Among the pitfalls awaiting writers of long fiction, two are particularly pernicious. I call them quicksand and black holes. The quicksand problem is where the trap closes on you so gradually you don’t really notice it until you’re up past your kneecaps. The black hole problem is where you’re sucked into major trouble abruptly. Let’s deal with them one at a time.
You have your story outlined. Your characters are introduced. Your plot situation is set up, and the events are rolling forward. Everything seems good, except …
You find yourself bogged down. You’re writing, but no actual pages are being produced. For days, you’ve been stuck in the same section of your manuscript. Although your characters are talking to each other, the scene doesn’t advance. You thought you had everything worked out for this event ahead of time, but what’s happened? Why are you trapped here? Why won’t the scene end?
QUESTIONS TO ASK YOURSELF
*Am I out-thinking my plot and characters?
Sometimes we grow so anxious to check off the story events on our outline that we forget we must take our protagonist fully through the moment. Our protagonist can’t think ahead. He or she is caught up in the current problem in the present of story time. That problem shouldn’t be rushed or shortchanged. Curb your impatience and let the event unfold as it should. If you brush past it in your anxiety to race to the next thing, you’ll end up with implausible, contrived copy.
*Am I being too predictable?
Have you already written six similar scenes to the one where you’re stuck now? Same kind of conflict, same kind of pacing, same kind of villain, same kind of intensity, same kind of transitions, same length of paragraphs, same old hook as you used the last time, and the time before that ….
Remember that variety keeps the story fresh. Move slightly away from your outline and ask yourself, “what if my character jumped out the window instead of standing here talking?” Or, “what if my character lied about where the child is being hidden?” Or, “what if my character grabs the paper containing the chemical formula and runs?”
The what if game is very useful in keeping your imagination free-flowing. And as soon as you notice a pattern in what you’re doing, stop it. Shift to a different technique of introducing characters. Try a new kind of time-pointer transition. Keep yourself interested. Don’t worry if your scenes are of different lengths or your chapters don’t all come out to an equal number of pages.
Unseen disaster looms on your horizon. You’re busy writing. You have no inkling of what’s about to befall you. You may or may not be working to an outline. At best, it’s loose and elastic. You play the what if game every day. Your writing is going fair. Your characters are behaving as they should, more or less. And then–without warning–a comet of inspiration strikes some lobe of your brain and you think, Why not send my characters to Paris? despite the fact that you’ve never intended for your plot to shift to that setting. Or you may abruptly encounter a secondary character that steps in and completely takes over the plot.
Suddenly you don’t know where you are. You don’t know why you let this character into the story, except that she’s more vivid than anyone else and you like her. But where is she taking you?
QUESTIONS TO ASK YOURSELF
*Is this non-planned character going to help the story become more dynamic and exciting?
If the answer’s yes, then take some time to figure out how to best incorporate the character and move forward.
*Is this non-planned character going to force me to re-plot my first 350 pages?
If the answer’s yes, then put on the brakes. Make sure you fully understand what you’re about to do. You could be throwing aside a perfectly good draft to pursue a will-o’-the-wisp. Always stick with your original concept, at least to the end of a completed draft. If you decide to then change the plot drastically, you can do so in an organized and systematic approach. Revisions should be focused and thoughtful, not based on random impulses.
*Does this burst of “inspiration” confuse me because I can’t make it fit anywhere?
Never be so dazzled by so-called inspiration that you don’t test it. If you can use it, and it adds to your story and increases unpredictability, fine. If it gets you seriously off-track, then toss it aside or file it to be used in another story. Being unpredictable and plotting by the seat of your pants doesn’t mean that your story should be random and chaotic. Keep it plausible. You don’t want to be sucked into a black hole to nowhere.