Wednesday, October 31, 2012

When you can't get past the beginning

by Stephanie Morrill

A writer emailed me to ask, "I've stopped writing for about four months now because my story ideas just keep getting bigger and better and more and more exciting ... but I can't seem to get past the first three pages. Is there something that I should be (or not be) doing?"

It sounds to me like you suffer from what I often do: I don't have a story idea, I have a story premise.

What I mean by that is I usually have an idea for a character who has had this and this and this happen to them, and they now must overcome these atrocities. But ... I'm not exactly sure what that looks like yet. So I can write a chapter or two, maybe. But after that I get stuck.

We talked about story structure in the October newsletter, October is the month for good story bones ... and yes, it was intended to be a Halloween reference. (I'm pushing 30 - I'm allowed to be cheesy!) So there could be some helpful stuff for you in there.

The first thing that made me better at developing my story ideas was figuring out my character's goal. Because once I figure out the goal, I can brainstorm the hurdles.

Does my character want to go to a prestigious university? Let's take away her straight As, let's give her something that would distract her from school.

Does my character want to climb Everest? Maybe she gets sick. Maybe she can't scrape up the money.

Doing this can help you brainstorm a few turning points in the story. During my brainstorming, I'm a (recent) fan of using this lovely visual aid from The Plot Whisper:


It reminds me what my plot needs to be doing. The tension needs to climb until the end of act two, release for just a bit while the main character organizes for the final battle/climax, peak for the climax, and then release again so we can have a resolution.


The author of The Plot Whisperer, Martha Alderson, suggests using Post-its for plotting, which I like a lot. I also followed her suggestion to pick several key moments to determine: the end of act one, the midpoint, the end of act two, and the climax.

I don't like having a real detailed outline to follow, but plotting out some basic turning points in the story not only saves me lots of time in rewrites, it gives me something to do with my characters after chapter two.

A couple of other thoughts:


  • Flitting from idea to idea can also happen when you're in a season of intense growth. When I first started going to conferences and reading craft books, I had a really hard time getting myself to focus on one idea because every idea I came up with was even better. But you won't get better at writing complete stories until you push yourself to do so. You might need to start giving yourself a little time to write down everything about the new story idea, then pushing it aside and focusing on the book you're committed to.
  • On Go Teen Writers awhile back, we came up with a list of questions that can help flesh out a story premise. Here's the link to those.
I hope this is helpful!

18 comments:

  1. Very helpful! I think I needed this, too. I'm still at the beginning of my WIP and writing stuff that's not doing much. I need to get a better idea of my plot. Thanks!

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  2. I have this problem too, but with first drafts. (I also had the "not getting past page three" problem when I was younger, solved it with outlining. Plus, I only had a premise, like you said.) I'll write a first draft and then abandon a story for a 'shinier' story. :/ I think my first drafts will start turning out better, though, now that I've FINALLY learned how important story structure is.
    How do you know when to edit verus rewrite? Does it just depend on how many problems the story has?

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    1. From Amo Libros:
      And what if you're, say, 2/3 of the way through a WIP, and you know how the denoument should go, but you're kind of unsatisfied with what comes in between? Some of it just doesn't feel right, and the rest of it feels kind of...shallow, what do you do? Is there any way to figure out what needs to be done short of trying to rewrite it 5 or 6 different times to see what works and what doesn't?

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    2. Allison, my second draft is usually a decent amount of rewriting and my third draft is more editing and tweaking.

      Amo, I think its wise to wait until you've written at least the climax of the story before you go back and edit much. Otherwise you might spend a lot of time rewriting only to get to the climax of the story and find you need to rewrite again. Just my opinion, though.

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  3. Great post and extremely helpful! I so know what it is like to have one idea and then have another idea come along and over shadow it! It just so sucks. I had that very thing happen in the beginning of the manuscript I am currently working on. What I did was write the other story idea down and put it away for after this current manuscript is done. The knowledge that awesome story idea was safe eased me and being relaxed, helped me continue my current story. Which by the way, I am happy to say is coming to the end of it's third chapter.
    Another thing that helped me get through the tough beginning was writing the end first. But that I've talked about before.
    Loved this post!

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    1. I'm so glad you found something that worked for you. That's great, Leorah!

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  4. so helpful Stephanie! Thanks so much! I think I might try this board idea... I used to have that problem... until last years NaNoWriMo. I just hope that my story is interesting enough. :)

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  5. Hi Stephanie, I tried several times to try the link for the Composting Questing, but, it would not work. Is there any way you could re-post it, please?

    I've been going over so many of y'all's other posts as I work on my major WIP, I can use all the help I can get.

    BTW, I want to thank all those who post comments from the y'all's wonderful articles. I continue to learn from everyone.

    I feel like a sponge on this site. When I am published, I will follow your lead and give back as y'all have.

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    1. I'm so glad you've found our site helpful, Debby! Here's the link:

      https://docs.google.com/document/d/1xNhSFriZLQ-GdfaicOTmoDUFwKXk3VKZXRXod7ICsR0/edit

      If it still isn't working, let me know, and I'll try emailing it to you.

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    2. Thanks Stephanie. I appreciate your help.

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  6. This was great! I literally always have this problem,(I'm starting to suspect this is why I haven't finished ANY of my many started novels.) I start and I'm all excited and then two chapters in and I'm like, now what? Like i know what I what but I don't know how to get there, if that makes sense. It may be because I don't really plot aside from answering all of those questions that you ask before starting a novel. Luckily though, the most recent thing I've started hasn't given me that problem yet. :)

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    1. Yay, Kim! Sometimes it just takes finding the right story.

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  7. Thanks Stephanie!
    I have always had that problem!It almost seems as though the creative flow stops after the first 3 pages! :P

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  8. *raises hand high*. I've been struggling with this. I have a premise, not a plot. I'm working in it and trying to go through goals till I find one I really like,
    You have some great tips for me to work on tomorrow with it :)

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    1. Ive been writing myself in circles but won't give it up bc of 100-4-100!

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  9. Excellent post! That's so true. I hate it when that happens. I plotted out my WIP for over a year and thought I was ready. I ended up having to wait about six more months before anything actually got anywhere. I just had a thousand prologues scattered around (which I ended up deciding I didn't need for the book). Thank you very much! Sorry I haven't commented in awhile. Been pretty busy.

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