UNSTICK Your Plot & SMASH Writer’s Block | Part 2 – Adding OBSTACLES
(+ Other Devices That Further Plot)
Welcome to part two of a three-part series designed to get your story started or moving again, even (especially) if you have crippling writer’s block.
Today’s segment tackles how to continue once you’ve gone halfway, gotten stuck, and have no idea how to end, as well as the common issue of having a really well fleshed out beginning and end, but majorly struggling when it comes to figuring out how to connect them. Similarly to the first section, some of the problem and solutions will overlap. If there’s an issue this article doesn’t mention or that you’d like to know more about, please drop a comment below.
Before beginning this next section, I need to impart a small nugget of advice that aspiring writers should keep in the back of their minds while working through the issues and solutions presented below, and that is: Don’t be afraid to abandon your ideas.
Sometimes the reason a story isn’t working is because the author is clinging too tightly to their original ideas (whether plotting or pantsing). Stories naturally evolve and change as we work on them, and trying to force a plot or a character to go in a certain direction might be why the story keeps stalling out. Famously, the Iron Man script hadn’t even been finished when shooting on the movie started (usually not recommended, due to budgeting reasons), but Jon Favreau and his team still managed to pull together all the story elements to create a tight, entertaining, highly re-watchable film. You can bet there were very many changes, deleted scenes, and abandoned threads as they went along! Problem: Half a Story – No Idea How to End
Sometimes we writers, especially pantsers like myself, conceive a story idea, start writing it down (mostly so we don’t forget it) get a quarter or even halfway through, and then get blocked. (It’s possible to get stuck 75% from the end, but it doesn’t happen quite as often as the other two, mostly because by that time, you’ve done so much work you have a fairly good idea of what the ending looks like.)
With this problem, we’ve got a great story, but there’s no ending in sight. Our characters are having grand adventures, but the greater plot isn’t going anywhere. Perhaps we’re even getting bored of writing the story, because nothing interesting seems to be happening. This is about where the dreaded “Writer’s Block” occurs, and writers start to give up. It can be pretty debilitating to look at your work, knowing you have an fantastic concept, knowing that if you could just finish it amazing things would happen, and feeling like you are driving through a thick fog late on a snowy night. The rest of the story is right there in front of you, but you can’t find it.
Let’s look at two simple, extremely handy methods you can use to push through this issue. (Note: simple doesn’t necessarily mean easy. You still have to put in the work, but if you’re willing to challenge yourself, you’ll be surprised at what you can accomplish.)
Solution 1 – Figure out the Ending:
I find I always do my most coherent writing when I have some sort of ending I’m working toward. It is perfectly okay to begin a story with no idea of where it’s going, but unless you’re able to spit out your whole story in one sitting, it’s imperative that you to sit down and work out an ending at some point.
This goes back to our discussion of goals in part one. Your ending could showcase the goals of your characters or it could feature the larger narrative goal of you, the author. Do you want to use themes to teach a life lesson? Are you exploring healing from trauma? What does a scorched earth end up looking like? What is the ultimate thing you want your audience to experience and remember?
Does the romancer get their sweetheart? Does the hero save the day? Does the detective catch the killer? Does the mobster evade the police? Do the explorers reach a new continent? Does the anti-hero enact revenge?
Whatever goal you set at the beginning of the story, determine whether or not it will be reached, and what consequences will follow. Then you can continue to work toward that ending. And that ending might change the closer you get to it – it might not even work with the beginning at all! But that’s a problem for later drafts once you’ve already gotten through from start to finish. On the first draft, just envision that ending and then focus on getting there.
Solution 2 – Plot Twists
Plot twists, or at the very least, several good turns that take the story in a unexpected, but not illogical direction keep the story interesting for you as an author, and help to create conflicts and obstacles that your characters must solve and overcome.
For instance, imagine a group of friends have been going on a grand quest to destroy an evil dragon that has been terrorizing their kingdom. Only – PLOT TWIST – it turns out that a member of the friend group is one of the dragon’s children in human form. The implications of this and how it effects the ending can propel your story in ALL sorts of new directions.
Both of these solutions will likely require some serious brainstorming as you put them into practice. This is where all the other advice you’ve likely read about how to cure writer’s block comes into play:
- Going for walks
- Watching/reading/consuming other media
- Listening to music
- Doing creative writing exercises
- Looking at writing prompts online
- Throwing darts at a bunch of ideas on a board
Don’t forget about the twist ending either. Leaving your reader thoroughly unsettled is quite a sought after feeling in the horror and thriller genres.
Problem: Beginning and Ending – No Middle
A lot of people struggle with middles because they find them uninteresting. They have to figure out how to connect the “ordinary life” beginning, and the “everything’s changed” end. They think the middle has to be some boring mess that slogs along until we get to the real action.
In my opinion, the middle should contain some of the most exciting parts. (Not too exciting, as we don’t want to overshadow the ending, but something that will definitely keep readers on the edge of their seats.) Of course, you’ll want breathing spots to let the readers and characters digest the crazy going-ons happening, but ideally, once you’ve passed about the 25% mark, the stakes should continue to escalate until you’re driven into the finish. The middle shouldn’t be something readers or watchers have to endure to get to the end, but contain rather some of the most compelling and memorable sections, making the story both hard to put down and something they’ll come back to over and over again.
But how do we make that happen?
This solution has two related prongs. One is to shake things up, and the second is to build tension. Both of these can be accomplished – to greater and lesser degrees – by introducing obstacles the characters then have to overcome.
At this stage you should be starting to pull together all the elements mentioned so far in this series. With that in mind, here’s a very simple diagram to illustrate how writers might lay out story structure:
As you can see, it’s that middle section (Obstacles>Overcome) that gets a lot of people stuck, so we need to start incorporating the fixes I’m about to walk us through.
(Your obstacles and tension builders can really be anything, but I’m going to be focusing on five common, easy ideas to which you can build upon and expand as necessary.)
- Add/Remove Characters
One simple but phenomenally great thing you can do to shake up a sagging middle is to introduce new characters. These new players can either be a help or a hindrance to our heroes. This is something that happens quite often on long-running television shows. Take for example, the character of Jack in Supernatural. At first, it wasn’t clear whether he was an ally or an enemy, but his mere existence caused a whole plethora of problems that the brothers Winchester had to solve, thereby injecting fresh life into the series in its twilight years
Arrow did this to great effect when they introduced Slade in the latter half of season one. Although eagle-eyed fans may have caught the Easter eggs in the first episode that pointed to the character’s existence in the Arrowverse, his actual appearance really shook things up and created some of the most exciting episodes in the entire series.
Introducing new characters is also a fantastic way to keep your story from being too cluttered at the beginning, giving readers time to process the new additions instead of trying to keep track of too many people all at once.
On the other hand, it can just as effectively disrupt the story if characters are taken away. The A Song of Ice and Fire series is famous for this very thing, with each removal of key players pushing the story along in new and exciting directions. The Death Note Manga also does this to great effect.
Thus, if your story has started to stagnate, you might just find that adding or taking away a character is exactly what you need to shake things up. This doesn’t have to be solely narrative (that is, happening within the text). If, as you are writing, things have gotten stale, you may want to permanently remove characters (or combine extraneous characters into one) and you might find that getting rid of characters your story never needed in the first place solves all your issues. This is more revision type work, but if you’re really stuck, it doesn’t hurt to try it on the first draft.
- Plot Twist/Turn/Betrayal
We mentioned plot twists in the section dealing with how to end your story, but it applies just as well in the middle.
Plot twists are often (especially within the crime and thriller genres) revealed near the end, but there’s no rule saying you can’t throw a bunch of them into the middle. I personally think it builds tension much better if you aim for plot turns rather than complete twists in the middle. That way, instead of introducing something that completely turns everything we knew on its head too early, you can more subtly bring in a new story element that broadens the context of the story while making narrative sense so that readers aren’t blindsided.
For example, in the first book of the Mirrowen series, Fireblood, there are three characters working together for a common goal. However, you get the feeling throughout the first half of the book that something is not quite right. And then, once the POV splits between the characters, we get into their heads and discover that one of them has been working against the others’ aims the entire time. When you get to this moment, it injects an incredible amount of tension into the story, because you as the reader know the character could choose to betray the others at any instant, and you’re just waiting for the moment things go wrong.
This segways nicely into our third idea here, which is betrayal, in of itself a type of plot twist. This is a favourite of mine and other authors, because if you can get your audience to care about all the characters, when one of them turns out to be a turncoat, and worse, hurts our main characters because of it, now you have all of these conflicting feelings that have enormous potential to spin the story in intriguing directions.
- Make Things Harder
A third device you can execute to pick up a struggling middle is to make things harder for your characters. Especially if it’s an adventure story, you want to be pushing your heroes to the point of no return.
For example, your hero might have gotten halfway through their heroic quest to free the land from the troubles plaguing it, but then they misplace their trusty sword. Perhaps it is stolen, or lost during battle. Either way, with less tools at their disposal, our hero must resort to other means to continue.
Let’s look at The Little Mermaid. In gaining the ability to walk, Ariel loses her ability to sing, which prevents her from instantly connecting with the prince, forcing her to try and win him over in other ways. Then, just when Eric is starting to really fall for her, Ursula shows up using Ariel’s stolen voice to lure him away. Each one of these mishaps forces Ariel to try something different to achieve her goal, keeping the story interesting as we navigate its twists and turns. Along the way, we admire and appreciate Ariel’s tenacious spirit and determination to never give up on her dreams, no matter what happens.
- A Ticking Clock
A very easy way to breathe some life into an otherwise dull story is to add a ticking clock. Often, this is set up from the beginning, but countdown timers can be introduced anywhere you need some narrative tension. In Avatar the last Airbender, Aang has to master the four elements before the arrival of Sozin’s comet. In many romances, the heroine has to find a man before she is no longer eligible to be married or is past child bearing age, and in Avengers, Steve and Tony must work together to repair the helicarriers before they drop from the air, killing all aboard.
Stringing a mounting series of ticking-clock moments together can be a particularly fun way to push a story forward, ratcheting up our heartbeats, and then giving us a sigh of relief when the heroes prevail once more.
Another reason why including a ticking clock is so helpful is because it lays out some very immediate – and usually devastating – consequences if the characters were to fail. We want the characters to succeed because we can’t help but imagine ourselves in those sorts of situations and can clearly picture what would happen if everything went wrong.
- Let Your Characters Fail/Let the Bad Guys Win
This is one of my absolute favourite story elements to throw into the mix. Although good stories can be written around the heroes cleverly winning all the time à la Leverage or Sherlock Holmes, a fantastic way to shake things up is to defeat your heroes. This often happens at the end of act one or two for three-part structures, but can occur anywhere you need it to make sense while drafting. One great example of this is again found in Avatar the Last Airbender. Season two ends with the gaang (after many success throughout their adventures so far) thoroughly defeated and forced into hiding by their enemies.
Avengers: Infinity War utilises this very effectively as well. For Thanos to be perceived by us as a real threat, he actually had to succeed with his plan to destroy half the life in the universe. The worst had to happen, and our heroes had to be beaten down to their lowest to raise the stakes to the absolute maximum boiling point.
So, if you find that you’ve tried everything else and your story has lost steam, have your characters fail. Let them lose the thing that makes them special. Have their friends and allies be captured and mistreated. Let the villains accomplish their objectives. And then go from there.
As a side note, comedies are often filled with strings of micro failures, which keeps things moving along and brings smiles to our faces as things go more and more absurdly sideways until the ultimate happy ending.
When we utilise these story elements, we move the story beyond just a set of obstacles to be overcome. Because, while at its core that’s what a narrative is—setting up obstacles that the characters must overcome to save the day (or fail—spectacularly in the case of tragedies)—simply repeating this process of Obstacle>Overcome>Obstacle>Overcome until we get to the end becomes formulaic and extremely boring.
(When this is played out on television, a common complaint is that the show feels like a video game. Character gets a task, character does a quest to complete the task, character gets rewarded, character gets new task, ad infinitum till the end of the game is reached.)
With the above taken into account, our story diagram now looks like this:
Side note: My use of the word “Reaction” here is not to imply that the characters are passive, merely that they are going to be acting upon continuing events, even if that means they have actively decided to push the story forward. All of these connecting story points can be driven either by external forces or the characters themselves as you so desire.
In this last section I mention a few things that can cause writers to get stuck once they hit the middle.
Problem: You Need to Write a Fight/Kiss/Medical Scene, But Lack the Required Knowledge
This issue trips up many writers when they get into the nitty gritty of writing. Sometimes you reach a particular scene, and a kiss or a fight or a medical emergency etc. needs to happen, and you don’t know how to write it.
There are two things that have to eventually be done. No 1. is to make up something and hope it sticks, and second is to do some research. Both these options have cons, with the second really having the potential to take writers down a research hole that stops them from writing (although if this is your process and it works for you, you don’t have to deviate from it).
To prevent this and keep the flow going, you can simply put a pair of brackets around a sentence describing what happens, with a note to come back to it later i.e. [EPIC FIGHT SCENE HERE, FLESH OUT LATER]. I personally like to use uppercase within said brackets, as it helps these parts to stand out, thus making them easier to find when revising.
Most anything you find yourself struggling with in terms of sentence/scene level execution is a draft two problem. The good news is, if you keep writing and practicing the craft and increasing your general knowledge, your first drafts have the potential to become cleaner and cleaner, which gives you less to wrestle with in subsequent revisions.
Problem: You Don’t know to End – Solution: Resolution of Goals
This is a small section because while endings can be difficult, in the first draft, we are just aiming to get there. Whether it’s good or not (and really, this is the question most writers are actually asking, how do I write a good ending) is unimportant at this stage. If you’ve been following along, I’ve already provided the answer, and it is to have your characters fail or succeed in their ambitions. Anything extra can be added in subsequent drafts.
Problem: Writing is Overwhelming
You might object that what prevents you from finishing is not your lack of knowledge in any of the storycraft mentioned heretofore in this series, but rather that writing a story, of whatever length, seems so incredibly daunting.
To that I must quote Lao Tzu:
The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.
Solution: – Chapter by Chapter, Scene by Scene, Sentence by Sentence
It can takes years to complete a full-length first draft. This is often because aspiring writers are learning the craft at the same time as writing their story. The key is to break it down into manageable parts. Just work on drafting a chapter or a scene or a paragraph at a time. All the elements mentioned above can be repackaged into smaller sections. As you go, add them all up until they equal a story at the end. The most important part is never giving up, no matter how long it takes.
One last item worth mentioning is that it can be helpful to switch up how you are writing if nothing is coming to you. Locking yourself in the box of only writing from first person, or telling the story from a particular character’s perspective, or sticking religiously to prose etc. might be preventing your draft from reaching its fullest potential. Consider all the different lenses from which your story might be told, and if one style or point of view or tense isn’t working, experiment with using another instead.
That concludes Part 2, and hopefully you now have a grasp on how to develop and get to the end of your story. Next up, we move from looking at pushing through the middle to what tools you’ll need to have in your writer’s toolkit to make it all come together. Make sure to subscribe so you don’t miss Part 3!