• strict warning: Declaration of FeedsImporter::copy() should be compatible with FeedsConfigurable::copy(FeedsConfigurable $configurable) in /home/writezil/public_html/sites/all/modules/feeds/includes/FeedsImporter.inc on line 94.
  • strict warning: Declaration of FeedsNodeProcessor::map() should be compatible with FeedsProcessor::map($source_item, $target_item = NULL) in /home/writezil/public_html/sites/all/modules/feeds/plugins/FeedsNodeProcessor.inc on line 319.
  • strict warning: Declaration of FeedsNodeProcessor::setTargetElement() should be compatible with FeedsProcessor::setTargetElement(&$target_item, $target_element, $value) in /home/writezil/public_html/sites/all/modules/feeds/plugins/FeedsNodeProcessor.inc on line 319.
  • strict warning: Declaration of FeedsFeedNodeProcessor::map() should be compatible with FeedsProcessor::map($source_item, $target_item = NULL) in /home/writezil/public_html/sites/all/modules/feeds/plugins/FeedsFeedNodeProcessor.inc on line 227.
  • strict warning: Declaration of FeedsFeedNodeProcessor::setTargetElement() should be compatible with FeedsProcessor::setTargetElement(&$target_item, $target_element, $value) in /home/writezil/public_html/sites/all/modules/feeds/plugins/FeedsFeedNodeProcessor.inc on line 227.
  • strict warning: Declaration of FeedsUserProcessor::map() should be compatible with FeedsProcessor::map($source_item, $target_item = NULL) in /home/writezil/public_html/sites/all/modules/feeds/plugins/FeedsUserProcessor.inc on line 195.
  • warning: preg_replace(): Compilation failed: disallowed Unicode code point (>= 0xd800 && <= 0xdfff) at offset 1809 in /home/writezil/public_html/modules/search/search.module on line 334.
  • warning: preg_replace(): Compilation failed: disallowed Unicode code point (>= 0xd800 && <= 0xdfff) at offset 1809 in /home/writezil/public_html/modules/search/search.module on line 334.
  • warning: preg_replace(): Compilation failed: disallowed Unicode code point (>= 0xd800 && <= 0xdfff) at offset 1809 in /home/writezil/public_html/modules/search/search.module on line 334.
  • warning: preg_replace(): Compilation failed: disallowed Unicode code point (>= 0xd800 && <= 0xdfff) at offset 1809 in /home/writezil/public_html/modules/search/search.module on line 334.
  • warning: preg_replace(): Compilation failed: disallowed Unicode code point (>= 0xd800 && <= 0xdfff) at offset 1809 in /home/writezil/public_html/modules/search/search.module on line 334.
  • warning: preg_replace(): Compilation failed: disallowed Unicode code point (>= 0xd800 && <= 0xdfff) at offset 1809 in /home/writezil/public_html/modules/search/search.module on line 334.
  • You must include at least one positive keyword with 3 characters or more.
  • strict warning: Non-static method view::load() should not be called statically in /home/writezil/public_html/sites/all/modules/views/views.module on line 843.
  • strict warning: Declaration of views_plugin_display::options_validate() should be compatible with views_plugin::options_validate(&$form, &$form_state) in /home/writezil/public_html/sites/all/modules/views/plugins/views_plugin_display.inc on line 1877.
  • strict warning: Declaration of views_plugin_display_block::options_submit() should be compatible with views_plugin_display::options_submit(&$form, &$form_state) in /home/writezil/public_html/sites/all/modules/views/plugins/views_plugin_display_block.inc on line 193.
  • strict warning: Declaration of views_handler_field_broken::ui_name() should be compatible with views_handler::ui_name($short = false) in /home/writezil/public_html/sites/all/modules/views/handlers/views_handler_field.inc on line 641.
  • strict warning: Declaration of views_handler_sort_broken::ui_name() should be compatible with views_handler::ui_name($short = false) in /home/writezil/public_html/sites/all/modules/views/handlers/views_handler_sort.inc on line 82.
  • strict warning: Declaration of views_handler_filter::options_validate() should be compatible with views_handler::options_validate($form, &$form_state) in /home/writezil/public_html/sites/all/modules/views/handlers/views_handler_filter.inc on line 585.
  • strict warning: Declaration of views_handler_filter::options_submit() should be compatible with views_handler::options_submit($form, &$form_state) in /home/writezil/public_html/sites/all/modules/views/handlers/views_handler_filter.inc on line 585.
  • strict warning: Declaration of views_handler_filter_broken::ui_name() should be compatible with views_handler::ui_name($short = false) in /home/writezil/public_html/sites/all/modules/views/handlers/views_handler_filter.inc on line 609.
  • strict warning: Declaration of views_handler_filter_boolean_operator::value_validate() should be compatible with views_handler_filter::value_validate($form, &$form_state) in /home/writezil/public_html/sites/all/modules/views/handlers/views_handler_filter_boolean_operator.inc on line 128.
  • strict warning: Declaration of views_plugin_style_default::options() should be compatible with views_object::options() in /home/writezil/public_html/sites/all/modules/views/plugins/views_plugin_style_default.inc on line 25.
  • strict warning: Declaration of views_plugin_row::options_validate() should be compatible with views_plugin::options_validate(&$form, &$form_state) in /home/writezil/public_html/sites/all/modules/views/plugins/views_plugin_row.inc on line 135.
  • strict warning: Declaration of views_plugin_row::options_submit() should be compatible with views_plugin::options_submit(&$form, &$form_state) in /home/writezil/public_html/sites/all/modules/views/plugins/views_plugin_row.inc on line 135.
  • strict warning: Non-static method view::load() should not be called statically in /home/writezil/public_html/sites/all/modules/views/views.module on line 843.
  • strict warning: Declaration of content_handler_field::options() should be compatible with views_object::options() in /home/writezil/public_html/sites/all/modules/cck/includes/views/handlers/content_handler_field.inc on line 208.
  • strict warning: Non-static method view::load() should not be called statically in /home/writezil/public_html/sites/all/modules/views/views.module on line 843.
  • strict warning: Non-static method view::load() should not be called statically in /home/writezil/public_html/sites/all/modules/views/views.module on line 843.
  • strict warning: Non-static method view::load() should not be called statically in /home/writezil/public_html/sites/all/modules/views/views.module on line 843.
  • strict warning: Non-static method view::load() should not be called statically in /home/writezil/public_html/sites/all/modules/views/views.module on line 843.
  • strict warning: Declaration of views_handler_argument::init() should be compatible with views_handler::init(&$view, $options) in /home/writezil/public_html/sites/all/modules/views/handlers/views_handler_argument.inc on line 745.
  • strict warning: Declaration of views_handler_argument_broken::ui_name() should be compatible with views_handler::ui_name($short = false) in /home/writezil/public_html/sites/all/modules/views/handlers/views_handler_argument.inc on line 770.

Four Questions To Ask When Your Writing Is Stuck

Photo by Roy Blumenthal
I’ve worked with hundreds of genre novelists over the past few years, as an editor, “plotstorm” partner, and coach. My job is to help them take the swirling, chaotic mess of characters and premise fragments and “cool ideas”, and guide them to a clear, cohesive vision of how the story could work.
In all that time, I’ve noticed that when a writer is stuck, there are four basic questions which identify where they’re getting tripped up, and often how to fix it.
Keep in mind: these are most applicable to genre-geared three act structure.  That said, they can apply to any story.  If you’re feeling stuck, see if you can answer these four questions:

  1. What does your character want?

If you don’t know what your protagonist wants, both in life in general and in this story particularly, then odds are good you’re going to get stuck. Protagonists are characters who, as a direct result of their journey through the struggles of the novel, change and grow. They also go from reactive to proactive. Consequently, they need to want something.
This is also best put in positive terms. State what the character wants as opposed to what he doesn’t want.  It’s better to say “the character wants to make it to the American embassy” rather than “the character wants to evade the bad guys.”
For one thing, the first statement is clear, tangible, and measurable. He’s either at the embassy, or he’s not. As long as he’s not in the hands of the bad guys, on the other hand, he’s technically “evading the bad guys.”
At the very least, put a time limit or other tangible restriction on it – evade the bad guys until the package gets delivered or something.  (Although, in that case, it seems like the characters goal would then be ensure delivery of the package… you see how that works?)
(The other side of this coin: if you have a story with an antagonist, knowing what he wants is also crucial. He can’t simply be bad simply because you want a conflicting force. That’s how mustache twirling two-dimensional villains occur. Nobody wants that.)

  1. What is the consequence if the character doesn’t achieve what he wants?

This is a test for stakes, which I’ve discussed in depth in an earlier post.
The character must not only want something, he must want it very, very badly. We don’t want to see someone ambling through a story, bouncing against new characters and situations like a pinball, with no direction of his own.
He can be confused, he can be reluctant, but he’s got to have a clear desire, and there needs to be a real and significant consequence if the goal isn’t met. That will increase urgency, both for the protagonist and for the reader.

  1. What’s the worst thing that can happen to the character, in terms of the story goal?

Note that last phrase: in terms of the story goal.
What I often hear from authors are tragic but unrelated “bad things” that could happen to a character. Say the character wants to solve a crime. The proposed worst things: he gets cancer, or he’s evicted, or his wife leaves him.
These are all bad, and they probably would impact a person’s ability to sleuth. But they aren’t directly related to the goal, or more importantly, to the motivation behind said goal.  Unless it’s directly related to the central goal, it’s not the “worst thing” (or “black moment”, to use genre parlance.)
If the character wants to solve the crime because it will capture the person responsible for his wife’s death, for example, then the worst thing might be the person he suspects has no proof and will continue to live free and hurt others. To make matters worse, said killer may now target the protagonist’s sibling, child, or new love interest to further inflict pain on the protagonist.  That is a way of raising the stakes, showing that the conflict can definitely get worse.
The “worst thing” question is both a test of focus, and a test of conflict scalability. If the worst thing is both ineffective and could happen relatively quickly, you may not have enough conflict to sustain a full length novel.

  1. How is the character different at the end of the book, as a result of the struggles he’s been through, as opposed to the beginning of the book?

Remember how I said that protagonists change and grow?  This is a test of that principle.
The change must be more than simply a situational change. Let’s say you have a book, where the character goes cross country on some adventure. If the only difference in the character is the fact that he’s 3,000 miles west of where he started, then you probably don’t have a compelling novel.  You can have a character in the same job, same house, same life situation, but if his attitude and character have been altered, and if he has noticeably grown and developed, then you’ve got the change readers are looking for.
Again, these are all most applicable for three act structure genre novels. If you’ve got a literary fiction novel, or a series of vignettes, these rules will not apply. But if you’re writing in pretty much any genre, then these four questions will generally get you unstuck — and writing — in a hurry.
Let’s put it into practice.   In the comments, can you answer at least one of these questions for your current work in progress? 

About Cathy YardleyCathy Yardley is the author of eighteen novels, published with houses such as St. Martin's and Avon, as well as her self-published Rock Your Writing series. She's also a developmental editor and writing coach, helping authors complete, revise, and get their stories published. Sign up here for her newsletter to receive the free course Jumpstart Your Writing Career.Web | More Posts

"You call this a script? Give me a couple of $5000.00-a-week writers and I'll write it myself. "
Joe Pasternak

Random picks

  • Ursula Buchan (yes, one of John Buchan’s grand-daughters), trained as a gardener after taking a degree in history, and was the Spectator’s gardening correspondent for twenty years. This is certainly not her … Continue reading →
  • "—What are you doing, father?" Journal of an Ordinary Grief, by Mahmoud Darwish, translated from the Arabic by Ibrahim Muhawi. Available October 15, 2010 from Archipelago Books. "A bitingly cold night in December." My Kind of Girl by Buddhadeva Bose, translated from the Bengali by Arunava Sinha. Available October 30, 2010 from Archipelago Books. "Commander: The Master knows I mark my time                        Awaiting him."   Fuenteovejuna by Lope de Vega, translated from the Spanish by G.J. Racz. Available now from Yale University Press. "When they...
  • Have you ever purchased a product because of a well written review, excellent description or buyer recommendation? If you have bought anything because of this, you know just how important this type of content can be. Boost your article submission success by reading these proven tips. Freebies are great to use. Freebies give people the impression that they have gotten something valuable and will be more likely to buy your products if you have shown them what they can expect. Also, freebies that have your logo on them can benefit you with free advertising when your customers use them in...
  • Have you ever felt trapped mainly because you did not have any money? I’ve felt like that my entire life, coming from a family with financial troubles. I desired really much in life to be able to change my families economic scenario, but far more then anything, I wished to have the ability to pursue my dreams. I hardly ever wanted to hear my father complain over bills again, and I definitely did not desire to be the one stressing either. So I worked up a plan and that program was affiliate marketing. So if you’ve just started in affiliate marketing or your searching for data,...
  • In July, I wrote about an online magazine, Journal of the American Revolution , dedicated to the war which brought American independence. When I heard that there would be a version in traditional hard back format, I was eager to compare them. At the beginning of the book, The Letter From the Editors calls the contents their “greatest hits”, but I found it more of a cornucopia. The book is proof of the wide variety of subjects within their remit. It’s more categorized than the website, with articles gathered by topics in loosely chronological order. The pieces range from scholarly ones...

Recommended sites

Most recent titles

Fast fact about writing

It has been said that a monkey, randomly typing away on a typewriter (in the days when typewriters replaced the pen or plume as the preferred instrument of writing) could re-create Shakespeare-- but only if it lived long enough (this is known as the infinite monkey theorem).