The Quagmire

Some people fear the blank page. Some stare at it wondering where on earth to start, their mind as blank as the page and questing for ideas. Other’s have an idea and jump in with both feet, confident that they know exactly where their story is going only to find themselves knee deep in a story and somehow frozen in place. I have suffered with both we’ll leave the blank page/blank mind issue for another day. Today we are going to look at the quagmire of a stalled story.

Now for me, this stalling usually happens somewhere around the 20K words mark. Usually when I hit a quagmire at this stage it is because I woke up with a fabulous idea that I just couldn’t wait to get down. I knew the set up, I knew the characters and on occasion I may have even known the final scene of the novel. 20 K words will typically get me through the set up. From there it is an ocean of empty space between me and the final sentence.

Sometimes it is so tantalizing seeing it in the distance that you can almost taste the finished novel, you just can’t see how to get there. For me I generally have several steps I can take to get through this. They can be done in any order. Some of them, you might want to skip, others you might want to repeat.

One, I take a walk. I use a walking trail where the path is clear and I don’t have to think about where I am walking, and where I don’t have to worry about oncoming traffic. You can use a treadmill or pull weeds or wash dishes. The thing is to pick something that your body can do while your brain is far, far away. I generally find that this helps if I haven’t thought through my story enough and just need to think through a few of the missing steps between me and the final page.

Two, make a list. Take a sheet of paper and just jot down sentences. They don’t even have to be complete sentences. Say we are back talking about Bob and the Slug Monster invasion. We haven’t discussed him in a while so he should be well rested.

Now we know, Bob is ultimately going to face off against the Slug Monster General in the Bowl-a-Rama. We can even see him standing atop one of the bowling ball returns. Legs spread in a wide stance, eyes flashing as the General destroys his father’s Regional Quarter Final’s Bowling Trophy with his slime gun. We can even see the makeshift bandolier he has strapped across his body holding the decorative salt shakers he took from Mrs. Perkin’s collection in order to arm himself for the final showdown. Can’t you see the happy ear of corn salt shaker gripped in his hand, feet peeking through his fist as he prepares to hurl it like a grenade? Yes, I think you can.

The problem is that while we can see the end clearly, Our story is still standing on Bob’s front porch. There we stand wondering how we are going to get Bob across town to the Bowl-A-Rama when he is standing in a bathrobe and slippers holding the carton of orange juice he plans to use in his cereal because the milk went bad as he looks down the street and wondered what that noise could possibly be. our trouble may be that we can’t get Bob off that porch. We know that he may go to the porch and look out at the street, but if the sound does not repeat and nothing appears out of place, he may just go back inside.

And where will that get us?

No closer to the Bowl-a-Rama I can tell you.

So we come to our first list. I will call it, “What does Bob need before the showdown?”

Under this heading I will place my sentences.

  • to get to the Bowl-a-Rama
  • to get the salt shakers
  • to make a bandolier
  • to know he needs to make a bandolier to carry the salt shakers
  • to realize there is an invasion
  • to decide to do something about the invasion

Your list will clearly relate to your story, but the principal is the same. We know what Bob needs to face off against The General. So we look at how he gets what he needs and who he gets it from. this is a series of questions and answers. You can write the questions or not. Ready?

  • Who knows how to make a bandolier? Eddie
  • Who has a decorative salt shaker collection? Mrs. Perkins
  • Who tells him he needs a bandolier, Again Eddie.
  • Where is Eddie? In the house to his left.
  • where is Mrs. Perkins? Across town in the retirement community located not to far from the Bowl a-Rama
  • Does he know Mrs. Perkins? No, she is a friend of his neighbor to the right, Mrs. Pennywhistle.

For now we are going to skip his decision to do something about the invasion but looking at the list, we now know that Bob needs to pair with his two neighbors in order to make the story reach the conclusion we want. From here we can then figure out ways for him to link up with his neighbors and back the story up with our lists until we are on the front porch with Bob as we watch Crazy Eddie running away from where Bob thinks the unexpected noise came from, a spiral of smoke curling into the sky. There we have Bob react to Crazy Eddie running towards him and away from the bridge he just blew up. And our story is back on track or at least back to moving forwards as we pull one foot cautiously from the mud.

Sometimes, you don’t know what your main character is going to need at the end. Bob is pretty cut and dried. Sometimes what they need is not a physical thing like decorative salt shakers, but a renewed sense of self worth. While we hope Bob will actually come out of the tale with that as well, it isn’t something he needs to stop for and add to his grocery cart. You can make the lists for this too.

(Bob has a lack of self worth or confidence, where does he get it? By defeating the slug monsters, How does he get enough confidence to face the slug monster, by getting his neighbors across town, how does this build him up? He gets them over a series of obstacles. what are the obstacles…)

The list can work even if it isn’t a physical something they need to pick up on the journey.

My third trick for getting unstuck from the quagmire is something I like to call the three doors. I’m sure you’ve heard the old riddle – There are two doors, one leads to safety and the other leads to certain death. There is usually a frog or something you ask a question of but one frog always tells the truth and one always lies and you have to figure out which one it is. This is sort of like that only without the frogs and with three options. Here are you options

1- safety

2- a struggle

3- certain death

So get out your notebook and look at your story. And yes we will make a list again. First we look at door number one. If our lovely contestant chooses this door his path to victory will be easy. Watch as our lovely ladies pull back the curtain and show him what he has won…

  • Bob sees smoke.
  • Bob investigates.
  • Bob find slug monsters.
  • They are conveniently located next to a store with a sale on salt and possibly even a gift shop selling decorative salt shakers saying I heart Masonville.
  • Bob takes the salt and fills the shakers, somehow having plenty of time to get them filled. He finds the bandolier, perhaps for a shotgun, hanging up, thinks it is perfect for the salt shakers (which it is as they fit easily – and mysteriously- into the slots.
  • Bob uses the salt to destroy the monster.
  • Everybody loves Bob.

Its a simple story that paints Bob as truly very fortunate and has all his supplies strategically placed where he can easily reach them. Handy that. But kind of boring to read about. And it leaves aout all secondary characters. He is a hero alone. Perhaps that is your story, and if it is, that is fine. Even if he is alone, the easy street approach is still kind of boring. No one likes the person who always gets everything they want exactly when they want it. You don’t want to cheer them on. they don’t need you to cheer them on. They have everything under control. Also, it seems fake. I know that is strange to say when dealing with the Slug Monster invasion, but oddly enough people can suspend disbelief for the invasion, but you have to make everything else real. the mild mannered accountant can’t suddenly become Rambo because your story needs it. The same goes for good luck. Your hero can’t always have it without people doubting your story.

For now we are going to skip option two and move to option three. Here lies certain death. In this scenario Bob doesn’t have good luck. Every step is a fight to the death. To investigate the smoke Bob had to make his way through downed powerlines that have electrified a pool of water on the street. The salt is on the other side of a wall of fire and he has to cross a pit lined with knives (the store sells salt and those late night television knives that cut through cans – in case you were wondering), and then the salt shakers are guarded by ninjas and rabid pitbulls (there was a convention in town and they all wanted Tchotchkes to take home). You would break out the list in pretty much the same way you would break out the easty street approach except that every step along his path could kill him in a dozen ways.

In the end it won’t be any more viable a path than the first one, but it will get your brain shifting. As you might have guessed you are going to use both of these to blend together into the second option where you can create an obstacle course. Ye might not easily get the salt shakers, but perhaps the salt shakers can be guarded by a foul tempered terrier named Mr. Pickles instead of ninjas and rabid pit bulls. And of course some things can be easy. Shake it up so your reader isn’t always expecting trauma or always expecting ease. Maybe Bob finds it easy to get the salt, but then has to work on keeping Crazy Eddie from making off with the store’s beef jerky supply. In the end you can blend the two approaches and come up with a pretty good story. And many of the elements can help you pull your feet from the morass that they are stuck in and get you moving again.

Always,m when you are writing, remember -this is a first draft. At this point it is important to get the story down. Later you can go through it and if you seemed to easy on your hero you can chuck in a few problems. If you were too hard on him in the first pass you can maybe build in a few rewards or breaks. No one says you have to keep the sneak attack by Mr. Pickles in the final draft. The point is simply to get your story moving again.

These are the three approaches that work best for me when i am stuck. I hope they will help you when you are trying to push through a difficult bit of your story.

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