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Wednesday, April 19

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 getting unstuck in a scene)

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 character decisions)

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 creating 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?

Looking for tips on planning, writing, or revising your novel? Check out one of my books on writing:  Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and the first book in my bestselling Skill Builders Series, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).


A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, 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, 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. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.

Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and the first book in her Skill Builders Series, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).  
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6 comments:

  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.

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    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!

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  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!

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

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

    So simple...

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

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