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Stuck With Your Novel? Get Unstuck!

Stuck with your novel? Get unstuckYou’re in the middle of NaNoWriMo, and you’re not coming up with anything. None of the prompts from the site are helping. Nothing is inspiring you. You’re completely frustrated—and stuck.

I know the feeling. It must be writer’s block, right? Or you’ve been deluding yourself. This just isn’t working for you. Maybe next year…

Stop right there. Quitting isn’t an option. And you’re not allowed to wallow in self-pity, either. You have work to do, so listen up.

Nobody said writing a novel is easy. In fact, facing the challenges and getting past the hard parts are the difference between a dedicated writer and a dreamer. Success and failure. A finished novel and a rough draft.

But what are you going to write? I was at this point just last week, but I knew what I had to do. And on November 15, I hit 53,122 words. But I’m not done yet. I’m taking it all the way to the end, even if it means 100,000 words on November 30.

So don’t worry—here’s help. These ideas and exercises will get you past the brick wall and on to 50,000 words—or more.

1. Describe your characters.

Sounds like a no-brainer, right? But it could be the missing link that gets you unstuck.

Now your novel may or may not need in-depth characterization. It depends, in part, on whether your novel is plot- or character-driven.

If it’s plot-driven, more focus will be placed on events: traumas, catastrophes, disappointments, disasters, shootings, sneaky business, natural disasters, or comical failures. The good stuff, too, but it’s more about events than the decisions characters make that determine outcomes.

If it’s character-driven, more emphasis will be placed on the character(s). And that means you’ll need to describe them in depth, especially their inner workings.

But any novel needs characterization, and most are not exclusively plot- or character-driven. And when you know your characters, you’ll have more to write about. You can add more details as internal dialogue or self-reflection (I can’t continue with myself as I am. I’m…), as commentary by one of the characters (“He loved the way she…”), or just as a simple description (“She inhaled the scent of the…and the…It reminded her of…”), and so on.

Assign astrological signs or Myers-Briggs personality types to your characters.

Try it, even if you think astrology is silly or you dislike personality tests. One of my characters, for example, is a Libra. I didn’t decide that until I’d already written quite a bit about him, but it fits perfectly. It also gives me much more to work with.

My other main character is a Sagittarian. In what areas do they get along well or clash?

Any good astrology site, like this one, can provide insight into personality traits, whether you choose to think of your characters as one sign or another or not.

How about Myers-Briggs? Take this free test for each of your characters. You might want to try it several times if you don’t know your characters well. You’ll get plenty of insight, which gives you more to write about. Here’s a big list of free personality quizzes.

Add details.

  • How do your characters dress? How does their clothing reflect their personalities or situations?
  • What do they look like physically? What about mannerisms, body language, how they walk and talk? Describe each character from the point of view of another character. Even if your main character is the narrator (the person telling the story), let other important characters offer their opinions.
  • What challenges have your characters had previously, and how does this affect them now?
  • What are their families like? Describe the relationships with parents, siblings, or other significant relative or influential person in the character’s childhood or recent years. What impact did they or do they have?
  • Describe negative and positive traits in all your characters from the narrator’s point of view or another character’s.

Add a scene in which a character tells the story of how he grew up.

Or describe what he or she went through as a teenager or young adult. Maybe someone had a particularly stressful event or series of events: an accident, a loss, an illness, or difficulty reaching a goal that’s related to the current goal. Maybe your character tells the story in confidence, and he’s betrayed later on which results in a big mess (perhaps one of the challenges discussed below).

What about your antagonist—the trouble maker—if it’s a particular person? Write a few paragraphs about him or her. What redeeming qualities does he or she have? Develop that character as much as any other, even though you might not use everything you write now.

Here are some more great questions to ask.

2. Describe the setting(s).

Where does the story take place? Your main setting might be a small town or a big city. Or your novel might feature several or many settings, depending on the scene, from a country or region to a bar or the backyard of your main character’s home.

How does the location trigger an emotional response in your character? Describe it through the eyes of your main character (protagonist) and others.

Physical: homes, certain rooms of a home, buildings, streets, neighborhoods, a city. A highway or road, shopping centers or malls, the corner store. Parks, playgrounds, schools. Fields, forest, bodies of water like lakes, rivers, a spring bubbling out of a mountain, glaciers, oceans, bays.

People: What kind of people live here? They’re…friendly, rude, coarse, refined, educated, uneducated, hard-working, lazy, open-minded, bigoted, rich, poor, happy, sad, uptight, rigid, compassionate, guarded.

What are the neighbors like? How do people dress? Is there some striking similarity? A frightening sameness regardless of income or education? Or does style of dress vary widely due to income or competition for attention or respect? How does it affect your character?

Smells. Smells can evoke memories, thoughts, and emotions. If your story takes place in a big city, what would characters smell as they walk down the street? Smells often vary according to the neighborhood and time of day.

In Philadelphia, the rich scents of coriander and cilantro flavor the air around Indian restaurants and food trucks parked near universities. In Chinatown, the smells are entirely different. In South Philly, it’s cheese steaks, hot dogs, hamburgers, and beer on a warm afternoon. On a cold winter morning, the smell of bacon emanating from a diner hovers over an entire city block.

In certain subway stations, the smell of urine is like a thick, burning fog, but a block away, the air is heavy with the scent of roses.

In a rural area, what smells does a character encounter on a trail through the woods? Near a pond or swamp? Farmland? Mountains? Desert?

What about the smells in a house or apartment? Every home has a unique smell. Does it smell like baby diapers and sour milk? Dogs or cat litter? A hospital? How does a character react or in what way does it support the action of a scene?

Sounds. Write a few paragraphs on the sounds your characters hear. What do they hear in a city? In a rural area or in the mountains?

Traffic, horns, sirens, dogs barking, people talking and laughing. The mutterings of a homeless woman in a doorway. A child’s high-pitched scream or cry. A helicoptor overhead. The whoosh of an avalanche. Drops of water falling from a tree after the rain.

In an apartment on the 10th floor, a character might hear the hum of a refrigerator, fan, or air conditioning unit. The clatter of traffic below. A dim roar of distant traffic. Low voices out in the hall. The clang of pipes, the neighbors fighting, children crying, music playing. How does your character react?

Spiritual or psychological aspects of the place

Settings can be calm and peaceful. A park or lake could be an island in the middle of chaos—or a place of terror. A museum could be a sanctuary from a noisy city, a stressful job, or an unhappy relationship. Or it can have an opposite effect and trigger panic in your character.

Snarled traffic can feel angry. A jail might be frightening, but your character might reflect on the suffering of inmates with deep compassion. A temple, synagogue, or church might seem peaceful, but your character is ill at ease inside. Why?

Having a hard time describing a place? Find information online, at least for now. Or photos. One of my favorite museums in New York City is The Cloisters; to me, it’s the definition of serenity. But my novel takes place in Philadelphia, so my two main characters find refuge at The Philadelphia Museum of Art.

You can start with Google to search for images of your setting or one like it. And start describing!

3. Get clear with the goal, passion, dream, quest, or purpose.

Your characters must have at least one big goal. There’s no point to the story otherwise, and if you’re stuck with your novel, this could be the missing link.

It could be clear-cut: get the job, find the criminal, solve the mystery, marry the beloved, rescue the child, escape from prison, or find the treasure.

It could be less defined: find meaning in life, heal psychological wounds, recover from loss, forgive oneself or others, overcome a fault, or beat an addiction.

Goals can take many forms, and they’re not always stated outright. Occasionally they might not be obvious to readers until the end of the novel. But if your character doesn’t have a purpose that you’re fully aware of, you might be stuck. And your readers will be bored.

Write a few paragraphs about that goal. Let one character tell another about it. What does your character fear? What hang-ups might prevent him or her from reaching the goal? What about outside barriers?

4. Choose the obstacles, conflicts, or difficulties that make reaching the goal difficult or near-impossible.

The challenges your characters face form the narrative arc.

If you’re not already familiar with narrative arc, learning more about it will help you get unstuck.

Think of your favorite novel or one you’ve recently read. How does it start?

A typical novel begins with a description of the setting and an introduction to the main character(s).

Then, an “inciting incident” gets the story moving—this reveals the character’s ultimate goal or problem that must be resolved. A gun goes off, someone disappears, people get sick, something is missing, or something is found. A friend or coworker gets robbed or killed, or your character hears disturbing news. Another character might walk into the room, and your main character is immediately intrigued. (Think of Twilight when Edward walks into the cafeteria.)

A series of conflicts, obstacles, or difficulties follow. These are events that may prevent your character from reaching his or her goal. They get worse and worse, and your character might face serious risks or even death.

The climax occurs at the high point of the tension created by the challenges and frustrations that have blocked progress. And it will go one way or another based on the actions and decisions of your character. Or it’s inevitable if you’re writing a plot-driven novel; the wind strengthens and the boat finally capsizes. The enemy advances and your character either fights or flees. The long-lost lover returns, but he or she doesn’t want your main character anymore. And so on.

What scenes do you still need to write based on conflicts or obstacles? Get more info on conflict, narrative arc, and other tips here: 10 Tips to Prepare for National Novel Writing Month.

5. Write your entire story in 1000 words or less.

Don’t worry about the quality of writing—this should be rough. Just get the story out from beginning to end. Or put another way, allow the story to reveal itself. Make sure it follows a narrative arc as described above.

If you’re not sure what to write about next, this could be the key that unlocks the door. But consider everything else in this list, first. Feed your imagination; it might be depleted and need nourishment. Take notes, do some reading, save links, and consider ideas you haven’t already thought about.

Don’t spend too much time deliberating, though. You should get back to writing as soon as possible.

Think of your short version as the sum of three parts.

In Part 1, devote around 250-300 words to the setting, the main characters, and the inciting incident—the event that kicks everything into action (see above).

In Part 2, use 450-500 words for the challenges or obstacles your main character faces. At the end, briefly describe the final challenge—the climax.

In Part 3, wind things down with roughly 200 words. How has the character changed? What changes have occurred in the situation? The battle is won and the nation is freed. The beloved comes back and they get married. Or the last two survivors—your main characters—finally come down with the illness that killed everyone else. What are their dying thoughts? How have they changed?

Give yourself plenty of relaxed, uninterrupted time for your short version—it could be your breakthrough. And when you find out or decide what happens throughout the story—or what needs to be added—you’ll no longer be stuck.

And won’t that feel great?


How are you doing with your novel? Have you felt stuck? How did you get unstuck?  Or are you still banging your head and chewing on your iPad? Share in the comments!

And don’t forget to share with friends. It could be a lifesaver. Or a novel-saver. 🙂

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