Sunday, September 11, 2011

How to Rescue a Stalled Plot

We’ve all been there at one time or another. Your story’s going along great and all of a sudden you come to a complete stop as though a stone wall stands in your path. Surprised and a little fearful, you can’t seem to get going again. You either abandon the project or put it aside, hoping you’ll eventually come back to it.

A good plot is like a good marriage. It begins with plenty of enthusiasm and energy, but after that first rush you have to settle in for the long haul. Your story has to deepen and acquire rich details so that your reader doesn’t lose interest. Sometimes, when you’ve run out of action and detail you might begin to hate your story and wish you’d never started it. That’s when you’ve run out of what William McCranor Henderson calls “character knowledge.” He says, “When you hit that wall and don’t know where to go next, the best solution is to dig deeper.”

Start by digging up intimate facts about your characters. Not everything about them, just the things we really need to know. Ideally, this includes the two or three key nuggets of personality or character history than can make you fall back in love with your story.

An example of character knowledge may be that Terry likes ice cream and is allergic to chocolate. These facts don’t necessarily add up to character knowledge unless they cause something crucial to happen in the story. If Terry is investigating a murder case and eats a dish of ice cream containing white chocolate that he’s unaware of, he may wind up in the hospital just as he’s about to crack the case. Or Julie comes down with a bad case of poison ivy just before her wedding because her jealous rival puts snippets of the woody vines in her bouquet.

One way to dig deeper into your character's past is to interview yourself. In a focused freewrite, you jot down a few lines and answer the questions honestly. Such as:

Q. Why would Johnny marry a girl he doesn’t love?

A. Her father owns a large company and will offer Johnny a management job. His wife will inherit the company some day, making Johnny a wealthy man. Maybe the old man will have an unfortunate accident and Johnny won’t have to wait that long for the money.

Q. But won’t his wife know that he doesn’t love her.

A. He’ll shower her with gifts and pretend that she’s the love of his life.

Q. But everyone thinks he’s a great guy.

A. So did I until I started digging into his character.

If you’re not getting the right answers from yourself, interview your characters.

Q. Why were you involved in the accident?

A. The road was slick and I lost control of my car.

Q. Weren't you paying attention to your driving?

A. I overcorrected because Sara distracted me.

Interviewing characters can reveal traits and faults you never knew existed, which can lead to various plot complications and solutions. Then, when you rewrite that blocked scene, you can take a new run at the wall and watch it disappear because you have character knowledge that allows you to view the scene through new eyes.

~Jean Henry Mead


  1. Timely post, Jean. A few weeks ago I'd lost interest in my WIP. Thankfully, I realized I needed to 'dig deeper'. I'll have to give that character interview a try, too! Sounds like fun.

  2. I was in the same situation when I wrote this, Anne. And, yes, it can be fun. :)

  3. Great advice for a problem we all encounter. Very well put, Jean!

  4. Thank you, John. I'm currently taking my own advice. :)

  5. Great advice! If a good plot is like a good marriage, it's worth noting that both plots and marriages can take unanticipated turns. I didn't see that one coming, that challenge, that obstacle, that opportunity. And maybe, as writers and partners, it's our job to honor those course corrections and see where they take us.

    William Doonan

  6. Wonderful advise. thank you Jean augie

  7. Thanks, William and Augie. I couldn't agree with you more, William. If we allow our characters free rein, we have to accept their decisions and see where they take us, although sometimes they paint us into corners. :)

  8. I liked your idea about interviewing your characters to get to know them better. Socrates said, "Know Thyself," but writers need to "Know Thy Characters."

  9. I love getting to a point in my story where I can interview a character and s/he surprises me with the answers. There's some deep place in my mind where I know them, but up top, we're virtual strangers some times.

  10. Many thanks, Jean. This will help with the dreaded second act slump. I always know how to start, and have a great climax in mind, but it's those middle innings that are troublesome.

  11. I agree with Bill that it's tough getting over that hump in the middle of your plot. I can see how digging deeper into your characters can help with making the middle as interesting as the beginning and end. Interviewing your characters can help you "hear" their voices, which is essential for good writing.

    Gus Cileone

  12. Thanks. I'll have to dig deeper. I'm stalled on a sequel and am not sure where to go with it. But I will have to go deeper into the character involved.

    Stephen L. Brayton

  13. You're all very welcome. I hope interviewing characters helps you overcome the dreaded writer's block. It has certainly helped me.