As writers, we all get excited by our latest story idea and, more often than not, have a hard time resisting the urge to jump on the keyboard to start right away. But, unfortunately, it is also common that we quickly get to a point where we are getting stuck and sit asking ourselves how do I progress my story?
Progressing a story when you are stuck is best done by reworking the outline. Break it down into components like the character goals, desires and motivations, that you can then improve one at a time. Improving each small part will make the entire plot far better and give you more to work with.
Outline to The Rescue
When you start off strong on an exciting new story, it can be challenging to step back from the writing when you find yourself struggling to progress the story engagingly.
But the best way to really move your story along is to actually stop trying to make progress by just keeping on writing.
Just pushing forward can and does work for some writers, but for many of us, it just ends up with us producing a messy storyline that needs more of a complete rewrite than just editing.
Breaking Down the Plot
To get past this issue and really have a strong direction for the story, we need to go back to our outline and then review and improve the whole thing.
To make it easier to do and make sure we don’t miss critical items, I will explain how I break it down into the component parts that can then be reviewed and improved one at a time.
I have found that the best way to enhance my stories is to break this process into two main phases. The phase 1 components will be the major structural components that will carry our story. Think of these as the foundation of the story. We need this to be really strong.
The phase 2 components will be the ones that add real depth and life to the story. They will add color and detail to bring our people, places and the overall story to life.
Once you have gone over all these steps, you should have a long list to choose from that will allow you to progress your story.
Let’s get started
Phase 1: Major Plot Structure
These 6 are the foundations of the story. As you step through each one, make sure to first work each one in isolation and then consider it in relation to the others. Is it clear, engaging, relevant? Does it connect and mesh with the other components?
As you do each section, you will get ideas for the others. Make sure to note them and review these ideas thoroughly as you work on the relevant section. If a section is already done, not to worry, you will iterate through the sections again until you are happy each one is in a solid form.
Once you have finished the whole process, you should have avoided having too many gray areas, unsure items, if\maybe\possibly or generally vague ideas.
At this stage, try to make everything firm and clear. Of course, you can write any of these planned ideas as subtle, vague items as you draft your first manuscript version, but they should at least be clear on the plan.
The Main Plot
The number one item is, of course, the main plot. This should be written first at a high level.
Step 1: Write it in terms of a short pitch. Write it like a pitch on the back of the book or a 60-second chat with a publisher. The plot should come across quickly, clearly and pull you in within just a few sentences.
Now add more detail:
Step 2: Expand it to several paragraphs with plot details and critical story points. You are adding richness and flavor, but it is still relatively high level. Does it still stand up? Will it create more questions for the reader wanting and needing to know more?
Make sure that you have a clear beginning, middle, end structure and include any must have significant plot points that you need to weave into the storyline as you write.
Next, look at the goals of the story and the central characters. Create a separate card or note section for each and take your time to clearly define what their goals are individually.
Next, review them all with a critical eye to see if they work together as part of your plot. Do they appropriately mesh or work against each other as required by the story and characters to create tension or harmony, love or hate and so on?
Remember, each is likely to have a primary goal and secondary goals.
- What are the primary and secondary goals of the plot?
- What are the goals of the protagonists and antagonists?
- Are there any common goals any of the characters also share?
- Do minor characters have or need specific goals to help or hinder core characters or key plot lines?
The end of the story will have some kind of payoff, so next, look at what this is. Your lead character will likely get the best payoff but could also get other smaller rewards as the story unfolds.
What do they get at the end of the central plot? Don’t forget to think about overcoming smaller plot points along the way.
Minor plot points should also be considered and may also require some level of payoff.
- What does the antagonist get? Anything or nothing?
- Are you writing a series with reoccurring characters?
- Are there any payoffs for central and secondary characters that may be needed as part of them returning in a future book?
Step four is to make sure there are consequences, positive or negative, for characters as they work toward the main goal. These will help increase the tension in the plot.
A goal without any downside is a missed opportunity to add another layer.
Do not forget to consider what the consequences are for characters as a result of the success or failure of another character. For example, if a hero fails at a task, what is the consequence for the villain?
The goals and payoffs you already worked on must have some level of associated consequences, whether direct or indirect, for them to really matter to the plot.
How are the plans you have made so far affected by the timeline your story is set against?
Timeline is often not thought of as critical to be considered and planned as a specific and separate item. That is a shame, as it can make a massive difference to how you progress your story.
Setting a short timeline means your story beats are fast-paced and move quickly from one to the next. Conversely, a very long timeline means you can write much more extended, slow-moving scenes.
Don’t underestimate the power of changing the timeline to help you figure out how your story progression takes place.
Next, there must be some roadblocks for any character with a goal they are working toward. They should not have an easy time being successful without at least some level of difficultly.
These once more allow you to increase the tension level in the story, so plan and use these wisely.
How hard these are to overcome should obviously be evaluated against the goal and reward on the other side.
Don’t write an enormous hurdle for a small plot point or, vice-versa, a minor bump for a massive story central theme.
Your readers will see right through weak planning like that. Make sure to balance the risk \ reward appropriately.
To finish off phase 1, rinse and repeat the process of analyzing these 6 components to make sure you have a strong story that incorporates them all. Once you go through them all the first time in-depth, you will likely have more ideas and changes for the first one.
Go over them a few times until you are satisfied you have a strong foundation and then move on to phase
Phase 2: Adding Depth
Phase 2 is where we add more depth to the story.
By now, you should have plenty of story points to allow you to progress your story smoothly. But to really pull in a reader and have them hooked, we need to add lots more layers. These are the finer details.
By this point, the main story and characters all likely have at least one main plot and you have likely already thought of related plots ideas. Now you need to evaluate them or think of some and see what ideas you can mesh with the foundation items in phase 1.
Any good story typically has at least one subplot for each main character and generally will have multiple. This is especially true for serial characters so they can be carried on as reoccurring subplots that are slowly moved forward with each book.
For each character, make sure you have at least one minor plot, as this adds depth and realism to bring them to life. We all have many things going on in our lives, so make sure your fictional characters do as well.
Make sure to write at least one subplot for each major character
Add subplots for minor characters as help or hindrance to the main plot
Next, spend a few minutes thinking about the main plot and the phase 1 items. Most of those will be driven by the desire and motivation of the characters.
Start with desire. Desire is the feeling of wanting something.
What is the desire that means that the characters are invested in their induvial plot narratives?
They have to have some desire, or why would they make any effort toward the goal? Be clear about what their desire is. What is it that makes the plot and goal vital to them?
Identify your character’s desires.
Closely related is the motivation of the character. It is the reason they act in a particular way.
What is the motivation to push toward the desire you just listed?
Why overcome a roadblock?
They need a specific motivation to explain why they are invested and pushing toward the goal and are willing to overcome the problem you throw at them along the way.
Identify your character motivations.
Next, what are the needs required to reach the goal of the plot? There has to be at least something needed to get to a payoff.
This could be a simple, specific item such as $1million cash to pay a ransom or being in a particular place at a specific time.
But also make sure to include more subtle needs such as making a human connection by a reserved person. Maybe reconnecting with an old friend now spoke to for years. These needs can specifically be a roadblock or maybe just one part of a larger need related to overcoming a roadblock.
What are the needs in your plot?
Your story conclusion will have the main payoff that will be a big incentive to the characters.
But what are the incentives for the other characters? What incentive drives any of them to overcome your roadblocks? This can be very closely related to the desire and motivation list for each character, but make sure to have some specific incentives for each plot point.
Maybe your lead has reconnected with their father as a need to move forward, but their incentive to meet this need could also be a larger need to have a long-missing family connection again.
Maybe the big baddie is incentivized to prove a mentor wrong?
This does not need to be an extensive section, just a few items you can weave into your story for realism and color.
Make a list of the incentives for each character.
Incentives should like to the characters other traits.
Last, what discoveries will your character make during the story? It can be about themselves, something about their environment or work, or something else in the story.
What will they discover about each other?
For a series, it can be powerful if characters find things out about each other as well as some self-enlightenment.
What discoveries will happen in the plot?
Add major and minor points.
So that is phase 2, where we enhance the main plot items covered in phase 1.
Phase 2 components do not need to be too long, but they are essential to do carefully. A few carefully thought of items that you use in your storytelling will add that to a story to take it from an interesting story to a compelling read.
This is where you add all the little details and subtleties to the people to round them out and make them interesting, three-dimensional and engaging.
There you go. I have found that getting stuck for me can usually be traced back to me moving on from the outline to writing a little too fast. Not being sure how to progress a story can usually be resolved by stepping back and going through this process.
The first time you do this, it can seem quite long, but once you do it a couple of times, you will find that it can be done very quickly and will make a big difference in how well you can write.
Did you try the process? Let us know how you got on!