How to Move A Story Forward When You're Stuck

writing, how to, books, novels, plotting, plot, romance, Regency

Have you ever reached a point in your story where your characters stop talking to you, the plot stalls, and you’re banging your head against the keyboard trying to figure out how to fix the problem? You try to push through it, sketching out the plot points or letting your mind wander while you clean the house. But nothing works. This happened while I was writing my first Harlequin historical, Engagement of Convenience. So, what do you do after your bathroom is sparkling and you still haven’t come to a solution? Kill a character. Or, if that isn’t practical for your story, burn something important to the ground.

It sounds violent, and it is, and that’s the point. A death puts pressure on your hero and heroine, compelling them to act, and character action is what drives the story. Depending on who dies, your hero or heroine may be motivated to seek revenge, to solve a mystery, to help others deal with the tragedy, or to hide the body. The course of action your characters choose will be influenced by their ultimate goals, but forcing them to make a decision will push them and the story in a new direction.

A dead body is also a great opportunity for conflict. Based on the hero and heroine’s goals, the hero may want to hide the body, while the heroine might want to call the police. This clash will create tension between them that you can use throughout the rest of the story.  Also, a stiff in the story will put external pressure on the hero and heroine from either the authorities or the villain. A friend of mine who writes paranormal romance likes this method, and often uses it when she is stuck. Her paranormal characters are trying to evade detection, so when they’re caught with a dead body, it creates all kinds of problems for them to deal with.

Death can be a powerful tool for characterization. How a hero or heroine reacts to a death will reveal who they are, and will indicate whether or not you need to do more character development. If your hero simply steps over his friend’s dead body, or doesn’t take much time to mourn, you may need to reexamine your hero to understand why he’s so callous. Or, if it’s appropriate to the story, the hero’s callous reaction can be used to illustrate his growth. If your hero reacts with more emotion to a death later in the story, then it will show how much he has grown and changed.

If killing characters isn’t your thing, or doesn’t work for your book, then burn something down. A big fire in your story will push you out of your comfort zone, and make you take a hard look at whether or not your carefully created plot is actually working. As writers, it’s easy to fall in love with our plots. After all, we’ve worked hard on them and they seem so neat and tidy on spreadsheets or note cards. However, once we start writing, our characters don’t always follow the path we’ve laid out for them, or, if you’re a pantser like me, they stop telling you where they want to go. As a result, you may spend precious time writing scenes you’ll probably end up cutting as you try to force your characters in a certain direction. Instead of forcing things to work, try lighting a fire under your characters, literally, and shocking them and you into in an entirely new direction.

I once had a historical heroine whose story got stuck in her colonial house. I wrote scene after scene with her in this house, hiding the hero from the villain, helping the hero recover from a gunshot wound, and in the end boring myself to death. I didn’t know how to get the story moving. Then I realized that the house had become a crutch for both the character and me. As a result, I decided to burn her house down. The emotional and physical repercussions of suddenly finding my heroine homeless got her story and my creativity moving. An author friend of mine who writes romantic suspense finds burning things down, or blowing things up, to be very helpful for getting her hero and heroine on the move. Like a dead body, a fire can increases the stakes, provide conflict and move the plot forward.

If these suggestions seem too violent, or you aren’t ready to commit murder or arson, then maybe just the threat of death or fire is all you need to spark your creativity. For instance, there’s nothing like the drama of an approaching army or the suspense of a crazy killer chasing the heroine to put pressure on your characters and motivate them to act.  Just make sure that whatever drama you choose is intense, so that it ups the stakes for your hero or heroine and keeps the reader hooked. For me, the threat of burning down the heroine's precious house in Engagement of Convenience was enough to get her story moving after a big block.

Choosing to kill a character or burn something down is up to you, and isn’t always the right option for every story. However, the next time your WIP hits a sticking point, like my novel Engagement of Convenience did, I challenge you to step out of the comfort zone of your preconceived plot and consider the more dramatic options. By doing something powerful and unexpected in your story, you’ll create conflict, character growth and, on another level, author development. Surprising yourself and your characters with a traumatic event might be just the thing to snap you out of your writer’s block, and get you successfully to “The End.”       

Check out Engagement of Convenience to see how this story turned out or read one of my other novels because I sometimes struggled with plots on those too.

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