What to Do When You Feel Stuck in the Dreaded Middle of Your Novel
by Tom Farr
Originally published at whisperproject.net, a blog for writers, creators, and storytellers, on October 21, 2015.
When you’re writing a story, there are moments when it seems like the words just flow from your mind, and then there are moments when trying to get any words feels like you’re trying to draw blood from yourself.
I teach high school English Language Arts to 12th graders, and they are no strangers to the two experiences above, but what I won’t let them fall back on is the concept of “writer’s block.”
The Myth of Writer’s Block
Though I teach ELA as my day job, my side hustle is freelance writing, and if writer’s block were a real thing, I’d be in real trouble. I get projects all the time that I have to finish, and sometimes the words don’t flow, but I have to do it anyway. There are times when I sit down to write and hate every idea that comes to my mind, but I can’t let that stop me. I tell my students all the time that when they feel like the words aren’t flowing, they should write anyway. You can revise and edit terrible writing, but you can’t revise and edit a blank page.
But even as a writer, I realize that pushing through the myth of writer’s block is easier said than done. If you’re writing a novel or a screenplay, those are both long form pieces of fiction. They take time. They require a high level of complexity to create a story that will have the narrative force behind it to carry it from beginning to end.
Overcoming the Dreaded Middle of Your Story
A common occurrence among fiction writers is to begin a story, excited about all the potential the story contains, only to find the ideas running out somewhere in the middle of the story. I know. I’ve been there.
A few years ago, I began writing a novel about a young woman and her friends in college who discover pages from a novel’s manuscript that detail their deaths exactly how they will happen. In the story, someone is writing their futures, and this person hasn’t been wrong yet. The story explores the nature of divine foreknowledge and human ability to shape the future. It’s by far my favorite thing I’ve written.
Though I was excited by my story concept, it was easy to lose steam because I only had a vague idea of what I wanted to happen in the story at certain key points. I knew how I wanted the story to end before I knew the beginning, but how would I come up with scene ideas to make a complete story?
Jumpstarting Story Ideas With Story Questions
Some fiction writers prefer to plan their stories out scene by scene before they ever start writing while others prefer to make it up as they go along. I find that some stories I like to write more organically, and others I like to plan out. Both approaches have their strengths. Clearly, with this particular story, writing without a plan wasn’t working, so I needed to create a plan.
Thanks to screenwriting instructor John Truby’s excellent book Anatomy of Story, I was inspired to start approaching my story by asking a lot of questions to uncover what was most important about my story.
The Questions That Saved My Story
I started with asking the question of what the significance of the future was to my story in the first place. This led to my main character having a seemingly irrational fear of what the future might possibly hold for her.
This, of course, led to the question, “Why does she fear the future?”
This question led to a pivotal moment in her backstory, as well as the influence of someone she deeply cared about as a child, shaping her fear of the future.
I kept doing that, asking questions about every element of the story, and it generated so many ideas that I had the story completely outlined scene by scene within a week.
By asking questions, I was able to discover who the characters were that needed to be a part of my story, what their driving motivations were, what events took place, and how those events drove the story forward.
Digging Deeper When You Feel Stuck
Now, anytime I feel stuck with a story I’m writing, I start digging deeper into it by asking questions.
If you’re feeling stuck, here are a few story questions to get you started.
- What does the main character want?
- Why does he want it?
- What will happen if he doesn’t get it?
- What stands in his way of getting it?
- What does he do to try to get it?
- How does he respond when someone stands in his way?
- What does he fear most?
- Why does he fear it?
Creating Space for Idea Generation
Asking story questions helps unlock the potential of your story idea and creates space to explore specific elements of the story you want to write. There’s no limit to the ideas you could come up with, but asking questions helps you to focus in on the idea generation of specific story elements. The answers to questions will naturally lead to more questions, and, therefore, more idea generation.
If you’re a writer who prefers to write with a plan in place, asking story questions is a great way to develop a solid story plan.
What strategies do you use to jumpstart your stories when you feel stuck? Please share in the response section below.