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Wednesday, May 29

5 Tips for When You’re Stuck in a Scene

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Getting stuck in a scene can bring your novel to a screeching halt, but there are ways to get unstuck and keep on writing.

It happens to every writer at some point—the writing is clicking along, then suddenly it’s not. You hit a wall, you no longer like what you originally planned, the muse is nowhere to be found and she took the bucket for your creative well with her.

It’s not writer’s block, it’s just a scene that refuses to get out of your head and onto the page in a way that resembles decent writing. Or so-so writing. Or even bad writing. Let’s face it—the scene is totally giving you the finger.

Over the years, I’ve spent plenty of days struggling with horrifically rude scenes that just did not want to work, even though I knew (or thought I knew) exactly how the scene was going to unfold. Here are five tricks that always help me get the scene moving again.

1. Use [brackets] or your preferred note style to get past it


This is by far the easiest, because it essentially ignores the problem for now and lets you keep your writing momentum going. Whatever is wrong, just make a note of what you want there and come back to it later. Sometimes what’s missing is something you haven’t yet figured out, and once you write where the story is going past that scene, the solution pops into your head.

(Here’s more on A Tip for Getting Through Hard-to-Write Scenes)

2. Think about what the other people in the scene are doing


It’s easy to get scope-locked on what the outcome of the scene is and how the protagonist gets to that point, so you unconsciously let everyone else step aside so the plot can unfold as needed. Which often means there’s no conflict or obstacles to overcome and no sense of difficulty, and the scene feels meh at best. And you know it.

Try stepping back and figuring out what everyone else is the scene is doing, even if they’re minor or walk-on characters. What are they trying to accomplish? What’s their purpose for being there? How are they affecting the events in the scene? There’s a good chance they’re just standing around or helping too much, and looking more like furniture than characters.

Give them something to do. Give them goals that don’t align with the protagonist in that scene. Give walk-on characters reasons not to help or to be difficult. Make them people who act from their own goals and needs and see how that affects the scene.

(Here’s more on Three Ways to Add Tension to a Scene During Revisions)

3. Check out the goals and plans of the antagonist—have they mucked up anything for the protagonist?


If the antagonist isn’t an active part of the story, his (or her) actions behind the scenes might not be foremost in your mind. Sure, you know the evil plan results in X happening at Y time to produce Z result, but what’s going on in that evil mind between those moments? Are there ripple effects that might be creating trouble in strange ways? Are there moments where the protagonist can be nudged off her (or his) game because of something the antagonist did, even if no one is aware that’s what’s going on?

The antagonist often causes the entire story to happen—if he (or she) wasn’t out there trying to end the world or ruin careers or whatever sinister plan, the protagonist would have nothing to fight against. Antagonistic fingers are probably all over the story if you look closely, and one of those pressure points might be just what the scene needs.

(Here’s more on Being Evil: Plotting From the Antagonist's Perspective)

4. Ask why this scene is in the story


Sometimes a scene isn’t working because it no longer needs to be there, or it isn’t doing what it was originally designed to do. Ask why this scene is important to the novel. What’s it adding to the story? How does it affect the plot and/or character arc?

It’s possible it’s not pulling its weight, and is there only to world build or drop in backstory, but serves no other purpose. The lack of a goal or conflict means you have nothing to write toward, so the scene stalls. It’s not going anywhere because there’s nowhere for it to go.

If the scene isn’t serving the story, cut it, or find a way to give it new purpose so it does serve the story.

(Here’s more on What to Do When You Really Don’t Want to Write That Scene)

5. Look at the next major turning point in the story (plot or character arc)—how does this scene lead to that?


Writing doesn’t always follow the path we set for it. For pantsers, there is no path, so it’s even easier to get lost and hit a writing wall. It’s helpful to look ahead at the next major beat or turning point in the story and brainstorm how this scene gets the protagonist to that point. Odds are a key piece is missing. Did you wander too far off track? Did you make a decision before this scene that sent the plot in the wrong direction? Do you need to lay more groundwork to get there?

Of course, it’s also possible that the unexpected path is the better route, and what you really need to do is change the next turning point. The reason you’re stuck is because the plot point needs adjusting and the scene is trying to tell you that.

Don’t be afraid to look forward as well as backward for the solution to the problem.

(Here’s more on Goals-Motivations-Conflicts: The Engine That Keeps a Story Running)

A sticky scene is annoying, but it doesn’t have to keep you stuck for long. Approaching it from a few different directions usually finds at least one path through the weeds and gets the story moving again.

What helps you get unstuck in a scene?

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 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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