Sunday, January 18, 2015

4 Tips To Get Your Story Back On Track

Every choice your character makes leads to whatever is going to happen next. As an author—the evil mustache-twirling mastermind behind the story – figuring out what that thing is will undoubtedly fall somewhere between semi-perplexing and bang head against the wall until your eyes cross. And it will happen over and over and over again, because what are stories if not a constant string of What Comes Nexts?

So how do we wade through the murky territory of story decisions without turning into Artax in the Swamp of Sadness—overwhelmed and despairing that we’ll never come up with a kick ass plot?

I won’t tell you that I know the 7 words that will make a woman love you* how to eradicate Swamp of Sadness Syndrome, but I can share a few tips that may help you out if your story gets stuck.

1)      Goals & Motivation.

In the current scene, what does your character want and why do they want it? This is the first thing I look at when my characters start bumbling around and the plot feels like it’s going nowhere. A good amount of the time, I’ve lost sight of what the characters want and why any of it matters. Making sure this is clear on the page and focusing your scene around it will go a long, long way toward getting things back on track.
2)      Conflict.

If you have lost sight of your characters goals and motivations, chances are there’s not a lot of conflict going on either. Things can’t really oppose your characters in a meaningful way if they aren’t actively working toward something. Once you’ve reacquainted yourself (and the story) to # 1, it’s a lot easier to find inherent conflicts to torture your characters with.

3)      Stakes.

Your characters can have a goal and firm motivations for achieving it. Things can stand in their way — even big scary things with lots of sharp teeth – but if your characters have nothing to lose if they fail, any conflict you establish will feel contrived. The reader won’t care whether the characters achieve the scene goal. So, if  you don’t a ton of work setting up Goals, Motivation, and Conflict but you feel like your scene is still falling flat, it might be time to reexamine what your characters have at stake if they fail and make sure that it’s coming across on the page.

4)      Putting it all together.

In my opinion, this can be the hardest part because on the scene level, there might be several options goals, motivations, conflicts, and stakes. If I’m going to get really, truly stuck, there is where and when it happens.

So how do you decide THE BEST course of action? If you’re anything like me, it’s right about now that you:

* stare at the screen
* write a few words
* stare anxiously at what you wrote
* pound the delete key
* gorge self on *insert favorite snack and/or wine here*
* wash, rinse, repeat, and/or decide that you totally suck at life and go watch TV instead
* sink into the Swamp of Sadness

Here’s what I’ve figured out, though. Your stuckness (yeah, I know stuckness isn’t a real word) isn’t for lack of NOT know what comes next. Which, is actually a pretty awesome problem to have, because nine times out of ten there are bunches of possibilities floating around in your head. I call this brain freeze. It’s a state of being overwhelmed by too many potential story paths, and the only solution is to sit down and sort it all out.  

This is when I bust out the pen and paper and move away from the computer. Ladies and Gentlemen, it’s time for the What If list.

I don’t why, but I have to write “What if…” before every idea I have, like a promise to myself that whatever I come up with is only a suggestion that I’m in no way obligated to run with. Now I’m ready to put it all down, bullet point style. What if character makes X decision? Then I note the possible outcomes. Or what about if she makes X decision instead? Then I note those outcomes. I do this for all the possible choices I can think up.

Next, I pick the most intriguing options and bullet point their consequences, conflicts, and what my character stands to gain or lose from making that choice. Eventually, I find myself with one or two options that really take off. Connections between what I’ve already written and what I’ve outlined for future chapters are made.

If, by the end of this process, there’s still more than one really good choice, I evaluate each based on steps 1, 2, & 3 in relation to the current scene and also the story as a whole. Which path aligns itself more closely to the direction I want the plot to take?  99.9% of the time, I’ve not only worked out what I need to happen next, but I can’t wait to start writing it!

*Bonus points if you get the reference and say so in the comments. J


1 comment:

  1. AWESOME tips!!! Thanks so much for putting them all in one place! Right now, I'm revising my NaNo novel and these are going to help whip it into shape. :)