Friday, May 20, 2016

Unblocking plot - what happens next?

It’s been a while since I posted on writer’s block. I had a whole series of posts mapped out, then April got in the way. I find that during the A to Z challenge most folks are so busy with the challenge itself that few have time to visit elsewhere, so I gave myself a few weeks off posting anything other than Weekend Writing Warriors snippets.

But now, after a really good three months keeping to (and ahead of) my writing goals on The Ashes of Home, I’m hitting a sticky patch. It’s my old Nemesis - plot.

Of all the aspects of crafting a story, I think this is the part that gives me the most trouble. Figuring out where the story is going, what happens next, and what twists to introduce to liven things up.

I have a few tools to help, but no silver bullet and this part is still a struggle for me.

I find it helps to sit down to a dedicated brainstorming session, usually drawn out on paper as a mind map. Throw thoughts down on the page without judgment, let them spark and collide off each other, then sift through the wreckage for anything useable.

Other background preparation can help here. If you know your characters, how would they act or react? Use that to drive events forward. If you’ve mapped out details in your setting beyond the obvious needs of the story, features in your characters’ surroundings (that you placed there but hadn’t paid much attention to) can suggest actions or plot twists: places to hide, to escape, to ambush...

Sometimes the brainstorming might be tightly directed: the protagonist is in a fix, so how do they get out? Sometimes the challenge might be more vague. Right now, I’ve just had Shayla framed for a crime and under house arrest, and it will be a week or two of story time before the next firm piece of the story kicks in. Meanwhile, is she going to just sit there meekly and let fate take its course? No. But at this point I have no idea what she’s going to do instead, which makes it very hard to write.

When I’m stuck on “what happens next”, I sometimes find that the thread I’m working on has run ahead of other point of view threads. It’s a bit like leading a charge at the enemy and finding yourself all alone with your comrades lagging far behind. The answer to that is easier. Go back and write those other threads. Where I’m following multiple points of view I usually manage to keep them in step, writing a scene in one then swapping to another. I often have a feeling for the points where I want to leave the reader hanging, and I know what scene I want to cut to. But at other times I find it better to just write two threads as separate continuous stories, then splice them together. That’s when the problem of running ahead can crop up.

There is a related but more subtle problem that can crop up to block me. When I’m struggling and I tease apart the reasons, the answer may be that there should be events happening off stage that I’ve neglected to map out. These won’t be point of view scenes in the story, but they will make themselves felt when their arcs intersect. Paying attention to what people are doing while they are out of sight can help unblock the flow.

Do you find it easy to come up with plot twists and keep the action flowing? If not, what techniques do you use to overcome this?


  1. I've had to sit and brainstorm some twists before. Or just a way to get the character out of a situation. (Sometimes into a situation!) I can usually take care of everything during the outline phase, but occasionally I have to work on something as I write it.
    And yeah, taking a break last month was probably a good idea.

  2. Hi Ian - I've tried mindmaps ... and they sort of work, then I need to revert to lists ... or think I do.

    Good luck though - the break may well have done you some good ... April is frenetic if one is doing the A-Z ... cheers Hilary

  3. Hmm. Good question. My plot twists are part of my action. I don't even look at them as a "twist" but as the plot. They come pretty naturally for me, too. Maybe that's because I write a lot of suspense.

  4. Alex, yes getting characters into situations can be tricky too. The line of least resistance - making it an easy ride from problem to goal - also makes the least interesting story.

    Hilary, the mind map is only meant to help thrash out some ideas, from there I always convert the parts I want to keep into a list or an outline or whatever other tool I'm using to track the story.

    Chrys, I think it comes naturally to some folks and I envy them. I really struggle with this part of the writing process.

  5. Sometimes I jump ahead to the next scene, and as I'm writing in dialogue or action, things fall into place so I can go back and write how they got to this "next scene". Overall book plot - or goal - is the hardest thing for to do. Short stories are so much easier to manage a plot :)

  6. Donna, I hop about like that, too. It does help me to keep moving instead of getting hung up on one scene.


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