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5 Reasons Your Plot Stalled



It's my privilege to host Janice Hardy here on my blog today. Janice is the author of several fantastic writing resources, including Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel, and the just-released companion guide, the Planning Your Novel Workbook.


Today, Janice shares some insights on how our plots tend to stall. But she doesn’t just stop with common plot problems. She gives insightful tips and excellent questions we can ask to help us jump-start our stalled plots.

Join me in welcoming Janice to the blog!

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5 Reasons Your Plot Stalled

By Janice Hardy 


The plot is the engine of the story, and like any engine, it can stall. In most cases, the plot simply runs out of fuel and once you refill the story tank, the plot drives forward again. It's just a matter of figuring out which fuel your particular engine needs.

Maybe you're missing the goal (the common unleaded fuel of the story world), or there are no stakes, or no character motivation. The wrong characters might be filling the tank, or the protagonist is making the wrong choices. Refill the tank with the right mixture, and you'll be back on the road in no time.

Plot mechanics are pretty straightforward, so when a plot stalls, it's usually due to a small number of reasons. Let's take a look at the most common ones.

1. You Forgot What the Goal of the Scene (or the Book) Was

The lack of a scene goal is the number-one reason plots stall. There’s nothing for the protagonist to do to drive the plot forward. She doesn't want anything, isn't trying to stop anything, she's just living her day or performing random tasks that aren't leading to anything.

In some cases, the problem is bigger and the novel itself is lacking the goal. This is common with premises novels, where the idea isn't formed enough to create a solid plot, so there's nothing external for the protagonist to do. For example, a romance where the goal is to "find love again" is too vague to plot. It's the specifics of how the protagonist finds love, and the choices she makes to act in ways to achieve that goal that create the plot--such as, take up a hobby to meet potential partners.

How to restart the plot: Look at your scene and determine what the protagonist wants, and the reason that scene is in the novel. If you're not sure, ask:

• What does your protagonist want in the scene?
• How does this goal advance the plot to the next scene?
• What must be done to resolve the core conflict of the novel?
• What are the key steps to resolving the core conflict?
• Does the stalled scene contain one of those steps? Should it?

2. The Outcome of the Scene Doesn’t Matter

A lack of stakes is the second-most common problem with stalled plots. The protagonist has things to do and problems to solve, but the outcomes don't matter and don't affect the bigger story at all. Solving the problem gains the protagonist nothing, and failing to solve the problem loses her nothing. If you cut the scene, the overall novel wouldn't change.

How to restart the plot: Make the protagonist's actions have consequences. Resolving that problem and achieving that goal should matter in some way. Success wins her something important, or prevents her from losing something she cares about. Unsure of the stakes? Ask:

• What will happen to the protagonist is she fails?
• What doesn't the protagonist want to see happen?
• How will this scene affect either the characters or the story?
• How does failure here make things worse for the protagonist or people she cares about?

3. The Protagonist Has No Reason to Act

Sometimes your characters take a joyride with no destination in mind. Sure, they're driving all over the story, seeing the sights, having a grand time, but there's no reason for them to be in that car. The protagonist is doing what she's told, but she has no personal reason to do it--she's just taking turns as you call them out to her. Without a reason to act (the character motivation), there's nothing driving the scene goal.

How to restart the plot: Give the protagonist personal reasons to take on those scene and story goals (the stakes can help here. Low or no stakes almost always accompanies a lack of motivation). Ask:

• Why is the protagonist acting?
• Is there a personal reason or is it because the plot says so?
• What makes the protagonist care in this scene?
• Who might be hurt if the protagonist doesn't act or makes the wrong decision?

4. The Wrong Character is Acting

Backseat drivers, right? They think they know the best route to take to get anywhere, but they end up shouting directions and getting everybody lost. If the wrong character is the one driving the scene, your plot can end up down a path the story wasn't supposed to go in. It might be a small side trip, or a major detour. It might even be the right direction, but the wrong character is driving, so when the plot gets there, the next leg of the journey goes the wrong way.

How to restart the plot: Make sure the characters driving the pivotal scenes moving the main plot forward are the ones who will be resolving the core conflict in the end. Other characters might drive for a short leg of the trip (say, a subplot or two), but the main plot is driven by the main characters. If you're not sure who's behind the wheel, ask:

• Is someone other than the protagonist making the decisions in the scene?
• Does the scene goal belong to someone other than the protagonist?
• Do the stakes apply to someone other than the protagonist?
• Would the scene be stronger or go in a better direction if a different character was driving it?

5. It’s Got the Wrong Directions

Plots rely on character choices to move forward, so if the protagonist makes the wrong choice, the plot can stall. If the choice is too easy or doesn't affect the story or characters at all, it's not adding fuel to the plot engine. Choices should make things harder for the protagonist, and create uncertainty about what comes next. They move the plot forward by giving the protagonist the next goal.

How to restart the plot: Look at moments when the protagonist makes a choice. If there's no conflict to making that choice, or the choice isn't hard, then the decision won't matter. If the choice is obvious (such as, press the button everyone lives, don't press it and they all die), it's not really a choice.

Choices create changes and if nothing changes, the plot can't move forward. If you're not sure, ask:

• Is the choice a real choice or one where the "right" choice is obvious?
• Does the choice offer options that all have potential problems and stakes?
• Are there consequences associated with the choice?
• Does anything change based on this choice?

A stalled plot is annoying, but it's possible to restart it with the right fuel. Before long you'll have that engine sputtering back to life.

Has a stalled plot ever left you stranded? How did you get it moving again?


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Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of The Healing Wars trilogy and the Foundations of Fiction series, including Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, and the upcoming Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft. She's also the founder of the writing site, Fiction University.

For more advice and helpful writing tips, visit her at www.fiction-university.com or @Janice_Hardy.

65 comments:

  1. Thanks so much for having me here today!

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    1. Thank YOU for sharing your insights with us, Janice! Very practical and helpful! :-)

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  2. This post is sooooo awesome! My current manuscript, though finished, felt stalled and I had to go back multiple times and changed major stuff to get it going but it wasn't working. Now I'll definitely try Janice's techniques. Thanks a bunch! :) :)

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    1. Most welcome! Hope they help you get that story moving again :)

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  3. Great advice, I will be sure to use in my WIP. It seems to be sagging in the middle right now. Thanks! Would love to win the critique.

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    1. Sagging middles were my problem when I was learning, so I feel your pain. What helped me, was to create a midpoint event that shook the plot up and changed things in the story. That broke the middle in half, and the first half was all about getting to that event, and the second half was dealing with the aftermath of it, which led directly to act three and the climax.

      It really gave the middle direction and some plot backbone to work with.

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  4. Once again great advice. I will definitely use it to help with my current project. Thanks Janice.

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  5. I can relate to all of these. I'm working on a second draft and had to dump a bunch of scenes because they did not move the story forward.

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    1. Good for you for dumping them! Getting rid of what's not working is tough for a lot of writers.

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  6. YES. I've always found that when my writing is stalled, it's one of the elements of the previous scene that's stopping me subconsciously. Accordingly, once the issue is cleared up, the writing flows as it should...and yes, I've cut entire scenes (without shame) to make that happen.

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    1. If they're not serving the story, they have to go :) For me, it's almost always a goal issue.

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  7. Thanks for another great reminder that every scene has to advance the plot in some way!

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  8. What fantastic and practical advice. What if I find myself stalled at the same place each novel?

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    1. Odds are you're facing a larger structural issue, and there's something fundamentally off about the novel or the plot (that sounds worse than it is, really!)

      For example, you might have more of premise novel to start, where the idea is there, but you haven't yet figured out the core conflict so you can't actually plot it yet. So after the setup, the book stalls because you have nowhere to go (since you have no major problem and thus no resolution to write toward).

      Where are you stalling? That would shed some light on what the problem might be.

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  9. I love this article. Very informative. It will definitely help me see where I've stalled.

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  10. this is remarkably well-timed. I've been avoiding going back to my manuscript and am finding all kinds of great, legitimate distractions to keep my from it. Reading this made it very clear that it's simply stalled and that's why I'm avoiding it. Love the lists of questions - that's where I will start when I finally drag myself back to work. Much needed nudge - thanks!

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    1. Most welcome! I hope it helps get the story started again.

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  11. I'm revising a first draft and substantially altering the plot—and I'm stuck! Your suggestions are timely and helpful; thank you!

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    1. Most welcome. If these types of questions are helpful, I actually have a revision book releasing on September 1 (if you don't mind the shameless plug). It's filled with questions designed to lead something through the process and teaching them (or reminding them) what to look for.

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    2. Ooo, I'm looking forward to that.

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  12. Another great plotting post to help me sort things out!
    And - another site to add to my list to follow.
    Thanks

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  13. Thank you for such a clear, informative post. This is a keeper, Janice. In fact, it's time to tweet this baby.

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  14. I'm revising my novel, and my Act 2 is stalled before the new twist I'm adding in.

    My MC has a plan to expose a big secret, but the other three characters think it's a bad idea to mess with those people. My plot needed them to agree with her, so I could then drop the twist bomb and launch them into Act 3. But forcing the characters to act against their best interests made my writing stall.

    This was a good reminder to step back and look at the motivations of my characters. What would convince them agree with her? Is there a believable way to make that happen in the plot?

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    1. You can also consider what happens if they stand their ground and the protagonist does it anyway (if she can with out them). Is she thinks it has to be done she might do it even against their advice. :)

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  15. Another good one for my class wiki! Thanks, Janice

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  16. An excellent checklist to use for each chapter. Thanks again.

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  17. Great Questions! I have a document I call "Janice Hardy Questioning technique" where I keep a lot of the questions from your articles. They help a lot when I am trying to plot my novel.

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    1. That made my whole morning! Thanks :)

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  18. Awesome tips! I enjoyed reading this very much, and I'm hoping to apply this to my first novel in process, When The Promise Fades!

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    1. Best of luck! Sending good revision vibes your way.

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  19. These are fantastic tips. And oh my, the first one had me in giggles!

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    1. If I can make you laugh and help your story, my work here is done :)

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  20. Great advice! Pinpointing the problem is half the work. Now to figure out the other half... :)

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    1. That is the hard part, but having a direction and knowing what to write toward does make it easier :)

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  21. I just figured out that I need to exxxxtend my story's middle part, so this will be a big help in doing that right. Now I just need to know how to deflate my own middle part. :)

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    1. Figure that out and you can retire in luxury :) The mid-point reversal helps me keep my middles structured and focused. Try adding an event or revelation at the midpoint of the novel so you have something to write toward, then something to recover from in both halves of the middle. The middle becomes a nice arc with a high point at the center of the book.

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  22. I love the driving analogy. Now to find out where I've missed a gear ...

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    1. Thanks! Oh, a gear...I wished I'd thought of that. :)

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  23. In #3 above, by "Why is the protagonist acting?" do you mean: what is motivating the protagonist to act this way, or do that?

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    1. Yes. What is making them do whatever it is they're doing in that scene. Why pursue *this* goal? What's the reason or motivation?

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  24. Stalled, stranded, sputtering. All of the above. Thanks for the tips.

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    1. Most welcome. Hope they get you moving again soon :)

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  25. I needed to read this today -- spent part of yesterday on a scene that brought everything to a standstill. My characters were even confused why they were in it, and I have the dialogue to prove it! And it was a triple threat scene -- elements of your points 1, 2, and 3 all apply to it. Thanks!

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    1. Glad to help. Hope things are moving once again.

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  26. Great tips to those of us in the trenches of our first unpublished novel. I'm already back to the MS looking for lazy, idle and recalcitrant characters who won't do what I want them to do. Seriously, thank you for sharing this.

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    1. Most welcome :) Hope you don't find too many, but if you do, good luck at pointing them back in the right direction.

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  27. Janice, You offer the best advice for crafting a great story.

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    1. Aw, thanks so much :) Made my morning.

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  28. Great post. I intend to run my stalked scene through it again in the hopes of restarting it.

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    1. Sending good writing vibes your way!

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  29. I had never thought about plot in reference to an engine, but it makes a lot of sense. I'm looking forward to incorporating some of these tips in my writing. Thanks Janice!

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    1. Most welcome :) It really is what drives the story.

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  30. Currently struggling with books 2-3. All of these reasons it stalled resonate with me, but thinking of the plot as it applies to an engine was particularly helpful! I'm hoping I can get this plot firing on all pistons soon.

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    1. I hope so, too! Books 2 and 3 can be tough (especially if they're a trilogy).

      You might try pinpointing your core conflict for each book and making sure you have something external to plot toward. It's common to have the conflicts of sequels be more internal, which doesn't leave you anything tangible to plot toward. If that's your case, brainstorm ways to find external problems for that internal conflict.

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    2. Thank you - great idea! I'm really not great with outlines and that little quirk really tripped me up on these books. This will help. :)

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  31. thanks for the advice! I find that my plot tends to get derailed because some side idea slips in and we all go on a detour. 100 pages later I've got to wrangle us back

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    1. Happens to the best of us :) At least you know you do it, which makes it easier to deal with it.

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