Monday, September 19, 2016

How Your Main Character Can Help You Get Unstuck

Stephanie here! I'm jazzed to introduce you guys to young writer, Olivia Smit. Olivia is one of the writers who answered our call for submissions several months back, and she's been hard at work the last few weeks to develop this article for you guys. I think you'll love it!

Stuck? Your Main Character Can Help!
Olivia Smit is a small-town-at-heart Canadian girl who loves big stacks of books, puppies, her youth group, and writing! She started keeping a journal at the age of seven, and quickly began exploring short stories, poetry, and even a few songs (but you don't want to hear those!) Olivia wrote her first novella in eighth grade using the homeschool curriculum One Year Adventure Novel, and then completed NaNoWriMo in 2011. She has recently finished her second full-length novel, currently titled Seeing Voices, and is working through her fourth set of edits (very, very slowly). You can find Olivia at her blog, the cwtch, where she posts lists, life updates, and occasionally a poem or two! 

Picture this: you’ve finally started writing the book of your dreams (go, you!) This is The Book, the one that you’ve been dreaming about for practically your ENTIRE life… maybe The Book that no one else thinks you can write. But you know better.

You write your way through the first eight chapters at top speed, churning out plot twists and character confrontations and mesmerizing dialogue, and then…

You get stuck. Everything comes to a grinding halt, and you’re left watching that taunting little cursor, blinking away on the screen. Your main character is staring at a scratch in her kitchen counter, thinking about spaghetti, and not only do you a) have no idea why she’s in her kitchen alone, but b) you can’t figure out what’s so great about spaghetti, and c) you have NO IDEA how to make her leave the room and get on with her life.

But I can fix this, you think, and dive backwards through your notes, trying to figure out where it all went so terribly wrong. Maybe she should have argued with her mom for half a page more, you muse, or I could have that cute boy show up and knock on the door to end the chapter. I’m sure if I start a new chapter, it will all fall into place again. 

And maybe this is the case. Maybe you just need a little nudge to get going again. Maybe it’s as simple as sticking two loose ends together with a couple of hasty sentences (after all, you can always fix it later).

But maybe this time, none of your old tricks seem to help. You are well and truly stuck, like an old, worn-out zipper, and no amount of tugging backward and forward is going to make any difference at all.

If this happens to be the case for you, I want to encourage you to take a step back from your notes for a moment. (If you have them. If you’re a seat-of-the-pants kind of writer, I want you to stop trying to figure things out in your head and just roll with me for a moment). Sometimes, getting yourself out of a stuck place is really, really hard. And sometimes, it isn’t difficult at all.

Occasionally, all you need to do is take a step back and re-evaluate your scene.

Asking questions is the easiest way to do this… as long as they’re the right kind of questions. Beware of questions that will only lead you back to your notes, and instead try to push yourself outside of your own expectations and plans for your novel. Instead of asking yourself, “What SHOULD happen next?” or “Where does my character NEED to go?” or even, “How can I FIX this to make it less boring?” I challenge you to experiment!

Try asking personal questions about (or even directly to) your characters, like “what does my character WANT?” and “what is getting in her way?” “Why can’t she just HAVE what she wants?” “Who is stopping her from reaching her goal?”

Maybe your character is thinking about spaghetti because the kitchen has always been a place of refuge for her. She and her mom used to cook together all the time, but lately there just doesn’t seem to be time. Suddenly, you’ve opened yourself up to a whole new array of questions! “When did they stop cooking together?” “Why?” “Is her mom sad about it too?” “What are they really fighting about?” “If the cute boy comes to the door, will she start to cry? Will she get mad? Will she invite him in on a whim and make him dinner?” The possibilities are endless!

Questions like these may seem silly, unprofessional, or childish, but sometimes when you ask seemingly pointless or irrelevant questions, your characters will surprise you! Maybe you’ve written a scene that has underlying messages you haven’t even realized yet. Grab hold of those when you find them, and don’t let go! You can run for pages and pages on a surprise idea, and just from asking a few simple questions.

Remember: the readers don’t care about the mechanics of a story, so long as it works. 

We writers are so used to running around with a thousand notes and plot devices swirling inside our brains, and sometimes we get so hung up on the inner workings of our story that we just end up stuck. Our inspiration and creativity has been sucked away by our wholehearted plunge after the behind-the-scenes, and we forget that our audience is sitting out there in the dark waiting for the show to start.

To the reader, sitting down with a book is kind of like owning a car. As long as the car starts when they turn the key, most of them don’t really care to know why or how the engine works. However, if the car breaks down, you better believe they’ll notice! Your audience doesn’t want to know what needs to happen next to advance your novel’s plot, or that the main character’s argument with her mom was two pages instead of two and a half. They want to know how she feels about the fight, and what she’s going to do next, and why spaghetti is so important to her.

Don’t get me wrong – knowing those boring old background details is IMPORTANT. After all, someone needs to know how a car engine works! But sometimes, putting yourself in the reader’s shoes and just hanging out with your characters for a while can get you the answers you need. (and it’s kind of fun, too!)

What kind of questions are you asking right now, wherever you’re at in your book? Do your characters ever surprise you?


  1. This is so weird-- Olivia, our stories were in Stonesoup Magazine together! We share the Nov/Dec 2010 and Sep/Oct 2011 issues. :D Great post, by the way!

    1. Emily -- what?! That is too crazy!! I'm going to dig out all my old magazines as soon as I get home and see if I can find you! I'm so glad you commented (and I'm excited to read your stories!)

  2. Hello, fellow Olivia! I love your article! You have such a natural, pleasant author's voice. I don't know that I've ever been truly, truly stuck before. Maybe I followed your advice without knowing it. :) In my first novel, the male protagonist reacts strangely to normal everyday situations. Most of the time, it's because he's a rebel and he just wants to be difficult, but in one food related instance (your example reminded me of it), he got aggravated and left when his hostess brought out a rhubarb pie. At first, I didn't know why he reacted that way, but after a while, asking questions led me to think up a tragic incident in his childhood in which rhubarb pie played a small part. Thus, smelling the pie triggered the memory. I guess I did what you advised, and it worked well for me. Thanks for sharing, Olivia!

    1. Hi back, Olivia!! Thanks so much for your lovely comment! I love your story about your MC and the rhubarb pie! I love it when new things about my characters pop out like that and then I have to dig a little deeper. :)

  3. OH my gosh Olivia! You don't know what a miracle it was that this showed up on my blogger dashboard this morning. I was trying to start a story, but I couldn't figure out my character's motivation, so I started asking crazy questions. WHY is she taking this road trip? What brought her and her two friends together in the first place? And now it's totally coming together and I'm getting tons of ideas.
    So thank you a million! This was a great post. (-:

    1. Elizabeth, this makes me SO happy!! I'm so glad that a) you resonate with the stuck situation, and b) this post made sense to you!! Gleeps! So much happiness. :)

  4. WHAT. THIS WAS CRAZY INSPIRATIONAL. i'm so HYPED to begin a new book for NaNoWriMo this year and until then, i've been collecting pieces to help me through and pick up ideas. so i will definitely refer back to this. my goodness, i adored this. great post!!
    xx cally

    1. Cally, thank you! And good luck with your NaNoWriMo! I think it's awesome that you're committed and planning already - way to set yourself up for success! Thanks again for your lovely comment. :)

  5. I love when the people in my sub-creations surprise me. I don't like to call them 'characters' - it make sound like they aren't real. I love hanging out with them and finding out their story so I can tell it accurately. I am going to Pin this and pass it along to a friend of mine who is stuck. Thanks for writing it!

    God bless. Anne Marie :)

  6. Nice post! Those first three paragraphs were SO RELATABLE! lol :)

  7. This was a really good post! I'm always running into problems like this--getting so caught up in the mechanics of the writing that I forget to really pay attention to the story. I'd better bookmark this; I'm sure it'll be really helpful down the road. :)

  8. This is great! I had a something like this come up in my book recently... I knew that something needed to happen, but how and why? And what before hand... and then I just let her hang out with someone, and I wrote this beautiful chapter about going out to eat and witty conversation that totally changed the rest of the book. It was weird... but it worked :)