It happens to all of us at some point: stuck in the middle of a story, with no way forward. This author gives us five tips for getting the creativity—and words—flowing again.
by Melinda Curtis
If you can’t think of what to write next, whether it’s on page one, in the mucky middle, or while you’re closing in on the end of the book, is it writer’s block? Does it matter if it is or isn’t? Here’s a shocker: you don’t need to put a label on your condition to begin to treat your woes. Whether you’re stuck for an afternoon or for days, you need a way to get the story moving.
If you’re looking for a way forward, help is on the way. I’ve got some tips that have helped me get my story on the page. Because yes, I’ve been there. I’ve stared down looming deadlines with no word count, I’ve been lost in the middle of books, and I’ve gazed numbly at the blinking cursor wondering how I’m going to make sense of what I’ve written to produce a satisfying ending.
What did I do?
Well, what I didn’t immediately do was open up my writer’s toolbox. I’m not proud to say that I have wallowed and wasted time, sometimes justly so. It’s hard for a creative muse to flit happily along when you’re in the throes of grief or in the midst of family strife or wondering how to find a place to shelter after a devastating disaster. In those situations, give yourself some grace.
But if you’re just stuck, you should reach for your author toolbox.
Here are 5 tips from my store of tools to get your creativity flowing again, whether you’re trying to pitch a story, start a story, trying to push through the middle, or needing to barrel toward an ending.
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1. Story and character conflict. Your main characters should have a story goal that is something they can capture in a photograph, not a feeling. And this story goal should have a physical obstacle right up front keeping them from achieving the story goal. Are they stopping an assassin? They should come up with road blocks to finding the assassin right away and in succession. Are they trying to save the family ranch? They should be thwarted trying to raise money in Act 1 and through much of Act 2. All this is external conflict and is the engine that drives your plot forward (i.e., first they try this, then they try that, then they try something else, etc.)
I’m not going to preach a specific story structure to you, but structure can help you answer the question: what happens now?
But what about internal conflict? Do your main characters think, value, or believe something strongly on page one but you plan to have them think, value, or believe something different at the end? They should. I’m talking about the defining characteristics of your characters inside. And whatever is going on inside, that external conflict/plot should make them squirm a little. For example, a loyal detective would never suspect the partner who saved his life of being the assassin, but evidence in the story continues to challenge that belief. Or a cowboy would never sell his daughter’s pony to pay off debts because that would make him a bad dad. But if he’s to save the ranch his family has owned for five generations, it just may come down to that. Internal conflict makes things harder inside for your characters to take action.
2. Story structure. I’m not going to preach a specific story structure to you. But this is where I remind you to look at the story structure you use and overlay it on your story idea or what you’ve written. Given the bones of your storytelling structure preference, what needs to happen next? If it’s a thriller you’re crafting, are you at a point where you need to arrest a suspect, although the proof isn’t ironclad? If it’s a romance, do you need to establish intimacy or let characters give in to attraction? Are you at the mid-point where you need some kind of plot reversal? Sometimes structure can help you answer the question: what happens now?
3. Genre promise. Readers (and viewers, if you’re writing for film) gravitate toward a genre because it delivers on the promise of that genre or subgenre (their favorite escape!) What genre are you writing in? And what does it promise? When I write my small town contemporary romances, I need to create a cozy community with some quirky yet lovable characters. When I write western romances, I need to provide scenes with ranch work, horses with character, and a vividly rural setting. If you’re crafting a thriller, you need to continuously justify the threat/villain with additional murders or explosions or double crosses. All this seems like a given, but if you haven’t put it on the page, do it. Just the act of writing something will often propel you forward toward more important words and scenes.
I’ve stared down looming deadlines with no word count, I’ve been lost in the middle of books, and I’ve gazed numbly at blinking cursors.
4. Tropes. I often review trope lists if my pages feel boring. I know some writers believe tropes are cliché. But readers and viewers love tropes! Superhero movies break box office records (trope). Christmas romance movies made the Hallmark channel relevant again. And on Amazon, tropes are strong keyword and category descriptors (ka-ching!) Study which tropes are being used in your genre and don’t be afraid to use them, flip them, and use them again. Want to analyze how tropes are used well in plot and subplot, and with main and supporting characters? Watch some K-dramas (Korean-produced TV shows). You’ll find them on Netflix, Hulu, and other places. These 12–30+ TV episodes can be addictive because they trope-load and keep the viewer vested in wondering what happens next. The best ones never have a dull moment. If you’re interested, I usually recommend Business Proposal (a rom-com) and Black (a dark, paranormal murder mystery), both on Netflix.
5. Voice. I know this seems an odd solution to kicking your muse into gear, but it does work. What is your author voice? If you don’t know, it helps to think about how you would tell a joke compared to someone else. Are you long-winded? Are you silly? Do you dwell on the dark parts? Whatever characterizes your storytelling style, make sure you’re telling a story that fits that voice. If you usually write dark and angsty stories but your current work-in-progress is flat or—worse—happy-go-lucky, maybe you should examine your reasons for writing that particular plot/character combo. You may not be the right author to tell that story. Or … you might need to add in elements that fit your storytelling voice to give you momentum.
I hope these five tips help you kick your creativity into gear today! Or when you need a jumpstart in the future! Happy writing!
Melinda Curtis is an award-winning, USA Today–bestselling author who writes for Harlequin, Grand Central Forever, and Caezik Romance, and is also independently published. After much exploration to find her author voice, she now writes mostly sweet romance and sweet romantic comedies. One of her Harlequin books, Dandelion Wishes, was made into a 2020 TV movie, Love in Harmony Valley, starring Amber Marshall. Melinda has written and sold over seventy books, including two craft books, Frankly, My Dear: Creating Unforgettable Characters and the soon-to-be-published Putting Story on the Page. In between deadlines, she can often be found speaking to writing groups and teaching writing craft courses online.
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