This is a thing that happens sometimes:
The story you’re writing drives top speed into a mountain and stops short in a ball of flames and crumpled metal. Or, it slowly putters out of gas, or drives off a cliff, or you’re stuck in a swamp, or you feel like an old person lost at the mall, endlessly circling Bed, Bath and Beyond. The plot crashes. The narrative gassily sputters. Whatever. The effect is ultimately the same: it feels like you don’t know where to go next, like you don’t have enough story to carry you forward.
Here, I think, is what might be happening:
Your characters don’t have enough to do.
They are like a six-year-old child whose endless refrain is I’M BORED I’M BORED I’M BORED and they just stare at you as they say it I’M BORED I’M BORED I’M BORED.
Simply put, the characters are driving this car. Not you. Yes, yes, you’re the God of this domain and they’re your little narrative meat-puppets — I’m not suggesting that your characters are independently alive. They have no sentience beyond your own. Just the same, they are the ones driving the car — and you’re the one giving them the map, the GPS, the destination.
If the car stops or hits the wall, it’s because you either gave them the wrong destination, or no destination at all. Orrrrrr, you instead let plot be the driver — meaning, you drop-kicked the characters into the backseat and gave the keys to the plot, which is very bad.
*swats your nose with a newspaper*
VERY BAD NO DO THAT
The reason that’s bad is because events are not compelling drivers of narrative. Think of how we learn history, and the difference between a good teacher of history and a poor one: a bad teacher of history concentrates on events, on dates, on occasions. A good teacher focuses on the people involved and the stories that surround them — history is made by people with motivations. They want things. They fear things. They have problems and beliefs, and they act to solve those problems and enact or enforce those beliefs. Be they noble or be they selfish, it is people with motivations who make history — and, more importantly, who make history interesting.
Your fiction is just like that.
Fiction should not comprise a series of inert, disconnected events. It is not a string of dates. It is not an unrolling carpet of happenstance.
Characters are not little paperboats in a stream of plot.
Characters are rocks that divide the waters. They change the course of the river. But that only happens when you give them things to do, when you drive them forward with problems at their heels and at their fore, when you fill their heads with things they want and things they fear.
This forms their character arcs. From this, they make plot.
Plot is the thing that characters poop.
Okay, that’s not exactly right, but it’s good enough.
If your story has hit a wall, if you don’t know where to go, look to the characters. Ask them. If they cannot tell you, then you have not adequately given them enough to do. Look to their motivations. Look to their problems. Go back through the work, strengthen these emotional seawalls. Give them things to do. Give them somewhere to go.
(Then make it hard for it to do them. Think of the characters like your players and you like the Dungeon Master who is there to fuck with their quest.)
Character is everything. If something isn’t working, look to your characters first.
Give them the tools to move forward. Hand the characters a gun. Give them some crazy space drugs. Stick them in a fast car.
Then point them to the horizon and watch the story move.
* * *
DAMN FINE STORY: Mastering the Tools of a Powerful Narrative
by Chuck Wendig, from Writer’s Digest, October 17th
A new writing/storytelling book by yours truly! All about the fiddly bits of storytelling — creating great characters, growing narrative organically, identifying and creating theme. Hope you dig it.