Today I was hanging out with a group of creative writers at the Northeastern Illinois University Summer Creative Writing Institute, and one of the writers asked me a question about what to do when a scene stalls, when the plot fumbles, when things slow down and threaten to fall apart.
Great question, I said. And the answer is: that’s when you turn up the heat!
The writers looked at me like, uh huh, and how exactly do you do that?
Well, NEIU writers (and Deb Ball friends!), here are a few ideas to get you started….
1. Make things important
If your characters don’t want something, you probably don’t have much of a story. Give your character something to want. Now make it important. Make it irresistible. Twist the screws: it’s not just a want, it’s a need. Your character craves this thing. She MUST HAVE IT.
Play with making other things important: the information that’s about to be revealed. The change that’s coming. The new person who’s about to walk on stage. Make them a bigger deal than you intended to. Give your character a huge reaction. Have your character care, deeply, about what’s about to happen.
2. Take action
Have your character take some action — book a cruise, eat an entire chicken, sleep with the babysitter. Extra credit if the action is a mistake, or if, while trying to make things better, your character makes them far, far worse.
3. Heighten the reaction
I see too many characters under-react to big moments. Push the reaction. Push it beyond reasonable, beyond normal. What happens then? How does this huge reaction affect the other characters? How do they react? Push it into hyperbole, into crazy. It’s always easier in revision to dial a scene back a notch than it is to beef it up.
4. Add a ticking clock
Remember Back to the Future?
The ticking clock was literally hanging over Marty McFly’s head for, like, half the movie. Put a time limit on your character’s wants and needs. How much can you shorten the timeline? If you were thinking this story would take place over a year, can you shorten it to six months? One month?
5. Raise the stakes
What happens if your character doesn’t get what she wants/needs? What does she fear will happen? What is she trying to avoid? Now, can you make the worst case scenario even WORSE? If your character’s husband finds out she’s having an affair, not only will he leave her, but he’ll take the kids! And then he’ll lose his health insurance, and how will he pay for his chemotherapy? Pull other characters into the stakes — your character’s choices should affect other people, not just her!
6. Give your character what they want
…or what they THINK they want! What happens if your character gets everything she’s been dreaming of? Does she go on a happiness-fueled fun binge? Or does she realize that the thing she’s wanted all along isn’t the thing she needs?
7. Take away something your character has or needs
Is your character convinced she’ll be able to accomplish her mission, as long as she has her secret weapon/inner strength/Dumbledore? Take it away from her! What happens then?
8. Subvert expectation
Figure out what would normally happen at this point in the story, and zag instead of zigging. Is this the point when the handsome prince would kiss the princess? Have him confess his secret love for the baker instead! Challenge the expectations of the reader and the character!
…And as we say during NaNoWriMo, if all else fails, you can ALWAYS add a ninja!
M. Molly Backes
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