Recently, I heard a quote (possibly in the Dan Wells 7-point plot videos I posted about here, and which was probably paraphrased when I heard it, and which I am going to paraphrase) that said if you get to a point in your story where you don’t know what to do, have someone burst through the door with a gun.
That statement is part joke, part lesson, part koan aimed at slapping some satori into your slogging creative mind. I wish to use it as a launching point.
Fundamentally, the quote is talking about conflict. As fiction writers, we know the importance of conflict to our stories. Diplomats who come to the table already in agreement don’t make for a good story. Soldiers who climb up and out of their trench and sprint for the opposite trenchline, weaving their way through volley after volley of encouragement, only so that they can shake hands with the men or women there (you can’t really call them “enemies,” can you?) just don’t engage the reader. On the other hand, what is the hallmark of a bad action flick? All action, all the time. A bad action movie is like the saddest, distorted, excessive realization of the quote I started with. It’s like the screenwriter had no idea what to do with the story, or didn’t have a worthwhile story to tell, and so just constantly had people bursting through doors with guns.
If we think about conflict not just as the thing that engages with our reader but also, as the quote suggests, the thing which moves our story along, then we can form some generalized reasons for why you may be at a loss as to where your story needs to go.
Disclaimer: I do not pretend to know enough to say that these will fit all cases, nor am I too proud to admit that there might be another generalized reason that I haven’t considered. If you find either to be true, let me know. I’d like to hear about it.
OK, on to our generalizations.
First, you may not have a story worth telling, at least in its current form. I wouldn’t think this to be the cause too often, because by the time we put pen to paper we at least of some idea of the story we want to write. Even discovery writers (“pantsers,” as I’ve heard them called) will have spent some time with the story idea in their head. Still, if the other potential causes for story stagnation turn out to be false, you might want to take a hard look at your story. Most times, I’ve found, when the story itself turns out to be the problem but I still really like the sprockets, widgets, and goo from which the story arose in the first place, the problem is that I’m focused on the wrong narrative thread.
Maybe the story isn’t about the way the king’s guard is divided over who should replace their dead king.
…maybe it’s about the division caused because they think one of their own number might have been responsible for his death.
Maybe the story isn’t about the division caused by the guards suspecting one of their own number.
…maybe they know who did it, and the question is whether that person did right by the kingdom.
To put it in completely abstract terms:
Maybe the story isn’t about the guitar.
…maybe the story is about the music you make with the guitar.
A second possibility for why your story isn’t going anywhere is that you have the right story, but you’re telling it about the wrong people. This is slightly more common than the previous cause, and slightly easier to fix, I think. This could be a matter of…
A) Perspective: maybe the story of the guard regiment (above) shouldn’t be told about a particular guard who wasn’t responsible for betraying the king; maybe it should be told about the guard who did betray the king; or maybe about the inexperienced, young captain trying to get the regiment past their dissension
B) Wholesale Character Substitution: maybe this isn’t a troop of all male guards; maybe instead there is a female guard, too, in whatever capacity (betrayer, captain, or common soldier with a voice of reason) as serves the story
C) Character Tweaking: maybe you already had the idea that one of the guards would be female, but that wasn’t enough; maybe that female character’s position (as a lone female in a typically male-dominated profession) could be explained because she was the dead king’s youngest daughter, and he could hardly deny the light of his world her dream of entering the guard
Oooh, suddenly you’re on to something, especially if the king’s daughter was the one who took the king’s life (by whatever explanation the story provides–maybe the dying king asked her to end his suffering before some marriage took place that would have placed the crown into the hands of a veritable brigand).
Now, by whatever adjustment you made above, you have the right character for the right story. So what if you’re still stuck?
Enter the third potential reason your story may be stagnate. This one is, at least for me, more commonly the problem than are the previous two, but it is in some ways the easiest to fix. Even with the right characters and the right story, you could be left wondering where your story needs to go because you aren’t being truthful about your characters.
I’ll have more to say about this in the second installment of Corruption: A User’s Guide, but the short of it is you have to let your characters play together in an unfriendly way. Your characters will each have their own point of view and belief about how to fix the problem, if not what the problem is in the first place. They will disagree with each other and, and this is the tricky part, they will disagree with you.
One of the truest statements I ever heard was, “No one goes to a false church to worship a false god.” Everyone believes in the rightness of their cause. People who are more violent than you believe that their violence is justified. People who are less truthful than you have an explanation why.
So if you have characters playing together too nicely, start being honest with them. In our story, not every one of our guards is going to be a nice guy with a noble soul. Some are going to drink and visit the brothel after they get off their shift. One or two might beat their wives. A handful might gamble. More than one has killed an enemy he didn’t have to on the battlefield.
And, more important to our story, no matter what the intentions or explanations of our daughter of the king as to why she killed her father, there will be some who think that a dark alley and a cold blade are the quickest way to right the situation, and all her nobility be damned. If you don’t let those characters breathe, you’ll lose your conflict and you’ll lose your momentum.
But that is the subject of another post.