The three things that cause stories to stall out

Am stalled today on writing, because there’s just this one thing I don’t know. I have these two characters interacting, and I don’t know how it turns out. The thing is, you can always just write down some crap. One pulls out a gun and shoots the other one. They break up. They’re mean to each other. There are ten thousand solutions.

But the real question is: what is the right solution?

The main thing I’ve learned from all the movies I’ve been watching lately is the importance of dramatizing action. When you strip away the emotional responses and the thoughts and the exposition, what does this actually look like? Frequently I find myself picturing my book as if it’s a movie (a very dimly lit and indistinct movie), and I’ll try to put myself right there in the room with them.

Ideally, the characters and the action should snap into place so intuitively that you can’t imagine it otherwise. The best action movies are like this: You cannot imagine Rambo taking place in any other way. It is inevitable that this man, walking through this place, is going to end up involved in a countywide man-hunt. There’s a sense of inevitability to the action that allows you to ignore the constructedness of the story.

But usually when you’re just drafting a book, that doesn’t happen. Both characters and action have, through many drafts, a sort of unfinished quality, and as a result things happen more or less arbitrarily. For me, the writing process involves finding these arbitrary places (usually I recognize them because I can ‘envision’ a novel right up to this point, but afterwards my vision is a total blank) and slowly altering one thing and then the other until they fit together better.

I usually begin by imagining really simple solutions. What if…instead of doing what they do, they just do the opposite? Then I’ll move onto really drastic solutions, what if I combine these two characters into one person? Then I’ll come up with a medium solution, and I’ll get excited, and I’ll halfway alter the entire draft, only to realize it doesn’t work. Then I’ll go back and do this all again. And eventually there’ll just be a click and suddenly scenes start appearing in my head beyond the stuck point.

Oftentimes the click is really simple. It might be a change of dialogue. Or to alter a really minor plot point a ways back. Frequently it involves tinkering with the characters in really subtle ways so that they fit better into the situation I’ve envisaged. And I’ll think, wait a second, this was so easy, why didn’t I start off with this solution?

But really what happened was that all of the little changes I made all of them combined to get me past this point. There was a sanding-down and reshaping of the characters and the situations to make everything fit together.

Usually the stuck place resulted from a combination of three things: a) lack of knowledge of character; b) failure of inventiveness; and/or c) wrong technique.

You never know everything about your characters. In fact, I find that I often know remarkably little about them. To my mind, if you know what a character wants most in the world, you’ve basically got the core of them. But sometimes you don’t exactly know that. Or there’s something else about them and their relationships that’s unclear to you.

Failure of inventiveness has always been a bugbear for me. A person can have their Rambo, but if they don’t have their intolerant North Carolina town then they don’t yet have a novel. I have trouble oftentimes thinking of situations where interpersonal conflict arises naturally (one reason why writing about teens is easier for me; their lives are more bounded). Thinking of the right situations is a perpetual struggle, and oftentimes the only solution is to just try and discard hundreds of situations until one fits.

To me, the most interesting failure is the failure of technique. We all have certain things we know how to do. And sometimes a stuck point comes from using your favorite tool in a situation where it’s completely wrong. This is where reading widely comes in very handy. It teaches you all the different ways that exist of telling a story. Failure of technique really encompasses some pretty broad terrain. Most people would think of ‘technique’ as being the more technical parts of story construction. Using flashbacks or frame narratives or a three-act structure–that’s technique. I would say, however, that it’s more helpful to think of technique as the ways in which you think about and shape your material in order to form a story.

For instance, many science fiction writers will read the news and think, “What if?” And they’ll write a story about, I don’t know, a world where pockets of sentient radon gas seep up out of our basement to try and make friends and kill us in the night without understanding that it’s their very existence that’s inimical to us.

In a realist novel, a technique might be a way of twisting a relationship. Maybe your technique, whether you know it or not, is to re-imagine all relationships as family relationships. So in your work, bosses and teachers often have fatherly relationships with their employees and students. Or perhaps your technique is to always look at the money, a la Balzac or Jane Austen, and think, how do they afford this? How do they live?

But sometimes those techniques aren’t the right ones. Sometimes you need to be like, well, this isn’t that story. People in this story aren’t worrying about money. Or maybe you’re like, well, usually I don’t care about money, but in this story, money needs to be a major element. Or maybe technique is, literally, technique, and you’re like, well in my story the writing has to be very sparse and lyrical. Or you’re like, well, this story needs to include lots of geeky Neal Stephenson-style mini-essays all over the place.

If you read widely, you absorb other authors’ techniques, and they come to you in your moments of need! Of course usually the techniques that are wilder and more different from your work-in-progress aren’t helpful, but sometimes a weird influence will seep in there and dissolve up the blockage.