What To Do When You Don’t Know Where To Take Your Story Next

Camp NaNoWriMo is coming up this weekend, and those of us who have been through it before already know what to expect.

There will come a moment (or several) when you’ll be writing your story, trudging or maybe even flying along. Everything will be going well. You’ll feel confident and excited.

And then all of a sudden you’ll hit the dreaded stand-still.

A little while back I wrote about Writer’s Block — or, as I like to call it, Writer’s Fear. It’s more often than not just a fancy-sounding excuse to make us feel better about putting off our work because of how hard writing is.

But in some cases, you might really be stuck. Not because you’re a perfectionist (okay, maybe a little bit because you’re a perfectionist). Not because you’re afraid to do the actual writing (alright, alright — maybe terrified).

The root of your block might be that you just genuinely don’t know what comes next on a structural storytelling level.

You’re bound to hit a point in your plot where you’re like, “Wait. Where was I taking this? Where do I go from here?”

I tend to outline most of my stories, whether they’re short or novel-length. I pick out scenes I know I want to write, I jot them down in a neat little list, and then I write them out. But even I hit this wall every once in a while. Sometimes I realize that what I planned wouldn’t work. Sometimes my story takes me off-course. Then I’m left stranded in uncharted territory.

Whether you’re a panster or a plotter, you’re vulnerable to a mental, creative block.

So here are a few tips to fix and/or avoid that:

  1. Go back and outline what you have so far. This is especially useful for those of us who do outline, but end up straying off the beaten path and end up becoming “pantsers” (a.k.a. someone who writes their story flying by the seat of their pants). “But I HAAATE outlining,” you say, hissing through your teeth like a spooked cat. Too bad. Your outline doesn’t have to be long, and it doesn’t even have to be about what you’re writing next. Think of it as more of a summary. Just skim through what you already have real quick, jot down a bulletpoint describing the scene. Then when you get to where you left off, look over the list and consider possible next steps. This gives you a second to sit back and take a fresh look at what you’ve written so far. You might find that this triggers something in your memory. Maybe you’ll look through what you already have and think, “Oh YEAH! That’s where I wanted to go next!” At the very least it will give you the chance to see what you’ve got so far and take into account the pacing of your story. Are you due for an action sequence? Or do your readers need a break from all the action and exploration to sit down with the characters in a quieter, more dialogue-heavy, character-building scene? Can you throw a wrench in the characters’ plans, or would that only drag the story on longer than it needs to go on? Have you gotten lost in subplots and lost sight of the overarching conflict? Ask yourself these questions, and then add some possible next steps to your pseudo-outline.
  2. Never stop writing at the end of a scene. I first heard this advice from a classmate in undergrad, and I’ve heard other published authors repeat it since. Now I swear by it, and if I don’t adhere to it then my writing experience suffers. If you stop in the middle of a scene, you know exactly where you need to pick up the next time you sit down to write. And if you’re in the middle of an exciting scene (which should ideally be every scene, or else it will be boring to read), you’ll be eager to get back to writing as soon as possible. (Please note, “exciting” does not necessarily mean “a battle-filled action sequence.” Any conflict, quiet or loud, can be fun to write and read.) This will help you to avoid getting lost by helping you maintain a consistent writing pace, by consistently exercising your creativity.
  3. Put your story away for a few days and just think about it every now and then as you go about your life. Sometimes we wear ourselves out. Writing can be exhausting. Novels especially take foreverrrrr to complete, and sometimes, maybe even several times throughout the process, you’ll start to feel some burnout. If this is how you’re feeling, set that story aside for a little while. Just a day or two. You don’t have to work on another piece of writing, but you can if you want if you think it will keep your creativity sparking. Still, I encourage you to do something else entirely besides writing. Focus on exercising for a day. Read a book. Binge-watch a TV series. Go out with friends. Go shopping. Visit your parents. Go to an amusement park or a carnival. Go people-watching in the park. Anything but writing. You’ve been working hard to crank out this novel, so you deserve a little vacation. (If you come back to the story a few days later and decide you’re still not into it, then you need to assess whether or not you even really want to write the story anymore. I’ll write a post about this at a later date, so keep an eye out for it!)
  4. Remember your ending. I’m a firm believer that you shouldn’t start a story unless you know how you want it to end, no matter the length of the work. Knowing the ending gives you a goal to work towards, allows you to ask yourself throughout the writing process, “How do I get my characters from Point A to Point Z?” If, like me, you prefer to write your manuscript in a linear fashion, sometimes it’s easy to forget how you want your novel to end. Jot it down and keep it somewhere visible — not necessarily the whole scene, but just a summary. Or, if you prefer to write your story out of order, write your final scene(s) first.
  5. Talk about your story out loud (preferably alone), or journal about it. This is gonna sound kinda silly, but sometimes on the drive home from my office job, I talk to myself about my writing progress, almost as if my book is already published and I’m being interviewed. (Shut up. Everyone talks to themselves.) I think of the themes that are emerging in my story, or about character arcs, or worldbuilding. I also occasionally journal about the progress I make. I have an editing journal, where I make notes about what to change when I edit in the future, and a personal journal, where I write about my general hopes and fears as a writer. This helps you keep your eye on the whole work. As you write, you might get wrapped up in the individual scenes you write. This is obviously important, as it allows you to invest yourself emotionally in your characters and their experiences in that particular moment. But you might lose sight of the forest for the trees. (In which case I would recommend doing Tip #1 above as well. Every now and then you have to step back and look at the work as a whole.) Additionally, talking about your writing as if you’re being interviewed is a fun way to picture yourself as an already-published writer. “Believe, perceive, and achieve,” as the saying goes. Imagining that you’re being interviewed gives you a physical goal to work towards and reminds you of how great it would feel to finish your novel and hold a finished copy in your hand as you’re being interviewed on the local news.

That’s it! Hopefully this advice will help you out, whether you’re taking part in Camp NaNoWriMo next month (or July or November), or whether you’re working on your novel at your own pace.

As always, feel free to leave your own thoughts or tips in the comments below.

Happy writing!

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