Finding Balance when Your Story is Stalled
“What should I do when I get stuck in my story? It feels as though I have too much action happening at once, so how do I balance it out?” ~Belle, 8th grade
This April, I ran a Young Writers’ Spring Camp based on the theme of Camp NaNoWriMo (pick one writing project and a word count goal for the month and write like crazy to meet that goal.)
One of my students, Belle, was tackling a story told from four points of view and understandably she got stuck writing too many back-to-back action scenes. She needed balance and scene transitions.
Breaking up action is useful and necessary. You can give a little reprieve to your readers, with dialogue, backstory, setting descriptions, and transition scenes.
Here are some specific tips on breaking up too much action:
Plot Scene Cards
In the writing workshops I teach, we start plotting our stories in an unconventional method. I ask my students to think about the scenes they know they want to include in their story (i.e. a romance scene, a fight scene, an escape, etc.) With those scenes in mind, I ask them to write down 2–4 sentences summarizing each scene onto an index card. After having about 10–15 scenes summarized (for a novel-length piece), they can begin writing the scenes out of order (which helps jumpstart the writing process) or they can read through and organize the cards into the best chronological order for their story. Plot scene cards work for pantsers and planners alike. When we have some idea of what we’re writing and where our story is going, we’re less likely to get stuck.
If you’ve run out of outlined scenes, see where you can add in some backstory, showing the history of the character(s) up until this point. This is not an info dump, though. Be careful that you’re not just listing of string of details, like “She was born on a Tuesday, was a colicky baby, a clumsy toddler, etc.” Instead, try adding in details about the character’s past that are relevant to their story, moments that have shaped him/her to this point. Think about the image and tone you want to convey. This can be done through dialogue, flashbacks or internal thoughts. After a tense or action-filled scene, you might have the protagonist think or say: “This was so typical of Emily. When we were eight years old she’d like to _____ and I always ended up ___.” This will provide both a history of the named character and the protagonist’s inner thoughts and feelings about this memory of the character, which will also give readers a hint about their relationship and the protagonist’s personality. Anytime you can get the reader inside your protagonist’s head is a good thing. Provide hints, little snippets of thought, and leave a breadcrumb trail for your readers to follow deeper into the story. Plus, that bit of narrative gives the reader a much needed break from back to back action scenes.
Ask What If?
When you’re uncertain what should happen next in your story, make a list of about 5–10 different scenarios, by asking “what if ____ happened?” and follow the path of the most interesting idea! Think outside of your story world. Imagine choices your protagonist can make that will stir up trouble or go against their natural instincts. You’ll be surprised how much you can learn about your character by allowing them to do the opposite of what they’d normally do. Also, when asking “what if?” try to be as outrageous as you can. An alien abducts the protagonist’s best friend. The school is turned to jello. A character’s dog starts talking to him. You probably won’t use the silly ideas, but they will help you decide what should not happen next, and that little trick of the mind might set you on the right path for your story.
Have the character(s) reflect on what is happening in the story — show us what they think about a situation, have them digest the meaning of a snide remark, or argue about something they heard — let us in their heads! Readers crave a connection to the characters they’re reading about. Here’s one method that will help you as the writer get into your character’s head: Try a journal entry written from the character’s POV (Point of View) — to get to know how they’re feeling. It can be a “dear diary” or it can be in response to an existential question: “what is the one decision I regret making?” Then you can weave in some of those inner thoughts. This will slow down the pacing of the scene by adding in emotions and allowing the reader to feel what your character is feeling, thus sealing the connection between your reader and your character.
Describe the setting around the action — remember to infuse mood! If it’s a tense scene — describe the setting using carefully selected verbs and adjectives and imagery that cause panic, tension, anxiety: The tree limbs quivered under the whipping rain. However, you might describe that same setting differently if the scene is calming, or sweet and romantic: The tree limbs dipped shyly, spotted with tiny pink petals like each branch had been kissed by fairies. Describing the setting by using your five senses will add to the dimension of your story world and act as a nice transition between action-packed scenes.
Just move forward
If all else fails, draw a line across the page — put a sticky note on it that says “something happens here” and move on to the next scene. Seriously! I have bins filled with notebooks of abandoned novels and stories because I couldn’t figure out how to get from A to B in my story and just stopped writing it altogether. Don’t do what I did! Move on. This is the first draft. The second, and subsequent drafts will be more focused on filling plot holes, deepening the character arcs, adding more symbolism and connections, and fixing the problems you’re running into now.
Let us know — Post below:
Did you use any of these methods to get unstuck? Share in the comments your before and after.
Spill your secrets:
Have you used a method not shown here to get your story unstuck, or to balance the action and the narration? Please share in the comments, your tips may help another young writer!
Walk the Web:
Check out these other posts on balancing action, dialogue and narrative:
When Mary Jo Campbell is not caving in to her two spoiled dogs or two spoiled teenagers, she’s inspiring young writers to find their unique voice and share their story with the world. Wanna join the Writing Revolution? Visit WriteLikeCrazy.com for more info and to receive a Free page of story prompts!