What to do if you get stuck

When I did my first novel, I got to around 100 pages and hit a roadblock.  I didn’t understand why, but I couldn’t get past it.  I’d rewrite, trying to find the problem, but once I reached that same section, the problem was still there.  I knew something was wrong, but I couldn’t figure out exactly what it was.  Because of this stuck point, ultimately, I never finished it.

Patricia Wrede notes:

Diagnosis is important, because different kinds of stuckness require different solutions.

So if you’re stuck, the first thing to do is try to identify exactly why you’re stuck.  The reason doesn’t necessarily mean that something in the story is broken and needs to be fixed.  It could be something as simple as a scene or chapter requiring a little more time to simmer and develop.  What you shouldn’t do is rewrite to find the problem, because the problem’s still going to be there at the end of the rewrite–and still unsolved.

But it’s not a deal breaker if you don’t identify what the problem is.  Sometimes the problems are a little thorny and take a while to solve.  The more you write, the easier the problems are to solve because you get a feel for how your creativity works (of course, that means you’ve probably gotten stuck a lot, too!).  Some things to look for:

  • Did you go off in the wrong direction?  Sometimes that’s easy to do, particularly if you’re a non-outliner.  It sounds great at the time, and then, suddenly the story hits a point where you can’t go any further.  Usually, this one means back tracking until you figure out where you went off.  A helpful solution to heading this one is to think about the new direction for a bit before writing anything.
  • Did you forget/miss something?  This is me, and one of the reasons I can’t type a draft straight through.  Sometimes I get stuck because of one thing I haven’t thought of yet that needs to be in there –but it’s a fairly important thing–and I haven’t worked my way into what it is yet.  I have a section now where I kept getting stuck because the transition didn’t feel right.  Turned out that there was more to do.  Just needed to think about it a bit.
  • Did you start in the wrong place?  Writers who don’t outline can get false starts.  I usually have at least a couple before I settle into the story.  With what I’m working on now, I realized I’d painted myself into a corner because I had the major crisis peak in the first couple of pages.  It didn’t leave me with a lot of places to go.  So I had to go back and rethink the opening.

The most important thing is to ask questions, and ask many different question.  Not just “What’s wrong?” but “What else can I try?” and “What else can go wrong for these characters?”  If you can’t get an answer, trying skipping ahead to a section that you can write and leave the stuck one for later.