Your hero is pondering something of world-shaking gravitas, and
You hit a wall. Or your readers hit a wall (hopefully just your alpha readers). And you cannot unlock the scene for love, money, or little green apples. What do you do?
You can skip to something later in the story and write that, after marking your file with [fill in]. You can go rotate the cat and clean the living room just to get away from the screen or notepad, but you must return to the work at some point in time. You could go to the old faithful “Just then, a shot rang out.” Or you can try doing the scene essay-style.
Who is your protagonist? Where is he? What is he? When is this set? Why is he there, why is he doing that, what’s he going to do next? Or do the same with the antagonist or villain (not always the same in a scene or work). Pulling back to look at the bigger picture sometimes provides a good way to re-asses, have the protagonist shift directions a little, and resume the action.
Sometimes I will jump to a scene I know wants/needs to be written and do that. I might end up modifying it later, or scrapping it, but often it helps jog the subconscious into motion.
On occasion, the plot sticks so badly that I have to go to my research books. Some reading, digging, prodding in dark corners, and snooping around often yields a tidbit that unlocks the story. However, that’s not really helpful for someone who is not a story-thief the way I am.
Those who plot, rather than letting their subconscious be their guide, are probably smiling and thinking, “Not my circus, not my giraffe.” Except. How often does something throw that plot outline off kilter, sometimes so badly that you hear the long, loud clattering crash of a scaffold collapsing? Probably more often than most people would care to admit.
[Edited to Add: Mary pointed out that plotters face the same difficulties, but far earlier in the writing process, as well as potentially encountering it again later on. If an outline is a plot-skeleton, then the block or plot-wreck can occur there in addition to during the “filling-in” phase. I apologize for not taking that into account and discussing it earlier.]
And there are times when I have set the whole mess aside for a month or two or longer. I can do this because I’m writing on spec and have no deadline besides what I impose on myself. This also happened the one time that I’d carefully plotted out the story. In that case, it turned out that I was trying to force the characters into molds they were not meant for, including having one street-smart individual grab a stupid-ball and do something he would never, ever do in the story-world. But that was what I’d plotted, dang it, and I had to stick to the outline! The plot got un-stuck when I threw in the towel, so to speak, and let the characters do their thing. That was the last time I tried to outline a fiction book the way I outline non-fiction. My characters need more breathing space, as does my subconscious.
As with many things, there is no One True Way to un-stick a plot. If you are writing on a deadline, you don’t have the luxury of setting the story aside for a month. In that case, using the essay-structure or news-story approach might be just what you need. Or backing up and asking, “OK, why is this piece here? What about that response?” Having someone you trust read over the offending section and so that fresh eyes can see the piece may also help. Why is Bob-the-Hero going after the McGuffin when he really probably ought to be defusing the ticking-time-bomb that is his mother-in-law’s birthday?
And you can always have a car back-fire, or a pressure-cooker blow its top, or a shot ring out, or the apparently-big-bad drop dead of a heart attack, at least to get the story moving again.
In Sheltering Talons, the tenth book in the Cat Among Dragons series, is now available! Danger, battle, paperwork, wedding rings, and… a werewolf?