4 Tricks When You Don’t Know What to Write

Keyboard with "confused" key.

Whether you’re a plotter or a pantser (or a plontser – somewhere in between on the spectrum of story planning), there are going to be times when you stare at the page or plot outline and think…

I have no idea what comes next.

Sometimes you’ll write a placeholder:  [exciting thing happens here.]

Or [secret is revealed – note: figure out secret.]

Or [the hero gets away somehow.] 

So that’s something. You have a sense of what’s supposed to happen, you just don’t have the specifics.

It’s even worse when you can’t even see your way clear to what type of scene needs to happen.

You know there’s going to be a love story, or intrigue, or mystery… but you’re not entirely sure what said romance/intrigue/mystery is going to actually do.

This is especially prevalent in the middle of the book, which is how so many manuscripts wind up with the Dreaded Sagging Middle™.

If you’re a plotter, you’ll bump up against this as you’re creating the plot outline. Hopefully, you know your major plot points – and that’s a huge step in the right direction. 

If you’re a plontser, those major plot points may be all you have. Or you may just know the beginning, have some hints of the middle, and then have the end.

If you’re a pantser, you’re probably stopped dead in the middle of your writing process. Either that, or (if you don’t write in a linear/chronological fashion) you’re plinking away at scenes that you know probably should happen, even if you don’t know quite how they fit in with the whole.

Here are some tricks to get you to the next scene.

  1. Study your characters.

    The first thing is always, always, always check in with character. Which means checking with your protagonist’s GMC (Goal, Motivation, Conflict.)  The more you know about your character’s goal and motivation, the easier it is to figure out the meat of your story. 

    Even if you’re a full-blown anti-planning pantser, knowing your character is what makes it possible to see where you’re supposed to go… so if you’re really stuck, there is a good chance that you simply don’t know your characters well enough.

    Doing some deep dive character work might be helpful here.  Brainstorm, do some journal journeying or mind-mapping or fill out character sheets from writing reference books. Then figure out what your character wants, and why.

  2. Get to plot points.

    Plot points are a godsend. If you know your character’s GMC, these should be fairly straightforward. (Maybe not easy, but straightforward!)

    Even if you’re the most die-hard pantser, if you’re stuck and running out of time, just figuring out the major landmarks of your story will help you figure out what to write.

    Why? Because you’re not looking at a huge expanse and trying to chart a path from beginning to end. You’re just looking at the distance between two plot points, which is infinitely more workable.

  3. Reverse engineer. 

    Again, if you’re a die-hard pantser and refuse to get to plot points, at least figure out the ending.  If you have too many choices because you haven’t figured out your ending, it’s easy to slip into decision fatigue and analysis paralysis, or write snippets of wrong turns and fruitless paths.

    This isn’t to say it’s a bad thing, necessarily. Some writers need exploratory writing to piece together their story. But if you’re stuck and want some relief, looking to the ending will at least encapsulate your story and give you more focus.

    If you’re not sure of your ending, the best way I’ve found is to ask theme-related questions. What do you want the reader to feel after they finish reading? Is there a message? What do you want the story to do? 

    Once you have the ending, or the theme, you can then ask yourself: what kind of character would I need to construct to create this kind of character arc?  (Again: character work is the foundation for any story, whether it’s genre or literary, “plot driven” or “character driven.”)

  4. Add conflict.

    If you know your characters, know approximately what they’re supposed to do (i.e. “solve the murder” or “win the business contract” or “take kid to Disneyland”) but you still don’t know what the next step is, look at where you are in the story, and see how you can add escalating conflict to the story

    That doesn’t mean throw in some extraneous terrorists or an unexpected tsunami. Given who they are and what they’re trying to do, what would be in their way? And is there anything you could add to make things (plausibly) worse, in an escalating fashion?

And if you’re still stuck… you can always contact me for a Plot Brainstorming session. But in the meantime, start with these tricks, and see if you can’t get your story back on track!

5 questions to ask yourself when writing your novel.

I’m sure a lot of people are plunging into novel-writing… it’s January, after all.  Resolution season.  “This is the year I (finish the novel, start the novel, write another novel)…”

You get the picture.

This often also leads to pulling out whatever notes they might have, opening up a document, and diving in, whether that’s outlining or leaping into the draft itself.

But whether you’re plotting beforehand or doing a discovery draft, you might find yourself getting stuck. 

Here are five questions that can help give you some traction and forward momentum — and, if nothing else, will test the underlying bones of your novel.

Note:  because I primarily work with genre fiction, and because it’s my first passion, these questions apply to traditional three-act structured genre novels.

1.  What does your protagonist want?

This is a test for goal.

If your protagonist doesn’t want something, but is simply bouncing off of events and external characters’ actions like a pinball, then you may have a lot of episodes, but you’re going to have trouble creating a through-line.  Readers want protagonists with a clear, urgent desire, even if they don’t agree with the goal.  If you can’t tell me what your protagonist wants, then you’re going to wind up stuck somewhere around the middle of your novel.

You want the goal to be something tangible.  This is the external goal, the story driver.  So to clarify even further, a secondary question would be:  how will your protagonist know when he/she has it?

2.  What happens if your protagonist doesn’t get what he/she wants?

This is a test for motivation and stakes.

If your protagonist “will be unhappy” or “feel disappointed,” then your goal isn’t strong enough.  You want the protagonist to have a clear consequence if the goal isn’t achieved.  It will be more than just upsetting.  It needs to create a problem of some sort.  Preferably with a clear pain attached.

As a secondary check, you might see if the pain can be escalated.  If the protagonist is going for a job, say, the consequence may be that if he doesn’t get the job, he won’t be able to afford the house his family needs.  It can then be escalated if he loses his current job, or if his wife threatens to leave him if he doesn’t get it, or they lose their current housing.  Check for the possibilities of making the stakes higher and the motivation stronger.

3.  What’s standing in his/her way?

This is a test for conflict.

If your conflict is “he’s not sure if he really wants it” or “she keeps getting distracted” then you don’t have conflict, and your motivation is weak.  A character who is truly driven towards a goal won’t waffle about it, which means you’ve got to throw some fairly solid, and escalating, conflict in the way or you’re going to have a very short and unsatisfying novel.

Using the above example, escalating conflict is more than just “he has to go on a series of interviews” with more interviews being added.  It can be his car being repossessed, which makes getting to the job site more difficult.  It can be the introduction of an antagonist, a rival for the job.  It can be a “final jeopardy” interview which requires him to sell a million dollars worth of widgets in a one-week period.  It can mean moving to Antarctica (and away from his family/new house) for a year.  Again, think in terms of “how can I make this worse?”

4.  How is your protagonist different at the end of the book?

This is a test for story arc.  To be a true protagonist, your character needs to develop as a result of facing the challenges of the novel.  If you’re wondering about “how should I end this story?” this question is usually the key to the resolution.

This means more than “your protagonist has faced the challenge and won.”  He or she needs to have grown, in a visible way.

5.  Why does your reader care?

Note that I didn’t say “the reader.”  This is your Right Reader.  I get clients who ask “but don’t readers want more action?  More suspense?  A likeable protagonist?”  The result is usually a hodge-podge of humor, thrilling chases or superfluous murder, with a pandering “he may be a bastard, but he rescues puppies” scene shoehorned in.

Don’t do that.

Look at your character.  Will your audience understand his/her goal, and the motivation behind it?  Will they be able to relate, even if it isn’t a goal they’d particularly want?  Is your character compelling enough to keep the reader along for the ride?  Characters don’t have to be “likable.”  They can’t be boring, though.  Avoid generic.

Pull out these questions whenever you get off track.

Nine times out of ten, when I’m working with an author who is stuck, it’s because they’ve strayed from one or more of the above five questions.  Just asking themselves these questions usually gets them unstuck in a hurry.

Last ten days for editing special.

I’m running my editing special for the month of January.  It’s the only one I run all year.  If you need someone to look through your novel and help you with the structure, flow, and characterization, then now’s the perfect time.  If your novel’s not quite ready, you can reserve the rate for use on any single 500 page or less project through 2014.  Click here for more details.

Daylight’s burning, peeps.  Let’s write some stories. 🙂