I’m deep in the throes of writing the second installment of the WITCH CITY series, WITCH CITY: VISIONARY. Being human – just like you, and yes, I mean you, I hit a plot point and got stuck. It took me a few days to find a way past this block and I think some of you out there may benefit from what I learned in the process of getting unstuck.
First Draft Is Rarely Perfect
I’m somewhere between 1/3 and 1/2 way through writing this draft. Usually I write a section, and I’ll just keep going and wait to revise later. As I was writing the scene I felt like it just wasn’t working. Over the course of an evening I got four or five pages out, and while it wasn’t my finest work I figured it’s a first draft, I’ll just let it go. I came back and I read the section, and I realized this was kind of mushy. There wasn’t really much happening and it felt – even in the early draft – like the story was bogged down.
I set it aside for a day, came back to it, and read it with fresh eyes. (I gave it The Cold Read). On reading it I confirmed it was mushy. Then I thought to myself, all right genius – now what are you going to do? Normally I’d press on and just worry about fixing it later, but this scene was so mushy I just had to do something. It wasn’t going to work, and it felt like I should have a really important moment here, but it didn’t feel important. I didn’t. I just didn’t. (I learned the importance of Being Honest With Yourself (or myself)).
I decided to take my own sagely advice – I copied the five pages to a new document (so if I screwed it up more I could get it back), and reworked the scene. Getting unblocked took two steps:
Step One: Up The Conflict
Stories are driven by conflict. Any book, any class, any instructor, any professional writer is going to tell you the same thing. Someone wants something; something keeps them from getting it; drama ensues. (See my post Raising the Stakes and The Drama Engine) In my scene part of the reason it was so mushy was there really wasn’t much conflict. There was some, but it was implied rather than overt. In some moments this works, but this wasn’t one of them.
As I rewrote the scene, I played a bit with how to draw another character in and give that character something to do. Their purpose in the scene is kicking off the conflict, which leads inevitably to:
Step Two: Make Someone Make A Decision
In this scene one of my protagonists makes a decision. This isn’t what to have for breakfast or whether to wear the white shirt or the red shirt. It’s a true life-or-death decision. Two opposing, very powerful forces are at play and this scene is a real illustration of the larger theme of the work. The character has a decision to make, and this decision affects how the rest of the story will go.
A decision, be it good or bad, brings consequences with it. Most probably won’t be apparent in the current scene; some of them may not be felt for many chapters or even later books in the series. I find it much easier to continue because I’ve effectively given the character (and myself) a boot in the ass to do something. And to be totally honest – it was kind of fun.
Give it a try – next time you find yourself stuck at a point in a story and you’re feeling blocked, add conflict to the scene and force someone to make a decision. It may just free you up and get you going again.