Monday, April 21, 2014

CRAFT CORNER: Argh! I’m Stuck! When the story just isn’t working…

by Isabo Kelly

Have you ever found yourself in this situation? Despite all your planning and effort, your story just isn’t working for some reason. You’re stuck, and you can’t seem to write your way out of the hole. This is incredibly frustrat­ing and can often cause writers to toss aside perfectly good projects.

So how do you get unstuck?

You have to find the problem with the story. You might not realize you have one, but if you’re not making progress, it’s because something is funda­mentally wrong with the book. And the best way to find the problem is to do that thing non-writers think is goofing off but for writers is actually very hard work.

Stare out a window and mull things over.


Anyone tells you this isn’t work, send them to me.

Uncovering the issue requires you take the time to ask yourself a lot of questions. To get started, first look at potential problems in the big stuff: character and plot.

For characters: Do you know your characters well enough? Do you like them? Are you rooting for them, or are you using them to advance the plot and couldn’t actually care less about them? Are the characters act­ing strange? Or do they feel two-dimensional? Are they heroic if they’re the heroes? Are they scary enough if they’re the villains? Do they have flaws? Are they too perfect? Do you know their greatest weakness? Their most embarrassing moment? Do they like puppies? Sports? Doing puzzles?

If something just isn’t working with your characters, get to know them better. People do this in different ways—character interviews, taking a long walk with the characters, pretending to have actually conversations with them, have the character write journal entries from the years before the story starts, uncover their quirks, look for an unexpected fear or disappointment in their past… Whatever it takes, get to know these people like they’re real. When you do, you’ll instinctively know how they’ll react in any given situation. This can get you out of a lot of frustrating roadblocks.

Next look at the overall plot: Do you have enough going on? Is it too complicated or not complicated enough? Do you have both internal and external conflicts? Are there logic problems in the plot? Do you need to do a little more research to find that fact necessary to moving things along? Are there high and low moments? Do things get progressively worse for your protagonists?
Take a hard look at what you have, and decide if it feels right. There’s a kind of satisfaction when all the elements of a story are working, a sense of inevitability to the plot—even if things twist and turn and unexpected stuff happens, it still seems like this is how the story is supposed to go. If you aren’t feeling that, dig deeper.

Now, if none of these things seem to be causing the problem, look at the smaller details. Is the setting wrong for the story you’re trying to tell? Do you need to add a new point-of-view character to get the full picture across? Do you need to change the POV you’re using in a particular scene? Are you forcing your characters to do things they wouldn’t without a really good reason? Are the conflicts and complications serious enough? Can all the characters’ problems be solved with a conversation? If that’s the case, you might be turning cartwheels trying to stretch out a storyline that needs more depth.

Sometimes, you’ve taken a wrong turn, inserted a plot twist, had a character do a particular thing, gone in a cer­tain direction, and it gets to be like pulling teeth to keep writing. This is a good sign things aren’t as they should be. Go back to the place in the story where things seemed to be going well and it felt right, then start over from that point.

Consider as a reader what you want to happen next. This one helped me a lot in a recent draft because as a reader I wanted things from the book that my writer self didn’t even consider.  Its okay if you have to dump a bunch of pages and scenes (I know it hurts, but it is necessary occasionally). The flow you’ll gain by shifting back to the right direction will have you caught up in no time.

And if all the thinking and considering and mulling (and coffee and naps and showers) aren’t working, talk things out with a trusted friend. Or many friends. They might not have the answers, but that’s not really the point. Often, all it takes is voicing the problems aloud to help goose your muse. Talking with friends will help you pinpoint the issues. And once you know what’s not working, you can fix it. You can fix just about anything. The real problem is not knowing what the problem is. That’s where writers get stuck.

Step back from your daily word count or page goals and give yourself the room to dig into the book. (This really is still work, I promise.) Taking the time to look critically at what you’re doing and find the things that aren’t working will give you the information you need to get unstuck. Like a sculptor releasing a statue from a block of marble, you’ll be able to finish that brilliant book just waiting to be uncovered. ♥
Isabo Kelly is the award-winning author of multiple fantasy, science fiction and paranormal romances. Her newest fantasy romance, THE DARKNESS OF GLENGOWYN (Fire and Tears 2), releases April 29th from Samhain Publishing. For more on Isabo and her books, visit her at, follow her on Twitter @IsaboKelly, or friend her on Facebook

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