What To Do When You Don’t Know What Happens Next

This week the PLC is recycling some of our favorite posts, so as to spend more time with our families. Happy Holidays to all, and we’ll be back live next week.

Some writers are born outliners, start to finish. These lucky folks don’t understand why everyone doesn’t do it this way. I’d outline if I could, but my left brain is so shriveled it’s more like a tumor on my right brain. I often know my beginning and ending, but I have trouble with those murky middles. Here’s what I suggest for those troubling times when you‘re stuck somewhere between point A and point B.

Talk about it with someone who understands you, someone who has read a lot of your writing. This might be a sibling or spouse. In my case, it’s my best friend. Whenever I get so garbled I don’t know what I’m trying to say anymore, I go over to her place and we hash it out on the back porch. As in critique, another set of eyes may see what you are missing.

Ask the character themselves. Sure, you might be used to hearing voices talk in your head, but this time bring the conversation to them. Get out a notepad and ask your protagonist what he thinks and feels about what just happened to him, what he wants to do about it, and if that is the same as what he is actually going to do. My characters always take prodding before they spill the beans, and sometimes they get rude, but if you’re persistent they’ll tell you what you need to know (and probably a bunch of other stuff that you weren’t looking for but may be of use).

Draw an arc and plot the chapters you know. Here’s a generic example of a half-plotted arc below.

Now work backwards and forwards, using logic to fill in the blanks, until you know every twist and turn in Thor’s epic quest for his teddy. This method is how I most recently unstuck myself, but each trick has its place for me. Sometimes I graph, sometimes I chat with my friend, and sometimes I interview the people in my head.

So those are my tricks, but I’m always looking for more. What do you do, when you don’t know what happens next? Drop a comment and share some insight into your own creative process.

(originally posted Jan 25, 2010)