Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Stuck on a Scene? Try This Trick

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Unless you’re very, very lucky, at some point in your writing you’re going to get stuck. You’ve written yourself into a corner, you can’t figure out how to get your protagonist where she needs to go, or maybe you just have no idea what the conflict is supposed to be. You sit at the keyboard and grow more and more frustrated by the minute.

It’s not writer’s block—you can write, but the novel has stalled and you don’t know what to do to get it moving again. You’re simply stuck because you’ve run out of writing options (or any good writing options).

Instead of struggling to fix the scene that’s not working, try this:

Go back to the last time the character made a decision and have her choose something else.

If the story has stopped, it could be caused by a choice that sent the protagonist down a plot dead end. There’s nowhere for the story to go because this is as far as that idea can go.

That decision point might be earlier in the scene, or several chapters back. It might even be a major turning point that didn’t pan out like you expected. But something along the way derailed the story Making a different choice creates a different plot path for the protagonist, opening up new possibilities to get the plot moving once more. If it doesn’t, this could indicate:

The new choice isn’t actually a different choice: If the only differences in a choice are the specifics of that choice, such as, “should I choose chocolate or vanilla ice cream?” then nothing about the scene will change. No matter what the protagonist chooses, she’s still eating ice cream. At the end of her tasty treat, she’s in the exact same spot. But a slight shift of that choice to, “should I stay home and eat ice cream or go out to the mall and have ice cream?” creates an opportunity for a different scene outcome. She might meet someone at the mall, or something might happen along the way, or she might decide to stop and do a little shopping after. Look for a way to create choices that change the outcome of a scene in a more significant way.

(Here's more on Stuck on a Scene? Just Say No.)

The new choice was too different:
In an effort to fix the problem, you might accidentally go too far and make the choices so wildly different they change the story. “Should I go out for ice cream or should I join the army?” will certainly lead to very different places, but odds are your original story didn’t account for your protagonist randomly joining the army (if it did, then the ice cream decision might be the problem). Look for choices that will lead to different possibilities that still fit the existing story, not ones that will throw in the unexpected just to shake things up.

(Here's more on The Antithesis Method: A Simple Solution to Getting Unstuck in a Scene)

The problem was really caused by an earlier choice: Sometimes it takes a few chapters before a wrong turn is identified, and the plot-stalling choice actually occurred several decisions back. Fixing any of the choices after that point don’t help, because they don’t change the path. If, “I think I’ll go to the mall for ice cream first” removes the protagonist from the path of trouble, nothing she does at the mall will change that. But if trouble lies at the post office, and she decides to go to there first instead, her entire life could change. Look for decisions that might have inadvertently sent your protagonist away from the plot or conflict instead of toward it.

(Here's more on Decisions, Decisions: Character Choices That Matter)

The problem is a structural turning point choice: If nothing else unsticks the scene, it’s possible a wrong choice at a major turning point has derailed the novel. It’s no fun when this happens and often requires a lot of rewriting to fix—especially if the problem is early on and you don’t realize it is a problem until later. Finding these wrong choices are much harder since they affect nearly everything that comes after them, so you might consider checking the plot choices at an outline or synopsis level to see where it went wrong. Doing a quick editorial map for plot-advancing decisions can help you spot potential problems.

Since the protagonist’s choices determine the plot, the wrong choice can lead us right into a dead end. Luckily, we control our own stories, so we can just turn the plot around and go back to the exit we missed.

Have you ever made a wrong plot turn? What did you do to fix it?

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 Shifter, Blue 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.
Website | Facebook | Twitter | Pinterest | Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound


  1. Here I thought I had no choices and the story stalled because I am inept. I put the project on a virtual shelf in a cloud, hoping I would get better at the craft someday. Then, I read this post. Maybe I had my protagonist make the wrong choice. Thanks Janice.

    1. I hope that's all it was :) Plotting can be hard, and it sometimes takes a while to find the right events to tell the story and keep that story moving. Good luck!

  2. Ditto on that first comment, Janice. Here I thought it was me, who has a synopsis,tentative outline, and the rest in my head. What a "duh" moment! Thanks bunches!

    1. Often it's not :) We just get stuck and focus on what has us trapped and not where we went off the road.

  3. If you've gone down a dead end, back out and try going somewhere else.

    So simple...

    1. Which is why it's so easy to overlook :)