Our Round Robin Topic for August is - When you are stumped on moving a plot line forward, what do you do to reinvigorate your imagination and get your characters moving?
What a great topic – I am eager to read all the tricks and methods other authors use to get past a roadblock. I’m sure it’s far less of a problem for those who carefully plot out their whole book before they begin to write, but every time I try to plot or outline, I end up stalled before I even begin. I’m a true pantser. I like to create characters I know well and then throw the inciting incident at them and see what they do next. Unfortunately that often leads to me wondering – what next?
There are several options that I try. The first is to get out of my study and go for a walk. I take my characters and their situation with me. While I’m contemplating what next? I rehearse lengthy dialogs between them, picture all kinds of things happening to them. It doesn’t matter how far out or impossible the situations my imagination takes me to. Most of what goes through my mind might never end up in the book, but it nearly always sparks a thought that becomes a springboard for what next?
Another method is playing the “What If?” game. For example, I might have my hero and heroine sitting in a café with coffee steaming in front of them. They’ve been fighting and I’m not sure if this is where they make up or if they get up and go on their way with the problem unresolved. So I might ask myself, What if an old boy/girlfriend showed up with an embrace and a kiss? Or what if the guy hauls out his wallet to drop a bill on the table before he storms out and discovers he forgot his wallet or his wallet is empty? What if she starts to get up, catches her foot on the chair and falls? What if a cop shows up to question one of them about a crime? What if a little kid at the next table pops up with a grin on his face and tells them they should be nice to each other? What if the hero spills his coffee and the scalding liquid flows into the heroine’s lap? The What if’s are endless and none might be the answer, but just starting to ask the questions and considering all the possible outcomes to each usually breaks the dam and suddenly I know exactly where this argument is going and how the scene should end or the next scene begin.
Sometimes the roadblock needs for me to just go somewhere else and leave my characters in limbo while my brain takes a break. Go read a book, watch a movie, visit a friend, call family member for a chat. Then I come back to my story with a refreshed mind.
When all else fails, I take my problem to my brainstorming buddies. We call ourselves the Sandy Scribblers and we meet once a month to discuss our current works in progress. When I have a major roadblock, I present the situation to my group and the what if game turns into a badminton game with ideas bouncing off everyone, growing and multiplying. Sometimes the ideas aren’t workable, or don’t fit the characters, but most of the time several possibilities come home with me and I am re-energized and eager to get back to writing with a whole army of possibilities whirling in my brain.
When all of these options fail, I might sit back to wonder if I really had a story to begin with. Or were my characters as thoroughly thought out as they should have been? Have I missed something from the backstory that should have been there? Often I’ll find some piece to the larger picture that I’ve been ignoring and by focusing on it, the roadblock clears. What next? is the incorporation of that missing piece.
One other habit I have as a writer is that I don’t always write in a linear fashion. Sometimes I see whole scenes or hear dialogs that I know don’t belong where I am currently in the story, so while they are fresh and vibrant in my mind, I open another file I call Bits and Pieces and just start typing, getting the whole scene or dialog down and then save it for later. Sometimes when I hit a roadblock, I visit the Bits and Pieces file and read through these various scenes or snatches of scenes and miscellaneous ideas and sometimes one of them is exactly what I need in my manuscript. If I’ve just written a thought or idea, I return to the main manuscript and try writing it. If it’s a detailed scene, I copy and paste it, then work out how to connect all the dots. And sometimes when I am at a crossroads and can’t think where to go next, I open the Bits and Pieces file and start typing something new that might or might not end up in the story, but the process encourages me and often when I return to the main document I suddenly realize I do know what next?
Want to know what some of my author friends do when they hit a roadblock? Check them out.
Anne de Gruchy
Dr. Bob Rich