Wednesday, May 2, 2018

What Do You Do When You're Stuck After Writing a Few Chapters?

Jill Williamson is a chocolate loving, daydreaming, creator of kingdoms. She writes weird books in lots of weird genres like fantasy (Blood of Kings and Kinsman Chronicles), science fiction (Replication), and dystopian (The Safe Lands trilogy). She has a podcast/vlog at You can also find Jill on InstagramFacebookTwitterPinterest, or on her author website. Tagboth (Tag for short) is a goldhorn dragon from Belfaylinn, a hidden fantasy realm on the western end of the Sargasso Sea. Jill is working on the first book of this tale for this year's Grow an Author series.

There is one question I have been hearing a lot lately either in emails or in person, and it's some variation of "What do I do when I'm stuck after only a few chapters?"

That's a hard question to answer without knowing more about your story, so here is a list of ideas to help. This summary comes from this week's Storyworld Shorts video, which you can watch by clicking here.

1. If you've never written a novel, you might try to complete shorter stories first. Once you get good at shorter stories, you could work on writing some longer ones.

2. Ask yourself some questions:
      -"Who is my main character?" Make sure you have a clear main character that the reader can root for.
      -"What does my main character (my hero) want?" You need to know what your main character wants in the story to be able to know how he will behave in each scene.
      -"What is the story question (story goal)?" Your main character needs to have a goal that will last until the story is done. Frodo making the decision to hold onto the One Ring isn't "story goal" enough. It's when he decides to carry the ring all the way to Mount Doom to destroy it that we have a strong story goal. It's important to define the story goal early on so your readers know what to root for as they read.
      -"What are the stakes?" What happens if your hero fails to achieve the story goal? It needs to be something worse than getting a failing grade in a class. You don't have to put the fate of the world at risk, but do keep in mind that the higher the stakes, the more invested your reader becomes.

3. Examine (and strengthen) your plot structure. If could be that taking a look at your plot structure will help you see where you have plot holes.

4. Get to know your character better. You can't write much about a person you don't know very well. Dig deeper into your hero's backstory. Create parents, siblings, friends, a boss, habits, likes and dislikes, lies he believes . . . make sure you come up with all the ingredients you need to create a character who feels read to your reader. 

5. Spend more time building your storyworld. If you're writing fantasy or science fiction, sometimes you can get stuck when you don't know enough about your world. Depending on your plot, you might need to spend some more time brainstorming a certain storyworld element, like: government, history, weapons, magic, culture, creatures, etc.

6. Use Try/Fail cycles to keep things moving. Try/Fail cycles can help you get un-stuck by answering a simple question in one of two ways. First, define what your character wants. Then ask whether or not he will succeed? The answer is one of these two: "Yes, but . . ." or "No, and . . ." 

For example: My character wakes up late. Will he make it to school in time?

Yes, but he misses the bus and has to walk.

No, and he locked himself out of the house, so now he's stuck outside.
You can continue this cycle by again asking what he wants, then answering the question of will he succeed with the "Yes, but . . ." or "No, and . . ." replies.

7. Try Stephanie's index card trick in which you make three stacks of cards, one with character names, one with settings, and one with plot situations. Then shuffle and draw one of each until the combination sparks an idea for a new scene.

I hope these ideas help you find a way past where you're stuck and get you back into the story.

Did I miss anything? What do you do when you're stuck? Share in the comments.


  1. Thanks for this post - I really appreciate the tips and tricks you've collected in it!

    Sometimes I get stuck because I haven't made the story thick if I add a sub-plot that affects the character - such as a secondary goal they have to work towards - that allows for more alternation and variety in the story. As well as improving the try/fail cycle!

    Thanks again,

    1. Thanks, Hannah! Adding a subplot is a great idea. :-)