Tuesday, March 26

Posted by Laurel Garver on Tuesday, March 26, 2013 12 comments
I recently returned from my first writing retreat, which was a somewhat tough experience, because I was trying to wrangle a "problem child" manuscript. Forcing myself to write through the block made one thing very clear--I'd taken some wrong turns early on. Last night my critique group met and helped me pinpoint key choices I made in chapter three that are at the root of getting repeatedly stuck and frustrated ever after.

If you find yourself frequently hitting walls as you draft, learn from my mistake and ask a few trusted readers to take a look at your opening chapters sooner rather than later. Sometimes a decision that seemed logical to you won't to another reader. Pinpointing those issues early on will save you a lot of grief.

When you drive without GPS and take a wrong turn somewhere, plowing ahead will only get you more lost. That's when you need to stop and retrace your steps back to the place where you did have a sense of direction. (Or stop and ask for directions.)

In the case of a story, that means rewind. Go back to the last place where the story was working at its full potential, then slowly read on in search of the wrong turn.

Here are some common culprits:

~Protagonist loses sight of his/her objective

~Protagonist's desire or motivation shifts unexpectedly

~A character does something with no logical motivation

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

~A character overreacts and conflict escalates or resolution happens too soon

~A character underreacts and forward motion doesn't happen

~A secondary character or subplot suddenly steals center stage

~A plot complication is too low-stakes

~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 complications or obstacles too soon

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

~You need to introduce secondary characters sooner and make them pull their weight

~You have no subplots, or you've failed to keep moving a subplot forward

~You've given inadequate attention to the protagonist's inner journey

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 analytic thought in a moment of panic. Or perhaps the plot complication I introduced is not high stakes enough to trigger the big emotions I need to move the story forward. Balancing plot with characterization is a tricky dance.

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. Great post. Often for me, I just don't give the reader enough information. It's always so jarring when I'm editing--a character's words or actions seem completely random because I haven't given the reader enough information to justify the character's response.

    1. We know so much about our characters that might never make it to the page so its easy to accidentally withhold information. Other eyes on our work help a lot with that.

  2. Great suggestions. Glad your CP's could help you. I'm at the point of querying my first manuscript but an agent at WriteOnCon said it didn't sound different than what he's seen. So I'm rethinking mine and seeing if there's a unique twist I could put on it. After years of revision, I'm convinced most problems can be solved. Hopefully yours can too.

    1. I also remember a line in _Save the Cat_, "give the audience more of the same, but different." LOL. By that he meant, twists on existing genres and tropes usually do well. You simply have to figure out what your twist will be. Tricky but not impossible. Good luck!

  3. LOL. And this is where plotting comes in handy. ;) Thankfully my plot engineer is my husband, and typically before I start, I've been hanging with my characters for a couple years, so they're pretty well fleshed out. --But I definitely think there's always room to up the stakes on the plot, and there is the occasion when a character's motivation isn't crystal clear. Great thoughts!

    1. I like the idea of pre-planning everything, but haven't had any success doing it. It's usually not until I've experimented quite a bit that I can outline and have the story not feel forced. Our plot and characterization failures do teach us and for some are simply the bramble field one must pass through to get to the castle.

  4. What a great list. I haven't thought of some of these. Thanks for sharing the insights.


    1. In my case, I start throwing in more complications and people when something isn't working, but I've critiqued pieces that were stuck because not enough was going on. Both mess and monotony can stall a project.

  5. My wrong turns often involve things getting flat and boring. I've either taken the characters down an uninteresting road, or missed a chance to introduce a complication.

    1. I hope the rewind technique helps you find a better path and pinpoint places to raise stakes.

  6. This is really fantastic advice, thank you! I'm copying it into my writing folder. :)

    1. As they say, hindsight is 20/20. :-) I frequently write myself into corners and have to use this technique a lot.