Monday, August 14, 2023

Stuck on a Scene? Try This Trick to Get it Moving Again

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

The problem isn’t always where you think it is.

Before I dive in today, I'm also guest posting over at Writers in the Storm, sharing tips on How to Make Clich├ęs Work for You. Come on over and say hello.

Unless you’re very, very lucky, at some point in your writing you’re going to get stuck. You’ll write yourself into a corner and won’t be able to figure out how to get your protagonist where they need to go, or maybe you’ll have no idea what the conflict is supposed to be. You’ll sit at the keyboard and grow more and more frustrated by the minute until you want to scream. Or take up botany.

It’s not writer’s block—you can write, it’s just that the scene has stalled and you don’t know what to do to get it moving again.

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 them choose something else.

There’s a good chance the scene stalled because the protagonist made a choice that sent them 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.

Choosing a different choice creates a different plot path for the protagonist, opening up new possibilities to get the plot moving again.

This should fix your problem and get you past that sticking point. However, sometimes you change the scene and you still get stuck. When that happens, it could indicate:

The new choice isn’t actually a different choice.

If the only difference 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, they’ll still “eating ice cream.”
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. They might meet someone at the mall, or something might happen along the way, or they might decide to stop and do a little shopping after.
Look for ways to create choices that change the outcome of a scene in a more significant way.

(Here's more with 5 Tips for When You’re Stuck in a Scene)

The new choice was too different.

In an effort to fix the problem, you might accidentally go too far and make a choice so wildly different it changes the story. “Should I go out for ice cream or should I join the army?” will certainly lead to a very different place, 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).
You want to keep the original plot plan in mind when brainstorming choices, because the scene still needs to lead your protagonist toward the next big piece of the plot.
Look for a choice that will lead to different possibilities that still fit the existing story, not something that will throw in the unexpected just to shake things up.

(Here's more with 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 they do at the mall will change how the story unfolds. But if trouble lies at the post office, and they decide to go there before the mall, the plot changes and the story has somewhere to go.

Look for decisions that might have inadvertently sent your protagonist away from the plot or conflict instead of toward it.

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

The problem is with the character, not the choice.

Characters can change as you write them, and if they change too much, their original motivations for making a choice no longer work. Their decision feels forced or contrived, not a natural path they’d take to achieve their goal.

This is a much harder problem to fix, because you need to examine the character’s motivations and who they are in that scene, and compare them to previous scenes.
Look for where the character changed and why. Did you adjust their backstory or history to create more conflict? Did they naturally evolve as they encounter the troubles in the story? Figure out why this “new attitude” changed them and why’d they want whatever it is they need to want for the scene to work.

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. (We’ve all been there, right?)

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.
Do a quick editorial map for plot-advancing decisions to help you spot potential problems, and focus on the goal-motivation-conflict-stakes aspects to identify the pieces driving the plot forward (or identify what’s not driving it).

Since the protagonist’s choices determine the plot, the wrong choice can lead us into a dead end.

We don’t always realize we’re headed into a plot quagmire until we sink into it. Luckily, we control our own stories, so we can just turn the plot around and go back to the exit we missed.

EXERCISE FOR YOU: Pick a scene you think is good, but not great (or any scene, really). Take five minutes and brainstorm other choices your protagonist could make in this scene, or in the scene leading up to this one. Does it make the story better? Worse? The same?  

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

*Originally published April 2017. Last update August 2023.

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.
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  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 :)