Friday, September 9, 2011

How to Rescue a Stalled Plot

We’ve all been there at one time or another. Your story’s going along great and all of a sudden you come to a complete stop as though a stone wall stands in your path. Surprised and a little fearful, you can’t seem to get going again. You either abandon the project or put it aside, hoping you’ll eventually come back to it.

A good plot is like a good marriage. It begins with plenty of enthusiasm and energy, but after that first rush you have to settle in for the long haul. Your story has to deepen and acquire rich details so that your reader doesn’t lose interest. Sometimes, when you’ve run out of action and detail you might begin to hate your story and wish you’d never started it. That’s when you’ve run out of what William McCranor Henderson calls “character knowledge.” He says, “When you hit that wall and don’t know where to go next, the best solution is to dig deeper.”

Start by digging up intimate facts about your characters. Not everything about them, just the things we really need to know. Ideally, this includes the two or three key nuggets of personality or character history than can make you fall back in love with your story.

An example of character knowledge may be that Terry likes ice cream and is allergic to chocolate. These facts don’t necessarily add up to character knowledge unless they cause something crucial to happen in the story. If Terry is investigating a murder case and eats a dish of ice cream containing white chocolate that he’s unaware of, he may wind up in the hospital just as he’s about to crack the case. Or Julie comes down with a bad case of poison ivy just before her wedding because her jealous rival puts snippets of the woody vines in her bouquet.

One way to dig deeper into your character's past is to interview yourself. In a focused freewrite, you jot down a few lines and answer the questions honestly. Such as:

Q. Why would Johnny marry a girl he doesn’t love?

A. Her father owns a large company and will offer Johnny a management job. His wife will inherit the company some day, making Johnny a wealthy man. Maybe the old man will have an unfortunate accident and Johnny won’t have to wait that long for the money.

Q. But won’t his wife know that he doesn’t love her.

A. He’ll shower her with gifts and pretend that she’s the love of his life.

Q. But everyone thinks he’s a great guy.

A. So did I until I started digging into his character.

If you’re not getting the right answers from yourself, interview your characters.

Q. Why were you involved in the accident?

A. The road was slick and I lost control of my car.

Q. Weren't you paying attention to your driving?

A. I overcorrected because Sara distracted me.

Interviewing characters can reveal traits and faults you never knew existed, which can lead to various plot complications and solutions. Then, when you rewrite that blocked scene, you can take a new run at the wall and watch it disappear because you have character knowledge that allows you to view the scene through new eyes.

~Jean Henry Mead


Randy Rawls said...

I love your analogy that writing is like a marrige. Having been in both a few times, I can say that I agree. Writing can break your heart as profoundly as marriage.
Seriously, I understand what you're saying. I'm working on a book now that has been a struggle. I've walked away several times and concentrated on something different -- a shortstory or start another book. Then, I'm drawn back and the plot moves on.

Morgan Mandel said...

I agree. That analogy is priceless! It's not easy to sustain and grow a plot.

Morgan Mandel

Jean Henry Mead said...

No, its not easy to sustain a plot. I'm a little more than 5,000 words from the finish line with my latest novel and it's turned into a tooth pulling contest. I know how I want the book to end but need to make the conclusion unusual and exciting. Time to interview my characters again. :)

Earl Staggs said...

Good suggestions, Jean. I need to remember these thoughts next time I'm stuck.

Jean Henry Mead said...

Thanks, Earl. Writer's block is one of the biggest problem writers face. Especially those of us who write by the seat of our pants. :)

Carradee said...

Some great thoughts, though as a note, white chocolate isn't actually chocolate. So someone with a chocolate allergy can eat white chocolate without a reaction.

Artificial versions of things don't cause reactions unless the individual's allergic to them, too—but it's more common for folks to taste or see something something that resembles what they react to and have a psychosomatic reaction when their allergen isn't actually present.

I have a lot of allergies and intolerances of various types, and one of my good friends is allergic to chocolate. :)

Jean Henry Mead said...

As am I, Carradee, and white chocolate affects me the same way dark chocolate does. It makes me very sick. But, the message I was trying to get across is simply explore all avenues when you're stuck and can't go forward.