Stuck? Yeah, me too. It’s the worst, isn’t it, when you get a few hundred or even a few thousand words into a story, you’ve got some great prose going, you like your characters and the concept… but you don’t know where to go next. This has always been the major cause of story abandonment for me. I have plenty of promising writing that hit that dead end and never got any further.
My creative writing professor in college, Nic Brown, seemed to have an uncanny talent for guiding me in the right direction in just a few sentences of conversation. A story I’d been stuck on for weeks would suddenly have a clear and obvious direction after answering a few of the questions Nic posed about it.
Unfortunately, I can’t offer you guys Nic Brown (it’s too bad, you would like him). However, I can offer you the questions he most commonly asked to help me figure out where my story should be headed next. They’re pretty basic, but most of the time that’s what we need in order to take a step back and look at the big picture.
#1 — what does the main character want?
If you can’t come up with the answer to this question quickly, your story is probably directionless. Sometimes a story can seem motivated because the main character is forced into circumstances that are interesting. But you don’t want a passive main character, you want an active one. Your lead needs to want something, and work towards it. Otherwise, we don’t get invested in them achieving their goal.
If you come up with multiple answers to this question, it’s possible that you’re getting lost because your story is too crowded. It might be a good idea to narrow the focus of your story and eliminate some excess plot points. You don’t necessarily have to get rid of all the other things your character wants, but you definitely have to choose one that’s most important.
Once you figure out what your character wants, make sure that it’s clear to the reader, and your plot is moving towards this ideal. Your character doesn’t necessarily need to achieve it, but it needs to be driving the story.
#2 — what is stopping them from getting it?
Okay, your main character wants something. Why don’t they have it already? What’s in their way?
If the answer is “nothing,” that’s a problem. You’re writing a story that we, the readers, don’t care about. We might as well put the book down right now — we know your character will achieve their goal, because there’s nothing stopping them.
Once you know what the obstacle is, the question becomes… has your main character confronted it? Regardless of what is going on in your story, your lead has to come face-to-face with whatever is stopping them from achieving their goals. It’s up to you if they defeat this obstacle or are defeated by it, but if they never come together on the page, what’s the point of even having an obstacle?
You might be stuck because it’s time to put your main character and your obstacle together. (And let’s be honest… it’s always time for that. That’s what your readers are going to find most compelling no matter what.)
#3 — what is the most important relationship in the story?
This was something Nic came back to over and over again, because ultimately, all stories are about people. You can have a whole book full of action and suspense and complex plot issues, but what makes writing important to people is the emotional connection.
Again, if you can’t pick a relationship, your story might be too broad in scope, and need some narrowing. Real people have lots of important relationships, but you’re not writing a biography, you’re writing a story. Focus on the specific story you want to tell, and figure out what relationship drives it.
If you find that your character doesn’t have any relationships, then it’s no wonder you’re stuck. Identify (or invent) other characters that your character has relationships with. They can be any kind of relationships: Working relationships, romantic relationships, family relationships, platonic relationships.
Once you’ve identified the most important relationship, you have to make sure that they interact on the page. This was something Nic was always vehement about, much to my frustration when I completed Thirty Thousand Feet, a short story about a girl mourning her grandfather, and was told that if my most important relationship was with a dead character, my story, too, was dead from the start. (That’s not to say that your character can’t deal with grief — just know the rules before you break them!)
Once I started explaining the whole plot of a story I was stuck on to Nic and he interrupted me. “What’s the most important relationship in the story?” he asked. “Put those two people on the page.” That was it. That was our whole conversation. I went straight home and finished the story in a single sitting. Once I put the two most important characters in scene together, the story practically wrote itself.
#4 — how does your character change?
This is most helpful when you’re nearing the end of the story. You can set a goal for your character, make them interact with the right people, and then make them achieve that goal, but your story will still fall flat if your character doesn’t change.
Through those important interactions, through the achievement (or failure) of a goal, something about your character needs to change. Usually this is through growth, but that’s not a hard-and-fast rule. Over the course of Safe as Houses, Grace overcomes her self-doubt and gains the strength to lead. In Cassiopeia, Anthony recognizes his own power and takes control of his future. These are the final realizations that drive stories home and make them feel finished and stay with readers.
Next time you’re stuck, try asking yourself these questions. And — this is important — don’t let yourself wriggle out of answering them honestly. If you find yourself saying, “Well, yeah, but in this story it’s different…” remember that you’re stuck for a reason. To some degree, what you’re doing isn’t working. Don’t be afraid to overhaul it and stray from your original plan.
What do you do to power through when you get stuck in a story? Let’s discuss in the comments!