What should you do if you get stuck while writing a novel?
I've had a lot of writers reach out to me via email or in my private Facebook group asking this exact question. It’s also something that happens to all of us at one time or another -- we all get stuck at some point int he writing process.
So, in today's post, I'm going to walk you through my favorite strategies for getting unstuck with your writing. Whether you're stuck at the beginning of a draft, or somewhere in the middle, you can use these strategies to help you get back on track and moving forward with your writing again.
More often than not, writers get stuck because a piece of their story’s foundation isn’t fully developed yet. So, the first thing you'll want to do if you're feeling stuck is to "zoom-out" and look at the big picture of your story before making any changes at the scene level.
To get a glimpse of your story's big picture, ask these three questions:
A lot of the writers I work with get stuck because they don’t have a sense of what their story’s main genre is. And this is kind of like going on a road trip without actually knowing where you’re headed. If you don’t have some kind of roadmap, it’s super easy to get lost.
So, as an example, let’s say you’re writing a fantasy novel but you haven’t drilled down into what kind of fantasy novel you’re writing -- is it a romance? An action story? A coming-of-age story? A murder mystery? Something else?
This is important because having a sense of your story’s main genre can help you answer all kinds of other questions about your story when you get stuck.
For example, each content genre tackles one main topic or theme like love, survival, meaning, growing up, success, etc. Each content genre works to evoke certain emotions in readers, too. If you're stuck in any of these areas, you can lean on your story's main genre for answers.
I can't go into all the details here, but if you want to learn more about genre and why it’s important, you can go check out this blog post or episode #2 of the Fiction Writing Made Easy podcast.
Your protagonist needs to be pursuing something specific because this is essentially what the whole story is all about. Will your protagonist succeed in getting what they want and need? Or will they fail? Or will they get what they need but not what they want?
This is also what creates the engine that drives your whole story forward. Every scene in your novel should be in service of this pursuit to get what your protagonist wants and needs. So, if you don’t know what your protagonist wants and needs, this is probably why you’re feeling stuck or like you’ve run out of steam.
In episode #7 of the Fiction Writing Made Easy podcast, I talked about how to flesh out your protagonist by asking five key questions before you start writing. So, if you think this is the reason you’re stuck, go have a listen to that episode or read this blog post.
If you don’t know the answer to this question yet, it’s going to be really hard to know what’s important in your story and/or which direction to take with your plot.
So, for example, let’s say you have too many subplots and you’re feeling stuck because your story now feels overwhelming. Well, if you know the theme of your book, you can look through that lens of your story’s theme to help you make some of these big decisions. Do certain subplots support or contradict your story’s theme more than others? If so, those are the ones you will probably want to keep.
That’s just one example -- you can also look at your characters, your scenes, your settings -- all kinds of things -- through the lens of your story’s theme.
So, if you’re not sure what your story’s theme is, check out episode #5 of the Fiction Writing Made Easy podcast where I walk you through three questions that will help you uncover the theme of your story.
Once you know the main genre of your story, you can look at the obligatory scenes and conventions of your genre for guidance and inspiration.
In case you’ve never heard these terms before, obligatory scenes are the key events, decisions, and discoveries that help move your protagonist on a journey from A to Z.
Conventions are the character roles, settings, and micro-events that are specific to a certain genre. And together, these obligatory scenes and conventions are what help you write a story that works, and that will satisfy fans of a specific genre.
Understanding these obligatory scenes and conventions for your genre can help you get unstuck in a few different ways.
First, knowing the key scenes that typically show up in your genre can help you flesh out and structure your story. So, let’s say you know the middle of your story is falling flat and you’re out of ideas -- well, you can look up the obligatory scenes for your genre to help you figure out what kinds of moments you might be missing.
Second, by looking up the conventions that are specific to your genre, you might get new ideas for character roles or subplots. So, let’s say your genre usually includes a mentor figure and maybe you don’t have one in your draft yet. You can either add one in or assign the role of mentor to another character who might not have a fully realized purpose yet.
So, again, if you want to learn more about genre, you can check out episode #2 of the Fiction Writing Made Easy podcast or this blog post that's all about genre.
You might also like episode #16 or this blog post where I talk about the difference between genre conventions and tropes (especially if you’re feeling worried that using your genre’s obligatory scenes and conventions means you’ll write a formulaic or predictable story).
As an example, let’s say I’m writing a fantasy story and my main content genres are action and worldview. So, that means my protagonist is essentially coming-of-age and will be fighting for his survival.
Beyond that, I might have two subplots that I could classify as mystery and romance. That means I can use the obligatory scenes and conventions of the mystery and romance genres to help me map out my subplots.
I really like this method because it always gets the creative juices flowing. Sometimes seeing how a subplot might look within the overarching story can help you come up with ideas for your main plot, too.
Using my example of an action/worldview novel, and knowing I have a mystery subplot might mean that my character needs to solve the mystery in order to survive the threat of the antagonist.
If I know there's going to be a romance subplot in there, too, I can start to see how maybe my protagonist and his love interest could work together to solve the mystery so that they can both come out the other side of this story alive.
So, not only does it really help get the creative juices flowing, but it can help you write a well structured and cohesive feeling story, too.
Whether you're a plotter or a pantser, having a flexible outline for your story can help in a few different ways.
First, let’s say you’re stuck in the middle of writing your draft and you don’t know how to move forward. What I’d recommend doing is creating a quick outline of all the scenes you already have and then brainstorming the way forward using the outline you just created.
So, instead of wasting time and energy writing out complete scenes that may or may not work, you can use your outline as a way to test out new ideas or go down different plot paths to see which one feels like the best direction.
You can also do this is if you’re starting a new story. So, let’s say you have multiple ideas for a story and you’re not sure which direction to take with the plot or your character’s arc. Well, if you just jot down a quick outline of how things might play out and see which one feels better, you’ll not only avoid wasting time and energy writing full scenes but you may also end up with a roadmap for the way forward, too.
The key point here is that your outline is flexible. So, for this strategy to work, you need to be willing to let your outline grow and change as you get to know your story better.
A lot of writers create an outline at the beginning of the writing process and then abandon it after they start writing or when things change. Instead, try using your outline as a way to capture new ideas or notes about changes you want to make in the scenes you’ve already written.
You can even use your outline to work through how those new ideas or changes might ripple out and affect other parts of your story, too. So, not only will this will help you stay organized and test out new ways forward, but it will also allow you to build a sense of internal logic into your story, too.
A lot of times, writers get stuck in the middle of a draft because there’s a lack of narrative drive in the story. Narrative drive is the sense of forward momentum that propels the reader from page one to "The End."
In a good story that works, there’s this sense of cause and effect -- if this thing happens, then this next thing has to happen.
And when this sense of cause and effect is missing, it seems like we intuitively know something’s wrong with our work but we can’t figure out why or what it is.
So, this strategy is all about looking at each of your existing scenes to make sure that there’s a sense of narrative drive -- or a sense that one thing leads to the next thing.
What you might find is that there’s just a bunch of random things that happen in your story or to your protagonist. And if that’s the case, if it’s probably time to back up and figure out what your story is really about.
To do that, you can use strategy number one and ask yourself -- What’s the genre of this story? What does my protagonist want and need? What’s the theme or message of my story? Make sure you have those foundational elements figured out before moving forward.
And if you already have these big picture things figured out, then I want you to go listen to episode #12 and #13 of the Fiction Writing Made Easy podcast that are all about narrative drive. In episode #13, there's a list of ten questions that can help you evaluate the narrative drive in your story if you feel like it’s broken.
So, hopefully, one (or a few) of those strategies will help you get unstuck and moving forward with your writing again. Sometimes it just takes trying one strategy and other times, it takes a combination of a few different strategies to get moving. Every story is different so just be patient and don't give up!
If you’re having a hard time getting started with your writing, or if you’re feeling stuck on the opening pages of your story, I have a brand new workshop called “How to Hook Readers in Your First 5 Pages.” In this workshop, I’ll walk you through the five things you need to include in the opening pages of your story AND I’ll show you how these key elements show up in the first five pages of The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. Click here to learn more or to sign up.
👉 What do you think? Will you try one of these strategies the next time you're feeling stuck? Do you have any favorite strategies that aren't mentioned here? Let us know in the comments below!
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