Pantser’s Guide to Getting Unstuck

So, you’re a pantser. If you’re really lucky, you’re an extreme pantser like me, where your characters tell you things on a “need to know” basis – and you don’t need to know. And you’re stuck. Hard. You don’t know what should happen next in your story, and your characters won’t tell you.

The methods I use aren’t a guarantee, but they work for me, and they’ve worked for other pantsers. They’re worth trying, if only for the value of seeing words fill that blank space at the bottom of your manuscript. Yes, even if you do have to rip them out later.

So… here’s what I do when I’m stuck.

First step, I try to think through what my characters would logically do next at this point. If I’m really lucky, one of them will get irritated by my fumbling around in his, her, or its skull and start telling me what actually happens next. If not, well, it’s on to step two (which is also the semi-nuclear option).

Second step, throw a mountain at them. Yes, those of you who have heard or seen me rant on the mountain dropping school of plot will be scratching their heads here, but let me explain. Chances are if I’ve got myself stuck on something, there hasn’t been much happen that looks like it’s driven from outside the characters. The outside stuff is where you, as author, can play God in whatever way you choose (it’s also why the Church of God the Author is the true faith of many writers – and why God is a pantser). If your characters aren’t cooperating, you manipulate the environment to make them cooperate. More or less, anyway. You want your hero to go into the creepy castle, and he’s being quite sensible and saying “Hell, no”, you drive him there by constant harrying from the enemy, or you have him attacked and dragged in as a prisoner, or whatever else takes your fancy (I don’t recommend the beautiful princess unless there’s a really fat reward as well. Even the most lust-addled hero knows he’s not going to enjoy it when he’s dead, but large quantities of gold change the risk/reward calculus a bit).

It’s simple enough. You’re stuck, or you’re getting bored, so you throw in an apparently random attack or – the one I use in the Con books – a corpse, and let your characters respond. By the time they’re through dealing with the problem, they’ve revealed a few more and you have what you need to move on.

The only times I’ve found this doesn’t work is when you’ve written yourself into a blind alley. In that situation, you’ve probably also got at least one irritated character because you wrote them doing something they didn’t do, so – of course – they don’t want to talk to you (Avoiding this is why I mentally rehearse multiple options before I actually write the scene. Usually, anyway. Sometimes they just push it on me then cuss me out because they got it wrong or they want a rewrite. Demanding SOBs). For this, mountains, attacks, or corpses will fail. If you’re lucky, you can figure out where they should be and treat the blind alley as a detour of sorts (and of course, give your characters all kinds of grief getting back to where they should be). If not, it’s time to open a new file, paste in what you’ve got, and start backtracking. Delete back to the last key decision (and if your characters aren’t making decisions, you’re doing it wrong), then see if you can move on from there by changing that decision. Rinse and repeat until you get to the one that’s your problem child and move on.

The biggest stuck can be starting in the wrong place. Some lucky, lucky writers can do the “good bits” and then fill in the rest. I can’t – I have to start and work through to the end, with limited backtracking. If I misjudge where the characters are at the start, I can get myself into such a horrible mess the only choice is to throw it all away and rewrite from scratch. I’ve done this a few times, although not – thankfully – recently.

On the plus side, none of this is wasted – while you’re doing all of this, and swearing at your characters, you’re also building your writing skills. So go thee forth and unstick thyself by whatever means thou needst.

15 comments

  1. My rule of thumb is that if I’m getting bored writing it, my readers will be bored reading it. So I throw something at the characters. Or most recently, drop them into a frozen river, which livened things right up, and gave me a way to start explaining magic and how it works in my world to the character who’s learning faster than she would like.

    1. Yup! By the time your characters have got themselves out of whatever you dumped them into, you’ve got a whole new set of things to play with.

  2. Right. Throw a mountain at ’em. Good idea, because they’ve started wandering off with members of the opposite sex, and I have a strong suspicion there’s some gender going on over in the hotsprings.

    1. “Some gender going on over in the hotsprings”??? Or are you talking about some *sex* going on over in the hotsprings? [Evil Grin]

      1. No, no, sex is genetic, gender is culturally determined, and depending on how creative the characters’ cultures are . . . [returns evil grin]

        1. The correct response to “Sex?” is “Yes, please”. The correct response to “Gender?” can be “Male”, “Female” or one of many other possibilities (five genders, all of them needing to be present for mating, which occurs in a free-floating orgy that just looks like a breeze blowing across the lawn).

      2. You’ve heard of the fountain of youth? Well, in this case it’s springs of gender. The hot springs, of course, really get things hopping, so to speak. And when these characters say they are going for a swim, you never know just what they will be when they come back. A gender bender in every pool! Just think what it does for the romance stories. Jack and Jill drank from the fountain, and now…

        1. Ah Mike, I know you think you’re “just making a funny” *but* there is porn that involves gender switches. Oh, at least one has characters switching gender in a body of water.

          1. Paul, I really can’t thank you enough for NOT providing a link to that.

    2. Or snap-freeze the hotsprings. That will eliminate any gender happenings. Might also eliminate some of the external gender indicators, so possibly best done with healers nearby, but still…

      1. The worst offender is a healer. You have no idea how lucky you are to have characters who merely won’t talk to you. I am so tired of every attempt to write turning into some highly unlikely seduction.

  3. This is good advice. I tried my own variation of steps similar to these a few weeks ago, after coming to the conclusion that as my story progressed the parts involving the supporting characters were more entertaining than those with my main character. After thinking about this for way too long, I realized the root of this was that my main character’s first obstacle was significantly more interesting than most of her following problems, so her story peaked early and started going down hill. Instead of altering her decisions, I changed the results. I ended up changing her first success into a failure, making what was originally a short term problem into a long term problem, thus keeping the original more interesting issue alive.

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