When in Doubt, Speed Up!

Do you ever read a novel that bogs down in the middle? Or gets vague and tangled up as it goes?

Do you ever write a story that maybe starts off in an exciting way but soon you find that every page you’re producing is a slog … uphill … through quicksand?

And then, when you read over it, it’s even worse than you thought?

How easy it is to write when you’re enthusiastic and passionate about your plot and characters. And why are you that way? Because you have an idea. You can envision that opening scene, that event. You see the setting vividly. You hear the dialogue. You feel what your protagonist is feeling, and you can’t wait to get to your keyboard. Oh, the joy of feeling those words flowing from your imagination to your computer screen.

And then, the big opening is over. You’ve written it. Now a fog closes in around you. The headlights that once shone across your novel are dim. Maybe one headlight has cracked, and now you have a tentative notion of where your characters are going next, but you aren’t sure.

In my experience, uncertainty generates a slow-down in pacing. You may not realize it because you’re so busy trying to juggle a dozen other writing techniques. But if you doubt the scene you’re about to write, it will come through as timidity, hesitancy, and caution.

Before you know it, your next scene, and the next, and the next are small. The stakes shrink. Your characters are talking instead of arguing. The conflict level has dwindled to zero. You keep saying, “I’m stuck. Why am I stuck? I had a great idea. What’s happened to it? It’s horrible. I hate it. I think I’ll write something else instead.”

As for your characters, when you’re unsure they become dull. Why? Because your caution will usually lead you to tone down their design. They become plain, ordinary, realistic people who chat with each other about nothing important.

You are in a whirlpool, my friends, and you are going down.

The answer?

Go big! Go faster!

This is one of those rare times when a writer should work contrary to his instincts. It’s natural to shrink. But a writer must enhance, enlarge, go wild, be unpredictable, take chances … LEAP!

So how, you might be thinking, am I supposed to pick up the pace when I don’t know where I’m going?

Believe in your original story idea, the one you plotted in your preliminary outline, the one you smoothed and honed and thought over before you ever began your project. Believe in it. Trust it. Stick with it.

Also, if you’ve bogged down and can’t think of what’s going to happen next, go back to the point in your story where you stopped writing conflict, where your protagonist stopped actively pursuing a goal, and where no antagonist stepped up to oppose the hero’s success.

Fix that!

No aimless chatter allowed. The characters should be arguing, disagreeing, trying to persuade or plead or influence each other. Raise the stakes. Put your protagonist in trouble. Even if you’re still stuck, throw in a massively wild, totally unexpected danger that’s apparently unconnected to anything you have going on.

Planned? No. But do anything to get your story rolling again. You can figure out a connection later in revision.

The wild, out-of-left-field plot twist or new trouble is a technique that I call an “alligator.” Why? Long story. Just keep in mind that when you happen to meet a real alligator, you have only a few options–chiefly are you going to run away from it and maybe call the authorities or fight it? Alligators are primitive, crude, highly dangerous reptiles. They don’t allow you to stand there passively, staring at them. When confronted by one, either on land or in the water, you must TAKE ACTION!

Same thing with your plot. Alligators shouldn’t force your storyline completely off track, but give your characters an unexpected, new, immediate problem to deal with. Get ’em moving. And above all, get them moving fast.

The more conflict you put them in, the faster your story will go. The more exaggerated and flamboyant your characters are forced to be, the more active they’ll become.

Give it a try, the next time you start slogging.

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