Last June, I started a ghost story for Camp NaNoWriMo. I really liked this idea. I’d set it in a historical period (the Gilded Age) which I know well. I’d selected a location I loved working with (Newport, RI) but for some reason the story wouldn’t gel.
I had a beatsheet and an expanded outline figured out.
I had the character profiles done.
The research was finished and I’d captured a ton of historic photographs to act as inspiration.
Yet, I struggled with making the story flow. I knew the story should work, but it just didn’t have any spark.
In the past, I might have trunked this story because I honestly believe in that magical something that some projects have and other don’t. However, I wanted to give the story one more shot, and with April Camp NaNo here, it seemed like a now or never moment.
After some trial and error, I’ve learned a lot about unsticking a frozen story.
Step 1 – Step Away
This is often the only thing I need to do to make a story reform in my brain. Stepping away helps me relax, and in time the pieces reform themselves in different ways until something clicks. I can even dream the story’s solution. I’ve jumped out of bed to write story notes at all hours of the night. It drives my husband nuts.
After keeping this story on hold for months, I still came up cold. Clearly this project required more active intervention.
Step 2 – Dig Up the Seed of Inspiration
When in doubt I go back to the beginning. I will look over old drafts, plot notes, Pinterest and Trello boards, even review my cut writing file searching for clues, but the most important thing I do is return to the seed of the story. There is always a single defining moment where all my stories start. It might be something I read in the news, or a character I saw walking down the street, but that seed idea has power. Returning to that first inspiration often points me in the right direction and reinvigorates my commitment to the story.
Sadly, revisiting the seed of this particular story yielded a big fat zero! The story had evolved too far. I couldn’t revert without scrapping weeks of work and about 20,000 words. I refused to start over.
Step 3 – Resuscitate the Heart
For me there is always one word that defines the story’s purpose, and in this case the ghost story was about family. The families of the living and the families of the dead had something to learn about forgiveness and about love. Until they could work through their family issues together, they couldn’t grow as individuals. What my story wasn’t about was any form of romantic love. That, as it turned out, was one of my critical problems. Once I started to picture my characters opening up emotionally to each other, I realized it would be natural for them to form romantic attachments. This romance element made perfect sense in hindsight, but I never considered it during plotting stage. After my slam-face-into-desk-and-repeat moment, I felt like I was on my way.
I was dead wrong! After another two and a half weeks reworking the romance angle, I was stuck again!
Step 4 – Break Out the Villain
I knew what my characters wanted (their goals), and what their challenges were (their obstacles), but what the key characters didn’t share was a common enemy. They had a number of internal and external factors preventing them from getting what they wanted (parents, grandparents, lack of money, social class, untimely death), and my two main characters scuffled with two minor catalyst characters (the ones who stir the pot and make small problems bigger), but I didn’t have a classic villain. I reassessed my two catalyst characters and gave them a more vigorous role in creating animosity.
This proved another good addition, it helped create more tension and I should have plotted it this way the first time, but fundamentally it didn’t get me unstuck. The external forces of this ghost story were never the focal point; it was always about the co-protagonists being able to slay those pesky inner dragons.
Step 5 – Change the POV
The voice on this story never felt spot on, and I had huge problems with it once the ghost character took over the main character’s mind. I tried to write the story in first and third POV, and I reworked several sections in both the main character’s voice and in the ghost’s voice, but for some reason I couldn’t settle on the right voice. I decided to change who the ghost possessed and swapped this over to a secondary character. By separating these two character’s voices several of my most constraining knots slid effortlessly apart. Now I could include the main character’s confusion and fear when confronting otherworldly events, without sacrificing the story’s clarity.
This change finally seemed like major progress. I could see some light at the end of my dark twisty tunnel, and I proceed with restrained but short-lived optimism.
Step 6 – Redress the Plot Bones
A few years ago I wrote a post about retelling a classic story after I realized there are a number of tricks to seeing an old story in a new way. The reason we can enjoy a story like Beauty & the Beast told over and over again is because the writer changes critical elements while staying true to the bones of the tale. Doing this same exercise with a stuck story can be super beneficial. When I applied these idea to my ghost story I envision a dozen fresh paths from my basic plot structure. My original story featured a female main character and a female ghost. My ghost needed to stay female because it’s uniquely tied to the plot, but nothing stopped me from turning my main character into a male.
Wow! This change was perfect on every level. Since my ghost had never had good relationships with men in life, it made her lack of trust in her human counterpoint character more believable. Gender bending the main character resolved everything very quickly, but not in a way I would have expected.
My first version was a dark tale with a gothic edge, while the new version is lighter and more playful. The chemistry of the main characters has finally clicked and I feel like I have all the right stuff to take this story to the finish line.
Being stuck is no fun! Yet it’s going to happen to most of us at one stage or another. I found these steps helpful in solving my stuck story issues, so hopefully they can help you too.
What stuck story tricks do you use? Please share in the comments.
4 thoughts on “Writer Struggles: 6 Steps to Get Unstuck”
Great Advice, Robin. @sheilamgood at Cow Pasture Chronicles
I’m actually stuck on a story I’ve been working on for a while (TKC, if you’re wondering). After reading through the beta-reader feedback I received, I realized that in order to fix certain world-building issues, I was also going to have to rethink parts of the plot… and my mind kept drawing blanks on how to do both. So right now, I’m on your #1, putting that story on the backburner so I can work on something else. It was a tough decision, but the right one, I think. I’m giving myself time and emotional distance from one story so I can work on another, so that I’m staying creative and active with writing – and, most importantly, applying the lessons I learned from the previous manuscript so that I (hopefully) won’t make the same mistakes with the new one.
Totally forgot to say it, but great post, Robin. And I’m glad to hear you’ve found a way to get “unstuck” with your current story. 🙂
Sara, I am so sorry to hear this news. I know how hard you’ve worked on TKC. Hopefully stepping back will help fix this problem.
I have more to say about this, but I think I’ll save it for an email.