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.
(Come see me launch the book on October 17th at Borderlands in San Francisco with Kevin Hearne launching the amazing Plague of Giants and Fran Wilde supporting her sublime Bone Universe books! 6pm!)
34 responses to “A Simple Solution For When Your Story Hits The Wall”
“history is made by people with motivations. They want things. They fear things.” I’m always telling my clients to look for the motivation, when their story lose the momentum. Good post. And a new book for my reference library–nice!
Huh. I was expecting the Chandler quote. But this sounds more like you’re saying that Chandler was just using a hammer to force his creation together instead of figuring out why the screws weren’t fitting.
Very possibly so.
Or, at least, he was pushing his characters forward more urgently into their problems and motivations. With, y’know, a gun.
Hey, look, it’s Old Chuck! Back to offer us his nuggets of pearly bees-wisdom about writing. No doubt many haters of New Chuck will be glad to see Old Chuck back.
Good point about back-seat characters stalling the narrative. I mean, I hated the character of Thomas Covenant, but at least the first Chronicle (the only one I read) was going somewhere, because Covenant was doing stuff. Generally horrible stuff, stuff nonetheless. I try to imagine how the TV series, LOST, would’ve been, if the characters had all been boring, sit-at-home-and-wait-for-rescue types.
BETTER THAN CHUCK ZERO
And wayyyyy better then Chuck 10.
(Me explaining the reference to my own joke because I am hilarious and worth it: https://www.forbes.com/forbes/welcome/?toURL=https://www.forbes.com/sites/erikkain/2011/10/18/dr-peppers-bizarre-new-not-for-women-ad-campaign/&refURL=https://www.google.com/&referrer=https://www.google.com/)
Kinda like Coca-Cola Zero. Who drinks Dr. Pepper anyway? Give me my freshly squeezed OJ any day. Or freshly squeezed Chuck, if we’re continuing with the Chuck-as-beverage analogies.
Chuck Zero sounds like the sugar-free, sweetener-laden version of some beloved soft drink.
Hard disagree. Chuck Zero uses the same formula as Classic Chuck, but with no calories*, so it’s the original content with none of the filler—unlike Diet Chuck, which uses the New Chuck formula, so that’s basically just vom that converts to formaldehyde in the sunlight.
What was my point? Oh, right: Diet Chuck is gross. CHUCK ZERO FOR LIFE.
*because calories are bad!**
**wait. are calories bad? I honestly don’t know which food groups are the devil these days. I can’t keep track of this shit. 🙁
Thank you for that excellent summation of the difference between a good and bad history teacher. As a history teacher, that is exactly it – and thanks for relating it to writing!
Right on target as usual –dodges rolled up newspaper–.
Whenever I’m struggling with a story, it’s because I haven’t defined my characters backstory and motivations well enough. Though sometimes my characters drag me in a different direction I wasn’t planning. So I do wonder if they are more sentient than we give them credit for (shhhhh….I’m typing. Stop talking in my head. No, I don’t want you to go to Las Vegas last weekend. Your story is set in Colorado, and you need to stay there.)
Where was i? Oh, right.
Anyhoo, thanks for another great post.
I shared because “Plot is the thing that characters poop” is so perfect. I have a book 6 of a series that was boring me to write because: wedding, birth, happy ending, were just too predictably necessary. It was constipated. Then shit happened to my characters because they did something out of the ordinary and now, whoa, it’s exciting again.
Ever so timely…
I’m writing my first novel and have been reading your blog on and off for the last year. Yesterday was one of those days, ‘Can I really do this?’
This morning, post blog – I feel my characters saying, yes! just get in the back seat and let us drive…. it’s gonna be crazy!!!
Thank you. [seat belt clicks]
“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.”
This has to be one of the most important paragraphs I have ever read. When I think on it, it makes prefect sense, yet I had never considered it this way before. I am going to keep this one close by…thank you!
[…] writers, read this simple solution. Eureka! This happens to me a lot! Chuck Wendig is a […]
Great advice as always, and very timely for me as my book seems to have sputtered out as I approach the mid-mark.
I do have to ask, though, are you going all Bieber on us now that you’re part of the MAGA movement. I note there is only one bad word in this entire post and it is poop. ; )
Love it! Smiling at ‘BAD author, no do that!’ Cheers Chuck 🙂
PLOT IS LITERALLY CHARACTER POOP AND DON’T YOU DARE SAY IT ISN’T!
Erm. Thanks O_O
I so needed this right now!
Yup – this is why my first attempt (I will not dignify it with the name of draft) lay down and died of apathy at 30,000 words. So I killed off most of the characters and found the survivors’ drives. And added an explosion, because what could be a better addition to a princess story than a quantity of gunpowder?
I also needed this right now. Thank you! And there is only one Chuck and I love him as he is. 🙂
Just in time. Last night i had no idea how to continue this short story I’m working on.
Oh God I needed this. I’m going on a five day novel crafting retreat and I ain’t got shit. Thanks Chuck.
(Giggles with glee) My auntie-in-law reads some of my fan fiction and keeps asking, “But where is this story GOING??” To which I reply, “We’ll find out when our intrepid heroes get there!” She dislikes this answer. Auntie-in-law aspires to be a memoir writer. (I think. It’s hard to tell. But not any sort of fiction, unless she’s making up stories about her family but mom-in-law says not.) Then I like to quiz her on what she’s read. “Who is Andrea’s favorite cousin?” “Billy, of course. Billy is everyone’s favorite.” Mwahahahaha. YES! (Wanders off chortling and pondering what kind of rock to throw at them next.)
I was really lazy about this for a really long time. One of the fun things about writing horror and adventure fantasy is that when your story starts to peter out you can just kill someone and get the ball rolling again. When I started branching out into other genres I finally realized what a cheap, lazy tactic that is. Suddenly my people are on a star ship embroiled in a political situation with their home planet… I can’t just kill someone for no reason because I’m bored. I had to learn how to write complex relationships and crap like that. It’s been a good time. It takes me a year to write a book now instead of four months, but that’s probably a good thing.
Maybe if we made History sound a little more interesting it would sink in. The Andy Griffith Show episode of “The British is Coming” captured the minds of a bunch of 3rd graders. I often see that same surprised look on the face of the average high school grad of today, when you explain it to them in this manner. They look and act just like the 3rd graders in that episode. “Wow, that really happened?” “Why It sure did, you little simple minded fucking morons!” Pay The Fuck Attention Once in a While…Awwwa, that simple minded way kinda works for some people don’t huh…. (I am that simple mind)
One of your best, Chuck. Thanks!
I needed to hear this today. Thank you! I’m looking forward to your book coming out.
Biggest mistake of my so-called career as a writer: making my characters do something they didn’t want to do because PLOT said they had to. Yep, characters have real lives, including bodily functions. Not that I have a lot of bathroom scenes in my books, except for the ones where someone is getting in bigger trouble than she or he bargained for.Thanks for explaining this principle well.
[…] there may be some bad words. Well worth it. Here he tells us what I had to learn the hard way; that character, not plot, creates story. My favorite line from this piece–“Plot is the thing that characters […]
Your comment threads are the best.
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I always thought that you shouldn’t start writing until you figure out how the story will end. But you’re so true! Sometimes you’re fixated on the plot so much that you start reshaping your characters to stick them into that plot. Great post!