The Book That Just Won’t Work

During my tenure as a writer, I’ve found that coming up with ideas is not a problem. I can look at the nightly news, read an interesting science article, catch a snippet of dialog and suddenly I’ve got a scene in my head begging me to write a story around it. But sometimes the story part just won’t work…

I don’t call it writers block because a problem with one story doesn’t stop me from writing altogether. I usually transfer my energies to another novel or a short story or a blog article. That said, at any one time my laptop houses at least one problematic book sitting… waiting…. to be finished.

Personally, I believe my subconscious is trying to alert me to plot holes or two-dimensional characters or a major flaw I’m just not seeing. So the delay doesn’t bother me too much. I give my subconscious time to work out any problems. It’s meandering around in the back of my mind busily composing a great tale.

But sometimes, I’m under a deadline. I need the finished piece now and it needs to leave the reader satisfied. So to kick-start my process again, here are my go-to story unstickers:

  1. Get to know the characters better. One of my favorite exercises outlined by Barbara Poelle is to write 20 things about a character and then pinky-swear to myself I’ll never place that information in the actual book. (Of course, all bets are off on blog posts and marketing for the book!) Those secret character details can flesh out a protagonist. You can figure out (per Amy Lane’s excellent article at RRW) what a character curses when they stub a toe in the middle of the night. Or per James Scott Bell why they’re throwing a chair through a bay window. I even know writers that (gasp!) fill out character sheets. Whatever gives you a good handle on the character will help.
  2. Check motivations and goals.  The motivations and goals of your characters are your basic story drivers. Each character needs an external goal, an internal goal, and motivation for wanting to achieve them. These goals are what fuels your story’s conflict because what a character wants and what they need are often in direct opposition. For example, if your protagonist wants a work promotion overseas but needs the love of their romantic partner who cannot leave the country, there’s conflict. The protagonist will either need to sacrifice their promotion or their lover. Make sure each main character and major supporting character has goals and motivations. And they should all conflict. Another thing to consider, are there any non-character actors in your story that need goals and motivation? This could be a particular community, an active setting, a corporation, or even nature itself. Widening your idea of character can enrich a story. A good example is the movie Moana where the ocean itself had an agenda.
  3. Make sure that all arcs are in place.  Most writers are aware that readers expect their characters to follow a transformative arc—to grow and change. Each main protagonist should be a different person with different beliefs about themselves and the world by the end of a positive transformative arc. But relationships need an arc, too. No one remains in contact with other people and comes away exactly as they are when they first met them. People change and the relationships between them change as well. In a romance novel, the relationship is its own character. So treat it like one. Make sure your well-rounded characters have a goal outside the relationship to allow them to grow as individuals, but also give the relationship its own arc. After all, that’s what romance does. It takes two people and unites them. They grow from individuals into a couple. Think about it—romantic relationships can contain the same Blake Snyder-esque beats as an individual in a story. For example an individual experiences a “Catalyst” that sends them off on an adventure, but a relationship will have a “Meet Cute”. An individual arc has an “All Is Lost” moment when the hero believes he/she cannot win against the villain. Likewise, a relationship will have a “Break-up”. Analyze your character relationships, be they love, friendship, parental, and make them follow the arc to a satisfying end.

So these are a few of my remedies for kick-starting a reluctant story. Do you have any stuck story ideas you want to share?




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