3 Questions to Help You Unstick Your Story

When I work with authors who have hit a wall in their story, whether they’re pantsers or plotters, 70% of the time I can help them overcome it by asking three simple questions.

It can be incredibly hard to spot this issue in your own story (hence hiring someone else to help you break through). I know this on a personal level because it’s commonly the solution to my own writing woes. The first few times I encountered it, I wasted hours, sometimes days (weeks) trying to put my finger on it. Now it’s the first thing I go back to when I feel stuck.

Ready for it?

All you need to do to begin moving past the block is to answer these three questions:

  1. What does the main character want?
  2. What does the main character need?
  3. How does what she wants prevent her from getting what she needs?

That’s it. Sufficiently answering those three questions solves plotting woes about 70% of the time.

Why? Because the battle of want vs. need is the gravitational pull of your story. When you lose sight of it, you also lose sight of how the story should end in a satisfying manner and how you get there. Keep your eye on the answers to these three questions, and you’re halfway home.

However, how you resolve the want v. need tension may change depending on what sort of message you’re trying to get across. Notice in the above paragraph, I said “satisfying” not “happy.” The two are not one in the same, though there is a lot of overlap on the Venn diagram.

A happy ending usually has the protagonist getting both what he wants and what he needs. Often, this requires the protagonist to change his idea of what it is he wants so that he can come into alignment with what he needs. Or he can temporarily forgo what he wants to get what he needs, and in doing so, he just so happens to also get what he wants.

Let’s look at Disney’s Aladdin as a simple example of this.

What does Aladdin want? To marry Jasmine. 
What does Aladdin need? To stop fixating on the superficial weakness of his social status and start focusing on his strengths (bravery, cunning, compassion, rocks a street-rat vest like no one else).
How does what Aladdin wants get in the way of him getting what he needs? So long as he’s using all his time and resources (i.e. wishes)to present himself as a prince, believing it’s the only way to win Jasmine’s heart, he ignores his innate positive characteristics that would actually impress a woman like Jasmine.

And how does it end? He gets what he needs when he’s found out and forced to confront his true self, and in doing so, he gets what he wants: a hot slice of Princess Jasmine. And to make sure the audience knows that he’s a changed man, he uses his last wish to do something in alignment with his true self: free the genie.

Though simplistic, the Disney version has an incredibly satisfying ending because it shows that only through doing what Aladdin needs to do can he attain what he wants.

But note that what he wants changes slightly throughout. During his failed attempts to put on airs, Aladdin takes to objectifying Jasmine fairly atrociously, showing that he’s more obsessed with the fact that she’s a princess than the fact that she’s a cool chick. But then, as he gets to know her, his desire changes from a selfish wish to claim her to a more altruistic desire to ensure she’s safe and happy (with or without him) and, most importantly, not Jafar’s sex slave.

Another way to use this want vs. need tension for you ending is to have the protagonist go after what she wants at the cost of what she needs. This is what we call a tragedy.

The protagonist works, works, works, attains what she wants, and finds it doesn’t fulfill her. And it’s too late to go back. Balls.

Maybe she’s run off everyone she loved in the process of getting what she wants and what she needed was simply love. If we stop the story there, ring down the curtain, stick a fat THE END on it, it’s a tragedy.

But if this moment becomes a point where the main character has a personal revelation and realizes that she needs to change her behavior, it’s not too late, and she can still get what she needs, then we just might squeeze an incredibly satisfying ending out of this sucker.

So the next time you’re writing and feel like you can’t decide how it should end or what to do next, pause and ask yourself those three crucial questions. Maybe do a five-minute free write on each, have yourself a nap or a poop, and I wager the ideas will begin to present themselves to you much more freely.

And if they don’t, if you’re among the minority who are still struggling, you can always pay someone who’s smart and affordable to help you beat the block.

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