Gettin’ Unstuck, con’t. How to write a novel–part 35

Dollarphotoclub_61604780 smAssuming your plot works, and you have enough subplots to carry the load when your primary storyline begins to buckle, you might still be roadblocked by character issues. You wouldn’t be the first writer to discover your protagonist isn’t everything you thought she was. There’s a good chance you’ve found and fallen in love with one or more shiny new characters who do nifty things, get involved in deep mysteries, have passionate sex, or otherwise wrestle around in the Do Stuff portion of your hindbrain.

It’s time to trot those rascals out! Turn them into Point Of View players. Very often a different look at the same old problems–especially if skewed by an oddball perspective–will make the old stuff new again. Or at least more palatable.

Dollarphotoclub_61604780 sm2The logical alternative to having your characters do things, is to invent nasty things you can do to them. [Cue: evil laughter] Seriously, readers care more about how characters persevere than they do about how they look, what they say, or where they come from. The more dastardly the tricks you play, the more dear those players become in your reader’s mind.

Let’s reflect a moment on what makes a plot twist diabolical. In a perfect world, you’ll be introducing a threat which operates on two or more levels. Physical threats are the easiest: “Give up the secret, or we’ll cut your leg off.” Physical threats with an emotional component are a little harder, but just as effective: “Give up the secret, or we’ll cut your kid’s leg off.” Figuring out how to work in a philosophical threat is likely the hardest of all, but it, too, can be devastating: “Give up the secret, or we’ll cut your kid’s leg off and make everyone think you did it.”

There are a host of fairly common ways to launch your character(s) in different directions. None of these is particularly fresh and new, but they’ve all been well received by readers, so you’ll be on fairly safe ground to use them:

  • Introduce someone with a dark and dreadful secret.
  • Arrange for an unexpected sexual tryst between two (three?) main players.
  • Bring in a new character so strange he/she upsets everyone and everything.
  • Kill off a character unexpectedly. Use a level of gruesomeness to fit your story.
  • Have someone betray your protagonist.

640px-Blue-footed_Booby_w textAs an alternative, you can always do the “What If” dance. This involves asking a dozen “what if” questions about your plot(s). Record the answers. Write ’em all down. Don’t cheat! This is a great time to get crazy. No idea is too wierd or too funky. No character is off-limits; no mayhem is too great, no sin too unthinkable.

This is bold, blue sky stuff–free range, get naked, don’t even think about staying inside the box kinda material. Kill, maim, coerce, rape, strangle, lie, molest, badger, blackmail, bonesaw and/or banish any player who hasn’t been toting their own weight. Be cruel, quick, and decisive. Then step back and see what yumminess you’ve wrought. At this point you’re free to change anything and everything, right? If not you wouldn’t have gotten stuck in the first place! Put it all on the table–everything–every last bit of whatever you’ve got.

Because the alternative means giving up, throwing yet another story into the trunk and never looking at it again.

And if none of that works, take a meat cleaver to the last 5 or 10 thousand words you’ve written. Obviously, they’ve led you astray. They’re not working; so nuke ’em, and good riddance. (Yes, of course I know it’ll hurt like hell, but you’ll be better off without ’em. And besides, we both know you’re going to copy them to another file just in case you want to get ’em back. I can almost guarantee you won’t want them later on, but that’s another discussion.)

Finally, we come to the ultimate approach, the last resort, the final directive. Oddly, this works for an astonishing number of writers, especially those who’ve examined all the foregoing alternatives and found them totally unacceptable. Maybe it’s time to just grit your teeth and keep on keepin’ on. Write your way outta the fog. There’s a perfectly palatable answer in there somewhere. You’ve just got to dig it out.

If that doesn’t work, open your wallet, make sure it contains lots and lots of spendable cash, and pay me to figure it out for you. I’ll be more than happy to take a look. My rates are semi-negotiable (“semi'” meaning somewhere between expensive and exorbitant), but I guarantee results. I won’t guarantee you’ll like ’em. I will promise, however,to point out a way to the finish line. You’ll still have to make the journey.


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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3 Responses to Gettin’ Unstuck, con’t. How to write a novel–part 35

  1. polinto says:

    I think you mean “kill, maim (instead of mane?)” Hey, I’m just trying to edit ahead of time!

    Sent from my iPhone


  2. joshlangston says:

    Oh–great catch! Thanks for lettin’ me know so I could fix it before the rest of the world drops by to see how many tyops I can commit in a single post. [grin] I’m sure there’s a record being kept somewhere.

  3. Pingback: Okay, I’m Done. Now What? | Sage of the South

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