Help! I'm Stuck

A workshop for group brainstorming activities.
Prepared for QuadCities Christian Writer's Conference, April 8, 2011
c. Lisa J Lickel

How did this happen? My albino cows are lost in a snowstorm! My characters took a left when I distinctly told them right, and now their cell phone's dead because they forgot the charger. Good thing, since I have absolutely no idea what to do with them now, anyway.

Where's my plot?
What happens next?

Sit back and take a deep breath. Getting stuck, or even getting started, has a real solution. We've all been there – lost either because we didn't follow directions through poor sense of direction or miscommunicated instructions. Either works for when you get lost in the maze of your writing.

You can go from Crisis to Aha! by using some very basic brainstorming techniques. With a few steps, we can get your writer brain back on track. Once the challenge is outlined, a plan of attack that involves
  • creating conflict,
  • ramping tension, and
  • goal orientation
can make you victorious.

Brainstorming tools and techniques for a group (or on your own): see Appendix A
For our group purposes, we'll use both our handouts and large sheets of used packing paper I've brought so we can work together. The group paper will be given to the author.

Getting started.
I like to use a large sheet of paper and either attach it a wall or lay on a large surface like a table or floor. (You can often buy "end rolls" at your local newspaper office.) Ground rules: courtesy, no idea-or-person/self-bashing; silly ones often end up working the best, talk fast, but also write, a timer, lots of pens – colors are fun, but it takes time to change. Pacing and hand waving okay.

Identify the problem. (Set your timer for five minutes.) Go backward to the last action, or the last point plot. Challenge yourself to directly identify What Needs to Happen. This works for either character or plot-driven stories. Refer to your master outline – if you don't have one, then stop right now and create one. What's the end of the story and How do I get there? What are the essential incidents that need to happen to keep the momentum going? What are the compelling conflicts that move my characters along?

Why can't you move forward? Is your plot potholed, derailed by robbers, or your tracks ahead covered by a landslide? Are your characters flat, lifeless, too happy or too clich├ęd? Do you simply not like what's happening? Get the tension ramped up to light speed to engage your readers.

Create a starting point: (Character) is…   (Scenario) is…
Move forward. I suggest setting a timer for ten minutes.

Ask good questions.
What the general story goals, the specific character goals? How can these characters achieve their goals? Where do they need to go? Why is it crucial for them to be in this or that place? When will they meet their first, or second, or third challenge? Who will they encounter to either help or hinder their goals?

How can this problem be attacked? What are the options…these are good questions, not "why can't I fix this" for those types of questions tend to be self-defeating and have nothing to do with the situation. Think like your character: What would so and so do if this and such for forced upon him?

Chart: Who, What, When, Where, Why, How and spend a few minutes answering them.
Start Where I'm Stuck
My character is
My scenario is
Who (is in the scene)
Are they necessary – do we need someone else or to get rid of someone?

What ('s happening)
Can we shake anything up?

When (timing; what part of the story are you)

Or time of day/calendar – can it be some other time?

Where (what's the setting)
Does the action have to be here? Can some other place serve the purpose?

Why (motive, purpose)

How (are we moving toward the goal)
If we're not actively seeking the goal, why not?

Building Tension

A writer builds tension through conflicts – both solvable and unsolvable.
To create tension, a writer can add elements to the story or take them away.

For adding elements: new surprise characters which do not always have to be human – pets with a quirk (think Charlotte's Web); a natural element like weather or earthquake; a favor element – friend or stranger asks something (think fairy tales)

For taking away elements: Think what can be lost – freedom, choice, things both or either loved or hated. What if the character recovered (think House) or received the goal without working for it? Loss through death; loss through carelessness (guilt); theft, natural or unnatural means – think loss of mentor: now the student has to figure out how to carry on.

Chart: Setting Conflicts (Big problems to Smaller problems)
But remember – they must all directly impact the resolution – every issue has to drive the story onward toward the solution/resolution

Solvable vs Unsolvable
Natural vs. manmade – impossible odds to overcome – always a great big final hurdle (think Poseidon Adventure; the Donner party; the young man who had to cut off his own arm; the Chilean miners)

Chart: Character Conflicts (Big Picture setting conflicts vs. Big Picture people conflicts)
But remember – they must all directly impact the resolution – every issue has to drive the story onward toward the solution/resolution

My fault vs. not my fault
Again – nature vs. humanity; is there anything that can't be solved? Think Captain Kirk – he didn't believe in the no-win scenario. If I can't fix it, can I live with it?

Note: Tension Building Blocks follows the charts.


Setting Conflicts
Bigger Problems
Smaller Problems
Solvable – what physical roadblocks are thrown in the way of your character's ability to achieve his or her goals?

Can you add something?

Unsolvable – if a problem arises that creates a permanent change, what or how is the character willing to deal with the issue? Adapt or die, encourage or urge others to give in?

Can you take away something?

Character Conflicts
Bigger Problems
Smaller Problems
My fault
What did my character do that allowed this issue to occur?

Can you add something?

Not my fault – what extenuating circumstances or problems outside of the character's control occur that develop to force the character to decide to sidetrack to solve, or ignore in order to continue on toward the goal?

Can you take away something?

For Charting Ideas and finding those Aha! Moments
Tension Building Blocks

What If questions for anything and everything; especially news items.

What are Solvable and Unsolvable problems?

Natural disasters -- Earthquake, fire, storm, landslide, genetics, birth defects

Man-made disasters – some of the above can fit here too

People mess up!
People are horrible and mean to each other, whether they believe they're helping or acting in your best interest.

Love – is an action? Or a feeling? You react very differently according to what you believe.

Surprise! Characters don't always have to be human.
Adding pets or other effective characters, think Charlotte's Web, etc.

Asking favors – boons, questing stories

The Twist – take your character or your story in the opposite direction and see what happens.

Loss – What are things that can be lost?
Things you love
Things you hate

How are things lost – through carelessness? This can lead to guilt
Lost through theft, death, natural means or unnatural means.
How about the loss of a mentor, and now the character has to figure out how to journey on his or her own?
Gather new people – can they be trusted? How will I know?

In Plot-driven Fiction, the problems often are natural disasters or outside influences (terrorism, criminal activity) that the main character must address. These problems affect the main character directly either through threatening family or job or colleagues. These will more likely be your action-driven novels, thriller, crime solvers, often mysteries, but not always.

In Character-driven Fiction, the problems are usually people-related, usually caused by or involve people close to your characters, or who become close to your characters. Romances, often historicals fall here, and women's fiction.

General fiction straddles the fence.


Goal Orientation

Reality Check: Are my goals achievable? If they're not, is that going to satisfy my readers?
Can I re-direct them without having to start over? Do I have a mini-goal in every scene that builds up to the big problem that needs to be overcome?
Is my character sufficiently motivated to overcome this problem or achieve the goal? What can I do to make it so?
Is the right person telling the story? Who has the most to lose? Who has the most to gain? This is often a struggle in books that have more than one main character. Many characters can be involved, each with an identified goal and substory, but often having a narrator, or one of the characters (and not necessarily the most high-profile or prominent one) be the glue that holds the rest of story together.
Do I have an identifiable plot? See Appendix B for Plots in Literature.

Chart: go ahead and chart your characters and their goals, clearly identifying who are the most prominent, what their conflicts are, and what their goals are.

Good stories revolve around these three points:
What is desperately needed; Why it can't be had; What needs to be overcome to obtain the goal.

Goal Orientation
Major goal
Minor goal
Overall theme of the story (in one word)

The desired outcome is:

What will happen if it can't be achieved:

What is important about this goal?

What is keeping the character from achieving the goal?
Select several minor accomplishments along the way to achieve the major goal. What is significant about these stepping stones?




Defining the Goal
One big issue often is: Whose story is this? Whose should it be? Is the goal realistic, achievable?
See Appendix B for Plots