Oh, it happens, and it’s horrible, whether it’s a book, a play or a short story. It’s like being in a maze when you can’t find the way out, and you keep passing the same point over and over again.
Nine times out of ten there will be something wrong with the last section you wrote. There could be any number of issues here, but usually it’s just one, especially if you have an idea of where the plot is going. You need to re-read what you’ve written, as objectively as possible. This means making a note of the timeline – can everyone get to where they’re meant to be in the time you’ve given them to do it? It may mean making a map of the terrain. Are the characters in the right places? But the most likely glitch of all is that someone has behaved out of character. They simply would not have done or said something or other. Have a good hard look at each candidate, and the motivation for their behaviour. People (or animals, or mythical beasts!) don’t do things for no reason. Some characters do have a starting point with a real person, but they should very quickly become themselves. If a character stays too close to someone you know, you’re always thinking, so-and-so wouldn’t do/say/ think that. The character must always serve the story, rather than the other way round.
Once you’ve isolated the problem, dealing with it can be agonising. There may be a piece of writing of which you are particularly proud, but if it doesn’t further the plot/develop the character/expand the theme, it has to go. Everything you write has to be there for a reason – better still, all three of the reasons I’ve mentioned above. You should be able to defend every single sentence if challenged. So – have another look at the last section you wrote, and be prepared to simply cut it out, go back, and re-write. Another reason is that you’ve over-planned it, and nothing comes as a surprise any more. I need what I’m writing to be an adventure for me, too. If that’s the case, change something. Raymond Chandler would have a man burst through the door with a gun in his hand… Another method is to open the dictionary at random, shut your eyes and stab, and then try to incorporate the word in the next sentence. If you do it three times you nearly always come up with a completely new slant.
Although I know more or less how a book is going to end when I start it, I don’t always know how I’m going to get there, or who I’ll meet along the way. The trouble is that it’s always much easier to start a new story than it is to go back and tackle creaky nuts and bolts.
Have you ever abandoned something altogether? Don’t delete it – you may find that in years to come, it will combine with something else that doesn’t work, and surprise you.
Or have you ever found a different way out of being stuck from the ones I’ve mentioned?
Image Credit: Jason Hawkes
Also published on Medium.