t quite working. 

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. This article is a godsend with impeccable timing. I'm currently stuck on my story and I can already tell this will help me break my problem down into more manageable chunks.

    1. Awesome! I love when the right post hits the right writer just when they need it.

  2. Janice, Janice, Janice. You've done it again. I can't wait to answer these questions. Once I'm done, I hope they magically unlock the doors to clarity in my brain. Thanks for such a great and timely post.

  3. I get stuck with word count. I finish a story but it goes to about 60,000 words. I don't really want to stick in a few scenes that feel thrown in. I edit and add to each scene more depth in characters,inner voices and conflicts but still fall short. Any ideas where to enrich without feeling forced? Thanks.

    1. That can be tough. The easiest thing is to add a small subplot, but that doesn't always fit in as nicely as we'd like. I've written a few articles about this, so try those first and see if they help:

      These all offer suggestions on where we can usually add words and places to look where us sparse writers tend to forget to add (I do the same thing).

      Or just accept that your stories are 60K and submit them anyway. That's a solid word count for many genres and markets, so it depends on what you write. You might be fine a little shorter than the norm if the novel works as a whole.

    2. Your suggestions on the links are great, thanks for the advice!

  4. Something else you can do with those questions is to switch sides and pretend your antagonist is the protagonist. If you answer the questions from that perspective, you'll be thinking about what the antagonist wants to achieve and how. It's sparked ideas for me before.

  5. Hi Janice, I'm a new writer struggling with my first draft of a murder mystery. These encouraging ideas and questions will help me get it done. Thank you.

    1. Most welcome, glad I could help. Best of luck with your first draft!