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» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Open Discussions About Writing » Help! I'm stuck in my novel and I can't get out

   
Author Topic: Help! I'm stuck in my novel and I can't get out
Smaug
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Here I am, nearly finished with editing what I had written years ago, trying to get back into the story, and it seemed to be working. I was involved again with the characters, my story seemed to be flowing, I was making what I had written in the past better. That is, until I got to the end of the previous story line. I'm up around 45,000 words now, and I'm having a hard time figuring out the plot from here to the end. I think a lot of it has to do with my life in general--I'm kind of going through depression right now, my exercise program is fizzling (I just feel too tired to do it many days and force myself-and I think that's related to depression too) Anyway,what are your pointers for finishing a story, and if you have any tips for getting out of the doldrums in life, that might be helpful too, because I think that's the underlying problem, or part of it.
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extrinsic
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An ending is set up by a beginning. A beginning's main purpose is to introduce a dramatic complication. Give a central character a purpose (desire, want, need, goal, etc.) and put a problem in the way preventing achieving that purpose. Or give a central character a problem and the problem incite a purpose. That's what a beginning act does in a three or five-act or whatever dramatic structure (plot). An ending act portrays the final outcome of the complication, the more final the outcome transformation the more satisfying the payoff: unequivocally, irrevocably final.

It's not too far from there to swimming out of the doldroms. Set a purpose, purposes, attainable goals. The hard ones are more satisfyingly rewarding than the easy ones when they're accomplished, if the journey is not itself the reward. Set some short term goals to build momentum and increment toward long term goals, set some near term, some long term, and then go at them. Anticipate resistance: the Fates don't quietly suffer mortals bucking what's already been predetermined, nor do one's acquaintances readily adapt to one's abrupt changes.

Like with plot, purpose and problem in life incite dramatic movement, they drive tension and causation, and there will be antagonistic purposes and problems clashing which will impede progress. Life is a plot. Write yours or have it written for you. But take baby steps, nothing drastic right away. Variety, though, and spontaneity are the SPICE of life and dramatic narratives.

SPICED: Setting, Plot, Idea (theme), Character, Event, and Discourse (voice).

[ January 28, 2012, 09:45 AM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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mrmeadors
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A few years ago I was caught in something like this. What helped me was just writing whatever the heck popped in my head that had anything to do with the characters. Any scene, anything (even if it doesn't seem like it would really fit). After a while, I found that some cohesion was happening, or at least I was starting to understand the world and seeing what could happen. PLay around with lots of possibilities, and give yourself permission to just PLAY. Don't feel guilty about what you are doing or not doing, because all these words will not be wasted, it is what will get you out of the funk. You'll find the answer to your story somewhere in that writing, I'll bet money on it (not too much, though, I'm a starving writer, after all [Wink] ).

Depression is so hard, coming from someone who has been there. THe only way to get out of it, at least what worked for me, is to just keep charging through the quagmire. Force it, give yourself total permission to write absolute crap so you have no inhibitions, and just write. When the words start flowing, often you'll feel better. And yuo'll find that what you wrote isn't such junk after all.

Melanie

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genevive42
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Jim Butcher wrote about The Great Swampy Middle. It's pretty funny and enlightening and nice to know that even the pros get stuck sometimes.

Here's the link:

http://jimbutcher.livejournal.com/1865.html

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MartinV
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I never plan the ending of my stories. I let the story plan itself. If it can't come up with its own ending, the rest of it wasn't set up enough.
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Robert Nowall
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The last time I attempted a novel, I was a hundred thousand words in and couldn't think of an ending. (That wasn't the only problem with it.) I started out knowing the plot for just two or three chapters ahead, and when the end came due I was stuck. I have hopes of reviving it someday, having figured out some corrections---but the ending is still missing.

I think it's best to, at the very least, have an idea of how whatever you're writing is going to end...and if you change your mind about how it will end, you can drop the first one and stick the second one in...

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MAP
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I can't even start writing a story until I at least have some idea of how it is going to end. So I usually know where I'm going just not how I'm going to get there.

When I get stuck on a plot point. I go for a run or do the dishes. Do something mindless and let my mind work the problem. Sometimes it takes a few days or more to come up with an answer, but so far, I always come up with something.

So I suggest you relax, take a break, work on something else for a while. Let your subconcious work the problem.

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History
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My experience is the same as MAP's.

I have the idea for the beginning and ending before I begin to write. Interestingly, I find the middles of my story are the most wonderous to me since they were not initially perceived (and yet I think they tend to be better written).

Anyway, my most efficient writing occurs when I sketch an outline for the entire story first, arranging the major plot points from beginning to end. Outlining (and research) take time, but then the writing flows fairly well since you know what you need to write, point by point. I therefore recommend this to you.

Rspectfully,
Dr. Bob

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Owasm
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I second (or third) MAP's and History's comments. Everyone has a solution, right? Well mine is to sketch out an outline to the end, or even a few scenes into the future. By sketch, I mean a sentence or a few of what goes on in the next little bit so you have some kind of guide and then let the creative juices flow. You don't have to outline all the way to the end, but if you've given yourself a bit of a lifeline, creatively, it may be all you need.
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Smaug
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Thanks a bunch for the support and tips. I'm sure I can work through this, and your suggestions have helped a lot.
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enigmaticuser
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I'm with Map, History, and Owasm. I have the beginning in mind in an outline (then I work backwards, but that's splitting hairs).

Yet, on my current WIP, I wrote with a "no rules" mentality so there was a place in the middle where I stopped and said "I have no idea where this is ending". I didn't really outline this one so much as just keeping a record of where I'd been with some general idea of the future.

This lead to me only introducing the villain after about 3/4 of the story was past.

So I can't say without an outline, what exactly to do, but I got the sense was that my real problem is that I was looking for an ending before it had matured. Either it seems like the plot goes on forever or the plot is about get resolved in an unsatisforty way. I was writing about a detective when suddenly it became painfully obvious what had to happen and the bad guy got caught on page 20.

Well, without an outline I'd say maybe that is the case but there was another bigger badder guy in the wings and this guy was just a pawn! Or my hero is laying down in the coffin, well have him pass the torch to someone else!

In my experience, I'm looking for the ending in the wrong place. So ignore the feeling that this "must be the ending" and focus instead on the story. For example, after Superman died someone could say "wait, what?" And get all hyperventilaty, or the story really becomes larger than Superman because of the way others pick up the slack to carry on his legacy.

If Frodo gave in and put on the ring (which he did), the story could have become about Sam having to toss his friend to a burning death. Perhaps at the cost of his own. Wow. I just got choked up. Instead it became about the plot instead of about Frodo, Golum steps in for his reasons, two corrupt things fighting for the possession of evil power and . . . ! Resolution, good wins!

So, the very scary thing could be that the current focus of the novel is not the vessel that can carry it to the ending. Don't know if that's coherent.

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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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OSC talks about how each of the M.I.C.E. story categories comes to resolution in his book on HOW TO WRITE SCIENCE FICTION AND FANTASY. I could go over my take on what he says here, or you can just get the book and read that part (it's on "structure").

Of course, you need to figure out which of the main categories most closely fits your novel, but once you do, you should have a pretty good idea of how it needs to end. (What extrinsic said about the beginning setting up the ending.)

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pdblake
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I'm an outliner too. I plot from beginning to end before I write a word. It's a fluid outline though, never so rigid that I can't change things as I go. More of a rough road map to stop me getting lost along the way:)
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Smaug
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quote:
Originally posted by Kathleen Dalton Woodbury:
OSC talks about how each of the M.I.C.E. story categories comes to resolution in his book on HOW TO WRITE SCIENCE FICTION AND FANTASY. I could go over my take on what he says here, or you can just get the book and read that part (it's on "structure").


I'll get it. It's been a long time since I read that and I'm probably about due for a reread. On the other hand, if you felt like you wanted to go to the trouble, I wouldn't mind reading your take. It may take me a while to get the book.
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Tiergan
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I have beginning first, the first scene almost to the word before I write. Then ending. Then I write. My problem is the middle.
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enigmaticuser
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I think if you have the ending and the beginning, then a technique I use for the middle is reverse engineering. The bad guy gets killed by a boulder from the mountain side. Ok.

What mountain? Why is he at the mountain?

It's a corner stone from the castle he was building on it because it was believed that a kingdom built on the mount of destiny would be unshakable (how ironic, no?).

Why wasn't he inside the castle?

Because he was chasing after his sweet little princess who was running off to be with Farm Boy Hero.

Etc... Etc... Eventually, since you know where you started, you should be able question your way back there.

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Merlion-Emrys
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I like to plot while walking. For these first few chapters of my novel I've completed, each one involved a couple of walking sessions both for exercise and to figure out what was going to happen next. For me walking can be a meditation and as my mind wanders and flows over the characters and ideas, petting and stroking them and sometimes calling them George, oftentimes things will fall into place and without distractions I can mentally walk various pathways and discover the best next steps or untangle the difficulties of achieving what I want to achieve.

So perhaps since you're needing to improve your exercise situation as well, the two could go hand in hand.

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extrinsic
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Middles are as tough as beginnings and endings to construct. If a beginning is an inciting complication and an ending is the outcome of the complication, then a middle is a climax of the complication's complications: escalating complication up to the climax, and declining complication afterward, Beginnings unsettle emotional equilibrium, middles escalate and peak emotional equilibrium, endings restore emotional equilibrium.

Four features mark a climax interior to a narrative, not the emotional climax readers feel in the latter part of a narrative right before a denouement act (final outcome of a main dramatic complication).
1. Complication outcome most in doubt
2. Antagonism, complication forces most in opposition
3. Efforts to address the complication greatest
4. Maximum resources and information credibly needed to address the complication are at hand

In the case of a Milieu emphasis, an inciting complication is a setting's time, place, and situation, i.e., falling from a meadow down a rabbit hole. The denouement then a comparative return to sanctuary or a new normal equilibrium accommodation with the complicating setting.

Idea emphasis inciting complication, is a larger-than-life idea to wrangle with, i.e., What's the Occupy Wall Street movement about? The powers that be exploitation abuses of those powerless against them: Ray Bradbury's Farenheit 451. The denouement then an accommodation with or resolution understanding of the idea's complications.

Character emphasis inciting complication, a problem influencing character identity, i.e., most any coming of age initiation narrative, where new circumstances incite complications: new locale, new job, new stage of life (middle grade, young adult, early adult, [parenthood], middle adult, late adult). Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea is about an aging man insuperably struggling with his waning manhood.

Event emphasis inciting complication, a larger-than-life occasion that incites problems and purposes, i.e., the long lost One Ring is discovered to be not lost. The denouement then the destruction of the One Ring.

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Smaug
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Well, my story is probably Character emphasis, with maybe secondary Milieu emphasis.
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extrinsic
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Character narrative outcomes end with character transformations: either moral or psychological growth or decline. Maturation is a common outcome of young and early adult coming of age narratives.
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Wannabe
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I am going through the same depressionary tendencies that you are (difficulty writing, difficulty motivating myself to keep up an exercise regimen, etc.) and I believe firmly that you need to get to the bottom of that first before worrying about your manuscript. This is for two reasons:

1) Your health and well being is most important.
2) If you are depressed, that could easily impair your writing quality.

I suggest you seek professional help (there is no shame in this, I myself have done it) and see if you can treat the problem rather than just trying to cope with the symptoms.

I empathize.

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Smaug
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quote:
Character narrative outcomes end with character transformations: either moral or psychological growth or decline. Maturation is a common outcome of young and early adult coming of age narratives.
Basically it's about a former lawman who became a drunkard after his wife and unborn son were killed by the antagonist of the story. It's his story of how he not only redeems himself from self-destruction, but also becomes at peace with the tremendous sense of vengeance he must conquer. So the way the story wraps up will show the "psychological growth" of which you write. Thus my reasoning behind the "character emphasis". Am I right in thinking this?

quote:
I suggest you seek professional help (there is no shame in this, I myself have done it) and see if you can treat the problem rather than just trying to cope with the symptoms.

I empathize.

Thanks, Wannabe. I've been thinking about seeing a counselor--although I'm usually able to fight through these bouts of depression--I've had them before and have been able to do so. Though if it lingers, it might do me good to see someone who can help.
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extrinsic
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quote:
Basically it's about a former lawman who became a drunkard after his wife and unborn son were killed by the antagonist of the story. It's his story of how he not only redeems himself from self-destruction, but also becomes at peace with the tremendous sense of vengeance he must conquer. So the way the story wraps up will show the "psychological growth" of which you write. Thus my reasoning behind the "character emphasis". Am I right in thinking this?
Right on the spot.
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KayTi
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I've actually used the snowflake method (google it, great tool if you haven't seen it before) for reverse-engingeering myself into better understanding a story I'm either writing or finished with and trying to develop marketing materials for (blurb, tagline, etc.) It's a very useful way to boil down the essence of the story. You might try it or something else like it to help you shine light on what you're trying to accomplish.

Good luck!

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Wannabe
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Smaug, you probably could fight through the depression and be "fine" but why take the chance, or why suffer more than you have to? That's what I eventually had to tell myself. It was hard, at first, making that phone call and setting it up. But really these people are professionals and want to help. Wouldn't hurt to get their expert advice. [Wink] Good luck!
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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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My take on OSC's character category structure is that a character either desires a role change or is forced into one at the beginning.

Then the middle is about the character dealing with that role change and its challenges, either trying to achieve the desired role, or trying to get out of (or get past) the undesired role.

The end involves, in the one case, either achieving the desired role, or realizing that it is not possible and being reconciled to what role is available; or, in the other case, either mastering the new, undesired role, or finally escaping it (or moving past it to a better role).

All of these outcomes require some kind of price, usually involving insights into the character's own self-image and abilities with respect to the role.

Hope that helps, Smaug.

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Smaug
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KayTi, I've seen the snowflake method, but haven't taken the time to really study it. Sounds like it's worth another look.

Wannabe, you're right. I should do it. I know it would help.

Kathleen--thanks. I appreciate the help.

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johnbrown
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When I come to a spot in my story development where I have a hard time "figuring out a plot," i.e. envisioning scenes forward, I've found it's usually a sign that the character doesn't have a problem.

A problem revolving around a specific, immediate, significant threat, lack or hardship, opportunity, or mystery. Something that requires action now.

Some people find the middles of stories the hardest part to write. I suppose they can be. But I’ve found that when I think about troubles, the scenes roll out in front of me. I think this is so because TROUBLE begs for reaction and action.

Trouble begs for scenes.

It automatically generates them.

When I was outlining Dark God’s Glory, I had parts of the story, but there was a large section of the middle where I could envision only about two scenes. I needed a heck of a lot more than two scenes. And those two scenes weren’t very interesting anyway.

As I worked on the issue, I realized my character had no immediate problem--I needed some kind of disaster! So I asked myself: “What’s the worst that could happen at this point? What would totally screw my hero over? What could go terribly wrong? What could be that problem?”

I generated a few options and very quickly ran into one carrying a few hundred watts of zing. Boom! Scenes galore, all the way up to the climax and beyond.

Just last week I was working on the story for my current thriller. I had about 60% of a novel. I knew I needed to take the problem to the next level. Knew I didn't have nearly enough scenes.

My plot had petered out. But I also knew the fix.

What's the worst that could happen? What could go wrong? How can I make things worse? What can the hero do about it? How could the hero escalate the whole situation and increase his risk?

I brainstormed options for a few days. And then, boom, I generated an answer that worked. Scenes galore right up to the end and beyond.

Problem is the engine that makes stories go.

Problem is the core of plot.

Problem generates scenes.

If your plot has petered out, I'm betting you have no specific, immediate, significant problem. And because of that there's nothing for the hero to do.

Start generating gnarly setbacks and twists. I'm pretty sure it will shake something nice out of your plot tree.

If you want more on problem and how it works, I wrote a series for SFWA that details what I'm talking about: http://www.sfwa.org/2010/12/key-conditions-for-suspense/

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johnbrown
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BTW, I found three huge helps for the doldrums.

1) Read this book. It saved my life. http://johndbrown.com/2010/04/brain-nazis-and-feeling-good-by-david-d-burns/

2) Get sunshine or a mood light.

3) Take care of your body. Sleep, get activity, eat decent food.

4) Take the test on that webpage. If you're in the moderate or even mild depression range, get into a counselor who knows about cognitive therapy in addition to medication.

5) Read that book.

Okay, so it wasn't three things. [Smile]

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rcmann
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I have depression too. Taking medication is no shame, no more than taking it for high blood pressure. Seriously good idea to see a doctor about it.

I got my novel (er... yeah. Call it a novel) back on somewhat track to an ending by applying logic, point by point. Does the hero live or die? Heroine, alive or dead? Hero and heroine together or apart? If together, lovers or friends? If apart, enemies or indifferent? Does anybody leave the area. Who gets married, who gets divorced. Does the villain win, lose, or retreat for next time? Why?

Stuff like that on a piece of scratch paper might help a little.

Edit:

I just read up. Somebody else just put the same advice. Oh well.

It's good advice.

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shimiqua
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Everyone is so smart.

For me, I get stalled when I get bored of the story, and that usually happens when I know too much about what's going to happen.

So this is my suggestion...

Figure what you want to have happen next, and then do the exact opposite.

What? It's true. That way all the ducks aren't in a row anymore, your characters are confused, and through the chaos can come something interesting enough for you to want to follow through and see what happens next.

Ducks in a row are charming, cute, quaint... But they aren't interesting. Ducks fleeing the sound of gunshots... much better.

Good luck with it.
~Sheena

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elilyn
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I seem to get stuck when I feel like there are expectations. I don't want to write something because I feel like what I'm writing might not be good enough or I'm just not sure that its the "right" way to go with a story.

When this happens I just have to remind myself that I am in charge of the world I am creating. If I want to have my main character quit what he is doing and join the circus I can. I could have the dead come back to life and on and on.

Then I remind myself that no matter what I write I can always change it later. Best to just put something on the page than to leave it blank. If I'm juggling many ideas sometimes I will write alternate chapters/scenes and then see which one seems to fit the best.

Remember you are already a writer. You've already gotten past the biggest obstacle... the beginning.

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Smaug
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To JohnBrown:

I have thrown in all sorts of problems for my characters, but they seem to get no closer to the conclusion...so my conflict causes pain, action, etc., but never resolves anything...it's almost like I'm just biding time, throwing in an attack by an evil entity here and there, then showing my characters attacking back, but it's not really escalating, just kind of staying at the same level of intensity. I know what you mean though. I need to actually put my good characters at odds with one another from time to time, and actually maybe have one of them die, or maybe another one of them actually believes that the other is going to die, so he or she goes after that person to try and rescue them...just exploring on this page for now is helping get the juices flowing, btw.

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johnbrown
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Smaug,

You don't necessarily need to pit the good guys against one another. And you don't want to just huck random problems and obstacles in, although some of the ideas you listed can be great ones.

Here's something I've found very useful. Maybe you will as well.

Start with your villain or antagonist. Look at the main objective your villain or antagonist has. There should be one. Write it out. He or she needs to be ruthlessly invested in getting that thing or achieving that end. He might even be a nice guy, but he's NOT going to let anyone stand in his way. And he's driving at it now. Like a steam roller. He's not dinking around on a scooter doing tricks on the curb.

Take a moment and step back and look at the main story problem your hero is trying to solve. There should be one.

It should be to thwart the villain, even if in the beginning he doesn't know what the villain wants or even what the real problem is. If the hero wins, the villain fails. And vice versa.

These two things should oppose each other.

Now, if it's not an external threat story, but a mystery, it's very similar. The thing that's stressing the hero needs to be something that acts like a villain. There's someone on the loose doing bad things, and if the hero doesn't solve it, then more people die. Or people are going to be exploited. Or grandma is going to die from the monkey virus. There needs to be something putting pressure on the hero that makes us feel he must solve this now, holy crap, he needs to solve it NOW.

If it's a romance, then we need something threatening the relationship. And it works like an antagonist. And sometimes is.

So once I have those two goals firmly in my mind, I play two-man chess.

I put on my villain hat. What do I want? What would be the most logical, smartest way to go about getting it? What would be my first few steps? In fact, I'm ahead of the game when the hero comes in.

Now I switch sides to the hero. Okay, I find out about this thing, what's the most logical, smartest thing for me to do to solve this problem, to thwart this bad thing from happening, given what I know about it (and I don't know everything)?

I do that thing.

But it MUST NOT SUCCEED. No, it fails in some way. Or I do make some progress, but . . .

I now switch sides again. Oh yeah, I say as villain, well this is what I would do next in that situation. With the intent to fix my problem (the hero) right then and there.

With each turn the villain escalates. He takes a logical action that's ruthless and smart. That he hopes rids himself of that idiot hero or side step him and obtain the thing he wants. This should put the hero on his heels. Hero figures out what to do. Something smart. He acts. It either goes really bad, or he barely escapes, or it looks like he wins, but then that powerful, smart, ruthless villain throws me another curve.

If my evil entity is just throwing an attack "here and there," then that villain sucks as a villain. Villians are powerful and ruthless and will squash you unless you fight tooth and nail. They will get what they want if you don't act NOW. If your evil forces are just skirmishing about, then they need to be fired, and you need to get some guys in there that are serious. [Smile]

That villain needs to want something and is ruthlessly going after it. Right now. It should not be possible for your forces to play badminton with each other. The villain needs to do something that if the hero doesn't react, he loses.

This method has helped me quite a bit.

Now I know that some stories are hardship stories (like Rothfuss NAME OF THE WIND) and others are discovery stories and don't have thriller plots. But you'll see that even in those, there is someone or some thing pitted against our hero. And the plot is driven by the same types of things.

Heck, each story in each episode of Seinfeld uses this. Things keep getting worse, the stakes higher, every time you go around the plot cycle.

If you haven't already, I suggest you give it a try. It might take you a few days of brainstorming and walking and talking, but I'm betting it will help you discover a killer way forward.

Here's one other thing. If you can identify the main hero problem, then you can give it a type. And each type of problem we face in life has a standard template of fixing it. I will take different types of steps to solve a murder than I would in a situation where someone has kidnapped me.

Look at the type of problem your hero is trying to solve. Then look at the big picture, general steps someone would take to solve that kind of a problem and general types of setbacks. This will allow you to sketch your plot from start to finish. Not in great detail, but you'll see the large movements and escalations etc.

[ February 11, 2012, 11:38 AM: Message edited by: johnbrown ]

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Smaug
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Thanks, johnny, that's very helpful. There's one thing I've always wondered about though. Here's the thing. A hero becomes a hero because he thinks or acts in a way that the ordinary individual is not capable (or believes himself incapable) of thinking or acting. For example, Sherlock Holmes discovers clues that no ordinary mortal notices. Indiana Jones gets out of situations by out-efforting (ether through thinking or action) the problem. So, in other words, the writer has to be the smart one, the one who can out think the reader in order to pull this off. As I writer, I must find a way for my character to escape from the inescapable room, or to defeat the undefeatable nemesis. I really find that difficult. I mean, truly, if I were stuck in an inescapable room, I don't know how I'd get out, yet as writers, we need to know how to do this, or our characters do, which is basically the same thing.

quote:
Figure what you want to have happen next, and then do the exact opposite.
I'm going to try that Sheena. That sounds fun, and I guess my reply to John above shows that I need more work at figuring out how to get my characters out of what I've gotten them into.

quote:
Remember you are already a writer. You've already gotten past the biggest obstacle... the beginning.
Thanks, Elilyn. I hope the beginning is the biggest obstacle, because even though I've completed one novel, finishing still seems to be the hardest part for me.
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extrinsic
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Consider thinking about obstacles, setbacks, adversaries, opposition, whatever and whoever complicates a hero's desire, as learning situations. Trial and error is a longstanding human being learning tradition. That way, a hero makes progress against resistance so that the outcome remains in doubt until the end. Not just doubt that the hero will succeed, doubt also that the hero will fail.

Heroes are forged by larger-than-life trials and errors and circumstances.

[ February 12, 2012, 04:48 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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Notumbus Bumbus
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Hello, all, my first time in the group here, and I have been enjoying this particular discussion thus far. Planning does indeed have it's advantages, but I have also found another approach that sometimes works for me (and sometimes not, of course.) I am also a visual artist, and made a discovery about process and planning my work that, at first, was somewhat upsetting: things just didn't want to keep to the plan. I would start a painting, thinking I knew what it was I was going to paint, and then the damn thing would just take off in some other direction, no matter what I did to try and rein it in.

But one day, it dawned on me that there was something else at work, in this creativity thing, whether painting, writing, or any other artistic medium. When the work first starts, pretty much anything is possible - the first word, the first line, the first color, the first shape, etc. But once you make that first decision, every other element's possibilities is finite, because it is to a varying degree constrained by that first choice. So despite all my planning, I found those constraints, at first, quite frustrating. But as time went on, I began to understand that the limitations were in fact the whole point of creating art. Without limitations, there is no start and finish, no completed work.

But I found another reason why this made sense - the constraints made by each subsequent choice - be it character development, plot structure, word choices, etc., serve to bring focus, and eventual resolution, to the work at hand. So I no longer worry if my plan falls to pieces. Instead, I try to be open to what the failure of my plan might be offering me, to be accepting of potentials unleashed by these wobbles in the process, as it were. And because of this more open acceptance, I like to think my work has become deeper, and more interesting, as a result.

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johnbrown
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quote:
A hero becomes a hero because he thinks or acts in a way that the ordinary individual is not capable (or believes himself incapable) of thinking or acting. . . I really find that difficult. I mean, truly, if I were stuck in an inescapable room, I don't know how I'd get out, yet as writers, we need to know how to do this, or our characters do, which is basically the same thing.
At least, that's what a good writer makes you think [Smile]

Here are some things that have helped me.

1. Do research in the given area at hand. Most people are just like us--they don't know tons about horses or polic procedure or machine guns or '57 Chevy's or whatever it is that's in your story. If you put in just a little time researching a subject, you'll find stuff that will make it seem like you and your character know tons more than the average bear.

For example, in my current novel I have a scene where my hero is going to have to perform a raid. I don't know much about raids. But I have friends who do. I've found books on warrant service. And some videos. Voila!

2. Plant the escape. Maybe the first time you sketch a plot turn it puts your hero into a box you can't get him out of. But you just love that plot turn. That doesn't mean you can't use it. Just ask yourself: how could I tweak the situation so there IS a way out? Then: what do I need to do to plant it so it doesn't seem like a coincidence? Then you go back and plant that stuff.

In the second book of my series the hero needed to figure something out. A small thing: how to save himself from turning into a creature that devours those he loves. I didn't know how he was going to do it in the beginning. It was a box with no doors. But I eventually figured it out. Then I went back and planted some stuff and scenes so that it would seem logical but surprising.

3. Move the scene later (or earlier). Sometimes we escalate too quickly. Or sometimes the story benefits from us going for the jugular right up front and then going where other stories don't go. So if you have a turn you just love, you might have it in the wrong place. Think about the structure.

4. Talk to an expert. Two heads are often better than one. Go to friends and family and say, if you were in this situation what would you do? Or what would you need to get out.

5. Brainstorm and research with a purpose. Maybe you don't know how to get out right off the bat. So research and brainstorm. You'll come up with something sooner or later that's a surprise to you, but feels right. Chances are, if you didn't think of it right off the bat, neither will a lot of your readers. And they don't have the luxury of sitting back and brainstorming. The story is moving too fast for them to do that.

[ February 13, 2012, 12:03 AM: Message edited by: johnbrown ]

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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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quote:
So, in other words, the writer has to be the smart one, the one who can out think the reader in order to pull this off.
Exactly. And as OSC has pointed out, the writer has all the time in the world (compared to the character) to figure it out. You make your characters look smarter than you are because they figure things out faster (in story time) than you did in writing time.

But you have to be smart enough to figure out BEFORE you get your characters into their messes how you are going to show them heroic in getting out of them.

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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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Heard something at LTUE (local SF symposium) that I quite liked: you can't use coincidence to help your characters, but you can use it to hinder them.
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johnbrown
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Kathleen,

Love the OSC insight. That's exactly what I was trying to say, but so much more succinct.

quote:
be smart enough to figure out BEFORE you get your characters into their messes
However, I am going to quibble on this one [Smile] You don't always need to know. Because, as you pointed out, writers have all the time in the world. I've found sometimes that I might get my character into a box and only THEN figure out how the box can be broken and go plant that earlier in the story. In those cases its the egg before the chicken.
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johnbrown
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quote:
Instead, I try to be open to what the failure of my plan might be offering me
I agree. I have never heard of any writer who can write a perfect plan, a perfect set of complete writing instructions that avoids all issues.

Sketches and outlines help immenseley because they give us direction. They increase productivity.

If you haven't read about how they helped author Rachel Aaron, you'll want to go here: http://johndbrown.com/2012/02/how-rachel-aaron-wrote-a-novel-in-12-days/

But I think it's a mistake to expect we must have detailed, perfect, AND complete writing instructions before we begin to draft. I just haven't found anyone who does that. Even when you have folks like Hickman and Weiss, where Hickman sends over a 70 page outline. Weiss still has decisions to make during drafting. And sometimes those things cause changes to the plan.

I prefer to think of it as a working outline, one that gets updated as I go.

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rcmann
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You can always open an encyclopedia to a random spot, stab a finger blindly, and whatever you land on gets incorporated somehow. Never know.
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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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quote:
I've found sometimes that I might get my character into a box and only THEN figure out how the box can be broken and go plant that earlier in the story. In those cases its the egg before the chicken.
Oh, absolutely, johnbrown. But surely it's easier to figure out how to get them out of the mess beforehand than it is to figure it out after. Think of a cool "mess" and then think of a clever solution, and then write it.
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extrinsic
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World War I German General Helmuth von Moltke the Elder is famous for coining the phrase no plan survives contact with the enemy.

From Wikipedia, "Moltke's Theory of War";

"Moltke's main thesis was that military strategy had to be understood as a system of options since only the beginning of a military operation was plannable. As a result, he considered the main task of military leaders to consist in the extensive preparation of all possible outcomes [emphasis added]. His thesis can be summed up by two statements, one famous and one less so, translated into English as 'No plan of operations extends with certainty beyond the first encounter with the enemy's main strength' (or "no plan survives contact with the enemy"). [A]nd 'Strategy is a system of expedients.'

"However, as can be seen from the descriptions of his planning for the war with Austria and the war with France, his planning for war was very detailed and took into account thousands of variables. It is a mistake to think that Moltke thought war plans were of no use (which a simple reading of "No battle plan survives contact with the enemy" may indicate)."

The same features are valid in my experience of planning and implementing (executing a "military" campaign) plans for writing. Note "outcomes" above in particular, as a beginning of a drama sets up an ending by introducing a main dramatic complication; and an ending is the final outcome(s) of a main dramatic complication.

"Helmuth von Moltke the Elder." Wikipedia. Web. 13 Feb. 2012.

[ February 14, 2012, 05:21 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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