Help, my plot’s stuck!

That plot’s not going anywhere without some help.

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.


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In Sheltering Talons, the tenth book in the Cat Among Dragons series, is now available! Danger, battle, paperwork, wedding rings, and… a werewolf?


  1. Been happening to me lately. Either I write something else (another story) or research, or go back to another WIP, or just try to pick up a book to read for a bit. Trouble I have found with researching something is that you have to go back into the story and rip stuff out and fix it. Sucks in the short term, looking at the future though it will help craft a better story. Did that today and the juices still aren’t flowing so think it’s time to go see what the outside world is doing.

  2. The good thing about writing a series is that there’s always something you wanna write. Bad thing is, it’s too tempting to write the easy stuff. and avoid the hard stuff, and end up with five incomplete books 85% written, each with 15% digging coal to complete.

  3. I try to have two books going at once — slightly staggered, so one is farther along than the other: when I get bored or stuck on one, I can always pick up the other.

  4. Same as Celia, except I keep a WIP and 2nd work and have three or four where I’ve written at least the first chapter. My last book published was a stand alone that was finished as a retreat when I burned out on the main one. It didn’t pay near as well as a series book but was certainly no waste of time.

    1. Be careful… the Colplatschki books started as a “I need a brain break” short story idea that shifted into a book, then a trilogy, then just got waaaaay out of hand.

      1. *looks at folder containing writings* Yeah, I guess it’s a writers thing…. last time I counted I have something like six “universes” I am playing in. Might be more, and if I punch it I can double that count easily. *sweat*

        1. Yeah, I’ve got three . . . four. Oh wait there’s . . . well if you count the series that split off the big series . . . and don’t count the four that don’t have anything published yet . . . five. Really.

          1. I think that I am currently safe with that aspect. So far that is. I do know several universes are incompatible with the other ones so there’s that. 🙂

          2. Law of Conservation of Universes.

            This is of course predicated on the truth of one of the Multiple Universe theories. We’re all pretty well verse on how universes diverge. Someone choose to go right instead of left, or spared the life of the mouse instead of eating it. Each decision point has multiple outcomes.

            But the fascinating one is where multiple pasts have the capability of producing the same present. One where the laws of nature are rigid and immutable and we exist in an ordered universe where A+B=C; but equally valid that we came from a magical universe where spells and prayer produced real results, but we’ve drawn so far away from them that the two universes merged.

            And of course then the question is, can we restore the optional choices? Can we split the universes in two, or can we generate one where both conditions can be possible? My head aches. I think I need another large coffee and Bailey’s.

            1. You may have just explained some things for me in my “urban Fantasy” story about what the Gates of Magic actually ARE and why certain things work the way they do.

        2. I only have one universe. Trouble is, it’s got 13,000 years of history (that I know about) and I’ve barely scratched the surface. Durn thing is gonna outlive me.

      2. A Diabolic Bargain snuck up on me by pretending to be a novelette. (Not even a novella.) And that’s how I wrote my first novel.

        It was aggravating writing the second and third draft just to put in all the stuff I had left out trying to keep the story short enough to be published.

        Fortunately, I learned my lesson. I was working on a story for an anthology with a limit of 8000 words. At 3000 words, I put it aside, wrote another story for the anthology, and came back to this. It’s 8000 words with a third of the outline done.

  5. You can skip to something later in the story and write that, after marking your file with [fill in].

    Assuming you know what follows after. Like a WIP in progress where all the next scenes in the novel are predicated on who the villains who hurt the love interest are, and whether the villainess who got the heroine in the beginning is one of them.

    Those who plot, rather than letting their subconscious be their guide, are probably smiling and thinking, “Not my circus, not my giraffe.”

    Why? Do you think that the outline is written with ease? The plot problem listed above is in outline.

    Think of the outline as a really, really, really rough first draft to get the right impression.

    1. My saying for such situation is similar, but slightly different. “Not my circus, not my monkeys.” I will be gobsmacked if y’all hadn’t heard of that one.

      1. “Not my monkey” is the original, but I use giraffes to try to prevent someone from taking a flying leap to a really inaccurate assumption.

    2. Mary, I don’t discount the difficulty of outlining, then writing. But I have read “plotters” lamenting that something occurred that in essence broke their advanced plot work in mid-writing, and they had to stop and sort out what they had missed/failed to catch in research/mis-understood (a legal situation in one writer’s case) and they found themselves in the same sort of hole as those who are more free-form in our technique.

        1. You are right. I apologize. I was thinking later stages of writing, not initial stages, and fouled up, doing an injustice to plotters in the process. When I get a moment later today, I will go back and adjust the piece accordingly.

  6. I’ve been trying to write short stories, and failing; ending up with novelettes instead. These in turn have turned into the basis for a novella; no harm done, right?

    Now, while I’m writing another novelette in my series of novelettes that aren’t really a novella in disguise that threatens to turn into a novel, I find myself surprised.

    Surprised by what is happening as I practice this whole into the dark writing thing I got from Dean Wesley Smith, which has surprised me in oh so many ways. A new novelette that may be some of the best writing I’ve ever done, which has led to a new character.

    Said character being a walk on that I feel compelled to write a scene of his own.

    I really don’t seem able to write one character one story plots. Oh well, it’s a learning experience. What could possibly go wrong learning new things?

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