You’re stuck? Too bad. How to write a novel–part 34

Roll_a_boulder smWhere did it all go wrong? Your story was cooking along nicely right up until– Hm. Somehow, somewhere along the way, something happened–either to the plot or your enthusiasm. Maybe both. Or maybe it was something else, some wrong turn, loose end, or forgotten clue. Now it’s sitting forlorn and half-finished, give or take a few thousand words, with a formerly proud parent in hand-wringing mode trying to decide how best to achieve some kind of consolation. [Hint: bourbon works, but it’s only temporary, and it won’t do anything to get the story back on track.]

Just knowing you aren’t the first to slide into this sad state doesn’t help much. Nor does the knowledge that the universe is awash in unfinished/trunked/junked or klunked manuscripts. Back burners from Beantown to Bora Bora are crowded with stories that started out great then turned into whimpering piles of literary slag, or snot, or worse. But, before you work your way through all the supposed stages of grief–probably somewhere between depression and acceptance (but after denial, anger and bargaining)–understand that there might be hope.

More than likely, the problem lies in one of three areas: there’s a plot problem–be it primary or secondary; there’s a major lack of conflict; or your characters aren’t pulling their weight. Naturally, each of these groupings has a variety of constituent issues. I’ll tackle the first area here, then move on to the others in my next post.

Without reading what you’ve done so far it’s impossible to diagnose specific plot problems. What I can discuss are issues commonly associated with plot problems. The first of these is boredom. Your plot simply doesn’t hold your attention. It probably did when you started, but now? Meh. Not so much.

Why? And more importantly, what to do?

portrait of man thinking1) You could start by dreaming up a subplot. Find something that’ll shake up your characters and give one or more of them something to worry about. Even if your subplot unwinds quickly, it’ll shift attention away from your sagging primary plot. If it’s more involved, it could amplify the main storyline.

Subplots needn’t be complex. They can start with something as simple as an odd turn, an unexpected shift in attitude, or a mystery–something that just doesn’t seem to make sense. Nor are you limited in the number of subplots you concoct. As long as you have a decent stable of characters to link them to, you can dream up as many subplots as you can keep track of.

2) There’s a good chance you have no bloody idea where your story is going. (Listen up, pantsers!) You’ve got at least three options:

A- Find the plot holes now, and fix ’em. You probably know where they are, or at the very least, you’ve got suspicions about where they are. Take the time now to identify them and figure out how you’re going to plug those holes.

B- Outline your opus, even if you had an outline to begin with, because obviously, it ain’t working. Go back and outline it again–start to finish–based on what you’ve written, not on what you intended to write before you got sidetracked, your car died, or your dear aunt Sue married the abominable snowman/used car salesman. Use whatever outline format works for you, from the most detailed to the least. Just do it!

C- If the thought of outlining is more than you can bear, do at least one thing: figure out how your story ends. Nail it down–who lives, who doesn’t, everything. Write it down, too. Don’t mess around with this, it’s critical.

Next up: a couple other ways to rescue your tome from the toilet.

–Josh

About joshlangston

Grateful and well-loved husband, happy grandparent, novelist, editor, and teacher. My life plate is full, and I couldn't be happier. Anything else I might add would be anticlimactic. Cheers!
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