Monday, December 21, 2020

Stuck in Your Story? Try This Fun Exercise to Shake Up Your Muse

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Sometimes we get so focused on what’s supposed to happen in our novel, we forget to consider what could happen.

Unless you're incredibly lucky, at some point in your writing life your creativity is bound to stall.

The novel you loved yesterday feels flat today, all your ideas sound "meh" and nothing really excites you about your current manuscript. It happens, and scary as it can be, there are ways to knock your muse out of her slump and get things moving again.

Sometimes the best way to get unstuck is to look at the novel from a different perspective.

Changing your perspective can shake loose preconceived ideas and allow you to see the story and characters in ways you hadn't considered before. These different views often spark ideas that breathe new life into a novel that needs it.

Years ago, I read a hilarious description of The Wizard of Oz that was "accurate but misleading:" 
“Transported to a surreal landscape, a young girl kills the first person she meets and then teams up with three strangers to kill again.”
Yes, this technically does describe the movie, but it's not exactly what the movie is about.

It does, however, change the whole tenor of the film.  

Suddenly Dorothy's the villain, and that opens up all sorts of delicious possibilities and changes how other characters might react to her when they encounter her. The Wizard wasn't trying to be a jerk, he was just trying to get this murderer out of his city before she hurt anyone!

Besides being fun, the "accurate, but misleading" game is a useful tool to look at your novel from a different perspective.

Every character thinks they’re the hero in their own story, and that affects how they see the overall plot or their role in it. What about their views might be accurate but misleading, and spark that sleepy muse?

Think about how the various characters in the novel might describe the story and protagonist—even if it's not how you would.

See if you can guess the movies below (answers at the end):

#1: An imposter infiltrates the White House and attempts to push through his own agenda.

#2: After his family is murdered, a young man runs away from home to avenge their deaths.

#3: A security team fights off a group of hackers trying to destroy vital government infrastructure.

#4: A mentally disturbed father goes to dangerous extremes in order to see his children.

As fun as misleading descriptions are, there’s also a benefit to it for our writing. It helps us consider how everyone in the novel feels about the story problem. And once we understand that, we start seeing where our characters might have different opinions and how that might develop into interesting conflicts and more compelling situations unique to our story.

Look at your novel and ask:

How would your antagonist describe the plot?

This can open up new ideas on how additional conflict might work, or where the antagonist might appear more sympathetic. Bad guys readers can understand and even relate to are often the most compelling.

It's also useful for stories where the antagonist is just a character in opposition to your protagonist's goal, not necessarily “a bad guy.” Ethical gray areas can keep readers guessing about what will happen next, or what they'd do in that same uncertain situation.

(Here’s more on I'm Not Evil: Writing From the Antagonist's Point of View) 

How would the secondary characters describe it?

This can reveal subplots that might bring in added conflict or tension, or be the perfect red herring for the core conflict. It can also show you where your other characters might disagree or how they might help solve any of your current plot problems. Seeing how they view or fit into the story might even add more layered ways those characters can contribute to the novel.

(Here’s more on Who Hates Ya Baby? Creating Bad Guys Who Aren't the Antagonist) 

How would the supporting characters describe it?

Minor characters can have opinions, too. This can expose some currently helpful characters who might not want to help, but are doing it since the author told them to (and author is The Boss).

What if they had a different view on the matter? What happens to the plot then? If readers are never sure who might be willing to help the hero, who might try to hurt them, or might have an agenda all their own, the novel will be that much more unpredictable and interesting to read.

(Here’s more on How to Tell if That Throwaway Character Is Really a Star) 

How would you describe the plot if you were trying to be as accurate, but misleading, as possible?

This can force you to look at your story from a variety of new perspectives and see connections, themes, or mirrors you hadn't noticed before.

Maybe you always saw the love interest as being a good guy, but if you gave him ulterior motives it changes the entire dynamic of the novel for the better. Maybe a truth about the world or society isn't at all what you thought it was, and could be a rich layer to draw subtext from. You could even discover questionable allies for the protagonist among the antagonist's crew.

Shaking up the story can also shake up the muse, and help you dig deeper into your idea to find the hidden gems.

Not every new perspective is going to work for the story, and trying to fit them all in would probably ruin it, but you're bound to spark ideas that will get you writing again and add a fresh breath of air to the novel.

EXERCISE FOR YOU: Take five minutes and write an “accurate but misleading” one-line description about your novel.

How would you describe your novel in a way that’s “accurate, but misleading?” What about your favorite books or movies?

Answers: 1: Dave. 2: Star Wars. 3: The Matrix. 4: Mrs. Doubtfire.

Originally published on Writers in the Storm, December 2014. 

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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