Thursday, December 2

Posted by Laurel Garver on Thursday, December 02, 2010 17 comments
When you hit a place where you just can't move your story forward, it's frustrating in the extreme. It's not like you have nothing to say, but rather that the next plot action seems to be on the other side of a deep chasm.

At times, you might be able to brainstorm the perfect narrative bridge to get you across. Or perhaps you can jump cut past potentially boring filler actions that can be summed up in a sentence or two of narrative summary.

But many times, hitting this place is a sign you've taken a wrong turn somewhere and plowing ahead will only get you more lost. That's when you need to stop and rewind. Find the last place where you thought the story was working at its full potential, then slowly read on in search of the wrong turn.

Here are some common culprits:

~Main character loses sight of his/her objective

~Character desire or motivation shifts unexpectedly

~Character does something with no logical motivation

~Character doesn't do something s/he'd logically be motivated to do

~Character overreacts and conflict escalates or resolution happens too soon

~Character underreacts and forward motion doesn't happen

~A secondary character or subplot suddenly steals center stage

~You have no subplots

~Early information dump leaves too little surprise to be revealed later

~You've withheld information that would enable forward movement

~You've introduced too many characters--some aren't important or interesting

~You need to introduce a secondary character sooner

Whether your story is plot-driven or character-driven, emotions are the real energy behind it all, so developing characters' emotions well and "on pitch" is the core challenge. Thus, it's very often characterization issues that get us off course most frequently.

Every time I've made a wrong turn with plot, there were seeds of off-pitch emotions behind it. Those off-pitch moments can start very, very subtly--a yelp when a gasp would do, an analytical thought in a moment of panic.

Don't be surprised when you rewind to discover a seemingly nothing moment that inadvertently set the wrong tone, which then snowballed all other emotions in the wrong direction. Tweak that moment, and you'd be surprised how quickly you're back on course again.

How might the rewind concept help you?


  1. Wow, Laurel, this is a lot to think about and so helpful. You nailed this post.

  2. This is so helpful especially since I am experiencing this now. Thanks so much for these tips! I really needed them right now.

  3. This is a lot to think about and some great tips. A really helpful post. Thanks.

  4. Excellent post Laurel. Really insightful and something I shall put in my backpack for the journey! Thanks

  5. Excellent checklist. I'm going back to the beginning of my YA novel for the third time because I felt that the voice I had when I started writing isn't the right one for the book. It also has to do with some of the things you've mentioned here: characters reacting according/opposite of their motivation; pace at which conflicts are set up and resolved.

    I'll be checking on this list periodically.

  6. This is really great advice! Sometimes I try to just write through the bad patches to get to something better. Then, once I get to that better place I can go back and fix what was wrong and help bridge the gap. Those are great ideas of things to think about though!

  7. This is incredibly helpful! I've been in this situation dozens of times, feeling stuck and not knowing why. It's not writer's block, I know what to write next, it just doesn't feel write. I often have to go back and edit something having to do with motivations or pacing. Thanks for posting!

  8. * doesn't feel RIGHT.

    Clearly, writing is on my mind. :)

  9. Excellent post! I'm going to copy this and put it in my file! I've been in this situation a dozen of times with the same wip. I think I finally have it all together though- or at least I hope so!

  10. Huh. I never thought of it that way. Definitely going to hang on to the why's! Thanks Laurel!

  11. Hi Laurel -

    I'm having some difficulty in my current WIP. Thanks for the "rewind" tip.

    I loved the "off-pitch" analogy. It brought Simon Cowell, of American Idol, to mind. :)


  12. Great list! Sometimes to go forward, we have to go backwards!

  13. This makes so much sense. Fantastic post. I think I need to rewind.
    Thanks and have a great weekend!

  14. Tricia: Thanks! I thought I'd share my aha moment to help others get back on track.

    Saumya: glad it was a timely post.

    Dominic: Great metaphor! Backpack for the journey. Love it.

    Y2: It is interesting how things like voice and characterization issues can effect the plot and send it off course. Good luck with your revision!

  15. Lisa: It's when the plowing ahead is getting you more lost--like it had been for me these past few months--that I tried the rewind method (for which I owe big thanks to James Scott Bell's Plot & Structure.)

    Shelley: motivations and emotional trueness are THE hardest thing to get right, and it can take several scene rewrites to really nail. I'm learning to be less of a perfectionist and just try things until the scene feels right.

    Kelly: it's good for revisions as well as stuck places in drafting.

    Colene: Hope it proves helpful!

  16. Susan: If only I could "hear" the off-pitch moments in my own writing as quickly as I can in a musical setting. I guess that means my fictional "ear" needs continued training.

    Laura: Indeed it's true. Sometimes drafting is a bit like being in a maze. You can hit deadends and need to retrace your steps and chose a different route.

    Christine: Glad it's helpful. Have a great weekend yourself!

  17. These are really great points- I always try to think about stuff like that when I'm stuck and just staring at my computer screen. It's nice to have a reminder of things to look for!