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What to do when you have no idea where to take the story?

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Netardapope, May 23, 2017.

  1. Netardapope

    Netardapope Sage

    My favorite part of writing is the amount of mental suffering that it brings me on a daily basis. And seeing as folk of our ilk tend to wallow in similar miseries, I was wondering if anyone had any advice on getting past a slump.

    For some context, I've reached a point in my story that is supposed to be very interesting, yet, seeing as how the narrative has opened up, I genuinely have no idea where to go from here. I have an outline for the story made, so I know every event that has to occur, but I'm getting to a point that I find it difficult to make these events occur organically. I've been following the outline so far (along with a decent share of deviations), and while I intend to finish with this outline, I feel like many of the events that will occur through it will feel forced.

    I had a very clear picture of where I wanted the story to go yesterday, but the moment I woke up this morning, an impending sense of dread of what is to come has been suffocating me. I feel like I want to take a risk, but at this stage in the book, these "risks" could easily cause permanent structural damage to my story, an issue that caused me to abandon a previous novel. I also feel that if I don't take a risk, the next few chapters will feel incredibly mundane.

    I have finished a long first draft in the past, yet it feels as though I'm back to being a kid that just recently picked up writing as a hobby. My initial insecurities with writing have begun to resurface in me, and I don't know what to do about it.

    Should I just force myself to continue writing this first draft, until I get out of this section and into something (hopefully) more interesting? Or should I take an hour or two to sit down and think through this?
  2. Coldblue

    Coldblue Dreamer

    Honestly when it comes to pushing through or holding off there is no tried and true answer, only the one that is right for you at the time. The more important thing is recognizing that when you don't love what you're writing, chances are your readers aren't going to love reading it either.

    In one of my rewrites I decided to kill off a main character where I hadn't before. I made it maybe twenty pages deeper, but I could never shake the feeling that I was simply making the wrong decision. So, the character lived.

    Don't force your events. If your characters and story are telling you zig and you zag, chances are you're going to crash into a wall. There is probably some solution that will let you take your big risk and get where you want to go that you're not seeing yet, so maybe let your thoughts percolate a little bit first. Most of my best ideas come in the shower or at the gym when I'm letting my brain just go free.

    Good luck!
  3. pmmg

    pmmg Auror

    Fortune favors the bold, so I favor taking a risk. Worst case, I toss it all and start over.

    But, part of writing is sometimes getting through the slow part to get back to the cool stuff that is to follow. It wont write itself. If the inspiration is not there, take some time to think on and come back when it is. If the characters are telling you they would do something the story had not planned for, I think is worth letting them go and see what happens.

    If you sit, and think, and wait and the inspiration does not come, then maybe just getting the scene out ugly is the best choice. It wont survive in editing anyway, but why let it hold up the whole story?
  4. Michael K. Eidson

    Michael K. Eidson Archmage

    This made me think of K.M. Weiland's blog post about the 4 stages of mastery: When Does Writing Get Easier? The 4 Steps to Mastery - Helping Writers Become Authors. I think you might be at stage 2: He That Knows Not and Knows That He Knows Not. :) Or maybe you're at 3: He That Knows, and Knows Not That He Knows. You're definitely past stage 1: He That Knows Not and Knows Not That He Knows Not. I'm at either stage 2 or 3 myself. The problem with stage 3 is that by definition, you don't know that you're in it.

    There are days I, too, feel as you describe. Yesterday was the most recent, but then, I haven't had opportunity to write on my WIP today. :) I write to an outline, but I also discovery write during scenes. Sometimes this discovery writing takes me into left field, and I have to get out the editor's hedges and trim it all back. Sometimes the discovery writing opens up new avenues that I hadn't considered when I wrote the outline, and which take the story along a more interesting and organic path. When that happens, I have to reassess my outline. Do I change it extensively, or can this new path be brought back to the outline and grafted in? How does the new path work with the story structure? If it wrecks the structure, then can I move this new text to some other part of the story, or do I still need to simply kill it?

    Yesterday, I wrote several paragraphs of discovery writing on a scene, and at a point had to stop and reassess. I was diverging significantly from the outline, and it appeared that story structure would be impacted negatively. I had to axe part of the new stuff, trimming it back far enough to reign it in to fit the story structure, but kept a new idea that had been born. When I first realized that what I'd discovery written wasn't going to work as it was, I felt depressed about it. I got that feeling of inadequacy. But I pushed on with what I instinctively knew I had to do, and after the edit, I felt excited. The new idea only requires a local change to the outline, but gives a richer, more organic feel to the story.

    There have been times when I had to do more extensive changes. I'd get this feeling that something was wrong with the story, something I couldn't quite put my finger on. It usually turned out that I just didn't want to put my finger on it, because what needed to be done in that particular instance looked akin to rewriting the whole book. I've actually taken that step twice. It's basically the same as throwing away what I did before and starting over, using some of the same ideas. That's when I really feel depressed: finishing a book to the point of having beta readers provide feedback, and then realizing from the feedback that the story is mostly crap and having to start again. It's not a complete restart, because feedback has told me what I did right, and I have that to work with.

    My advice in your case would be to do one of three things: 1) force yourself to write this chapter now, no matter how badly, and then come back to it later, 2) skip the rest of this chapter and continue writing to your outline in the next chapter as though this chapter was okay, coming back later to fill in the missing bits, or 3) assess what you've written so far, and see if there's a point you can roll back to where you felt good about it. With option 3, if the roll back point is not too far back, then it's easy enough to do the trim now, and you might feel better about the story for making that course correction immediately instead of waiting until later.

    I don't recommend ditching the WIP completely or starting over on it now. Do your best to finish this story. Then assess the entire process to see where you need to improve. If you ditch projects as soon as the going gets rough, you run the risk of getting very good at ditching projects instead of finishing projects. You're already aware that this writing gig is not easily or quickly done by most people. It would be arrogant to think it will be easily and quickly done for yourself. So pay the dues if you want to stay in the club, and do what you must to get on with the writing. :)
    Netardapope and pmmg like this.
  5. Netardapope

    Netardapope Sage

    It's a rough road ahead...but it need not be traveled alone!

    I'll get to reading that blog on mastery. Seems interesting.

    Sent from my SM-J700M using Tapatalk
    Michael K. Eidson likes this.
  6. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    This happens to me with depressing regularity. I think I know why, but I don't have a good feel for how to avoid it or to fix it.

    It happens, this grinding-to-a-halt, how-did-we-get-here feeling, when I am paying attention to the plot rather than to the characters. I may be over-reading your OP, but a phrase leapt out at me (landed on my arm, it did): I know every even that has to occur.

    Me too. In my Benighted Past, I laid out all the big events, and lots of the smaller ones in between. I even had character arcs. What I did not do was, at every decision point, ask this question: what *might* my character do here? Not what *must* the character do, in order to get from Plot Point 7 to Plot Point 8, but what crazy, foolish, cowardly, heroic or impulsive thing might he do? What happens if he turns around and goes home. What if he gets into an argument?

    In short, I was not getting my characters involved in the plot. Exactly as you describe, I got to where events happened, but they felt empty to me, like putting puppets through their paces (very nice alliteration, that). No disrespect to puppeteers.

    I have started paying much more attention to writing advice that concentrates on characters and motivation, and less on plot structure. Both are important, of course, but for me I feel I have the latter down pretty well and need to work on the former. Some of Donald Maas' stuff has proved helpful.
    FifthView and Netardapope like this.
  7. Lisselle

    Lisselle Minstrel

    I always write a 'test' story when I'm stuck. I don't touch my original manuscript, so I copy and paste the chapters I am stuck on, and then I take every risk and challenge I can in order to see where I can take the story, or where the characters take the story, or the events, etc. There is no commitment, so I am brave and experimental with these test chapters, and most of the time I touch on an idea I love, and incorporate it into my manuscript.

    I was stuck on the end of my third book for two years. I knew where and how the story needed to finish, yet achieving this finale was impossible. So I'd edit and re-write to that point, then close book three and start editing and re-writing books one and two again! Finally, this April, I dreamed the conclusion, and it all flowed beautifully, so I have completed my trilogy and now embark upon endless edits to make sure all is how I wish it to be, and to tie in the ideas I introduced in the last four chapters of book 3.

    Good luck. :)
    Netardapope likes this.
  8. Netardapope

    Netardapope Sage

    The puppet metaphor really got to me. My story's beginning was alight with "Humanity" (as far as my current writing skill level can portray that), but right now, my characters feel bland, and my world feels cookie-cutter.

    I've felt a bit better after taking my mind off though. Maybe tonight's writing session will prove different.

    Thanks for gving your two cents [emoji106]

    Sent from my SM-J700M using Tapatalk
    Lisselle likes this.
  9. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Istar

    Pound away, that's my advice. Heck, write it two or three different ways until you find what works. So you waste a few thousand words, BFD.

    But that's just me.
  10. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

    Funny thing is, I was listening to a recent Writing Excuses podcast the other day that focused on how game designers design their RPG games, or interactive fiction in general, and one basic concept might help you.

    Basically, these game designers have plot points for the story, but they want to offer players the experience of being able to make their own choices—without going off-track, since game designers need to have already-developed media for any major event in the game. One example was letting players decide how to cross a mountain, have maybe some exciting or interesting things happen, but end up in the valley where the next major plot event happens. Players can go under the mountain, over the mountain, take Pass A or Pass B, or whatever, but they'll end up in the valley regardless.

    This is a little like using Skip's suggestion of asking what the characters might do rather than only asking what they must do. But also: what else can you throw at them, between the two plot points?

    I don't think you'd want to introduce "random encounters" or side quests that have no bearing on the overall story. But maybe you can let the characters range a little bit. Maybe add a subplot or two, or something arising from their internal drives that leads them to a crooked path rather than a straight path between plot points.

    The trick, though, is making sure they still end up in the valley, whatever they do, heh.
    Netardapope likes this.
  11. RedAngel

    RedAngel Minstrel

    That is actually a really good way of putting it FifthView. Which podcast was that? I wouldn't mind listening to it.
    Netardapope likes this.
  12. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

  13. Rkcapps

    Rkcapps Sage

    I tend to break, watch a show, then try again...
  14. Gurkhal

    Gurkhal Auror

    One possible solution is to let a character speak up about something they've been thinking about, and so let the scene take a new direction and which can be connected with the main story a bit ahead of where you stopped. A sort of side-plot to move the main plot, kind of things.

    At least that's what I'm going to try out himself as being stuck for a while.
    Netardapope likes this.
  15. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

    If you feel like your characters are doing things because plot says so instead of decisions they make, I would suggest you look up scene-sequel structure.

    In scene sequel, there are two types of scenes, the action scene (called just a "scene") and the reaction scene (called a "sequel").

    The action scene has the following. A goal, an obstacle in the way of achieving that goal, and an outcome.

    For example, a simple story about a boy whose mom gives him five dollars and sends him to the store to pick up Aspirin for her headache. That's the main goal for the boy, pick up Aspirin from store. An obstacle in his way could be running into the bully that usually picks on him in school and takes away his lunch money.

    There will always be 4 possible outcomes to a goal in a scene, success, failure, success but consequences, failure and consequences. Until the end of the story there will never be an outright clear success. So really there are only three useful outcomes for most of the story, the last three mentioned.

    So lets say, the kid meets his bully, and the bully orders the kid to give him his money. So the kid failed to make it to the store, at least for now.

    Now this leads into the reaction scene or the sequel to the scene.

    A sequel has four basic elements. Emotional reaction to the failure of the goal in the action scene, the listing of the logical choices/paths available to the character, the consequences of choosing each of those paths, and finally the choice of which path to take. That choice of path becomes the new goal to a new action scene. Rinse repeat until end of story.

    For our boy facing his bully. His emotional reaction would be something like "Oh crap." and maybe he pees his pants a little. But once that's done, he faces choices. He could run, but the bully is faster than him. He could give the bully his money, but that would mean no Aspirin and his Mom would remain in pain. He could fight, but the bully is bigger than him. But the kid makes a choice and says screw it and kicks the bully in the shins and runs.

    New goal: get away from bully. Obstacle: fast bully. Outcome: the bully catches up to him and punches him in the stomach. Fail and consequence.

    Emotional reaction: Oh this hurts. I'm going to throw up. Logical choices and logical outcomes: continue to fight but will get beat up, give bully money but no Aspirin for Mom, cry for help but will get beat up worse for it. All seems lost, but then he sees a girl riding towards him on a bike really fast. With nothing to lose, he takes a chance and leaps on to the bike so he can get away from bully.

    He gets away from the bully, BUT it turns out the girl is being chase too, by the cops. She's a bike thief and now he's an accomplice. Success but consequences.

    He still has to get to the store for his Mom, but now he has to avoid getting arrested for a crime he didn't commit, and so it goes.

    And hopefully this bit of silliness helps illustrates how to use scene-sequel to link the events of your story together, so they flow from the decisions of your characters.

    Scene-sequel can get a lot more complicated when you get multiple goals form multiple plot lines, but the above illustrates the basics of it. I find it's really helpful in propelling a story forward.
    Last edited: May 24, 2017
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