Dear Story Nurse,
Lately, I keep coming up with setups for stories – complete with hooks and challenges I think will be really fun! – and then I look at all this space afterwards and have no idea what to put there. I guess I give the characters problems, but I get stuck trying to find the actual solutions. I keep trying to plot and getting really tied up in knots, and then writing scenes just to get into the story and losing interest quickly because I realize I’m just building a path as I go and it’s going nowhere in particular.
Any tips for getting unstuck and figuring out middles and ends?
—But to What End (she/her)
Dear But to What End,
That sounds very frustrating. You’re certainly not alone in having trouble getting past the beginning of your stories. On the life and mindset side, I’ve answered similar questions from people who are recovering from stressful events, getting back to writing after a long time away, stuck on “should”, and having trouble staying focused. On the craft side, I’ve helped writers who get carried away with big ideas, can’t choose among several possible endings, don’t know how to make endings feel smooth, and have protagonists who aren’t active enough to push the story to a conclusion. If any of those sound similar to your situation, those posts may be helpful.
I am personally very familiar with that feeling of losing interest in writing the story when I don’t know where it’s going. That feeling is what turned me from a pantser into a plotter. I recommend the same for you. What I don’t recommend is beginning at the beginning. Since you need an ending to work toward, begin with that ending.
Conveniently, endings and beginnings have a lot in common. Many endings do double duty as beginnings in series and episodic fiction. So if you’re having trouble writing the ending of book one, start with the beginning of book two and work backwards. Your characters are in a settled state of some kind, but how did they get there? That is the story of book one.
Another option is to write the beginning of book one and the beginning of book two and then figure out what must naturally have transpired between them. My post on filling the plot gap between beginning and ending can give you some suggestions for that.
One of the things that post touches on is the emotional challenge of wrestling with the middle of the story. Middles are hard. The story may take unexpected turns. You may find yourself struggling with the knowledge that you have to put your characters through difficult times, and it will be a long while before those struggles are resolved in some happy way, if that happens at all. It’s possible that for you the three-quarters slump is a one-quarter slump, and as soon as you begin that slide down toward the dark night of the soul, you flinch away and can’t bear to continue. If that’s the case, you may want to practice writing shorter, fluffier works that get you to the fun parts much faster, to reassure yourself that that is how the process goes. As you start writing longer works, planning out a happy ending in advance can definitely keep you going through the less happy parts of the story.
Once you move beyond the factual state of the characters to the emotional resonance of the story’s ending, you can investigate different types of endings for different types of stories, at least if you know what kind of story you’re writing. If you don’t, that may be your core problem. Is it a happy story, a sad story, an adventure story, a romance, a mystery, a story of exploration, a story of domesticity? Just having a sense of the general vibe and genre of the story will help you narrow down the many possible endings and pick one.
If you just can’t come up with a plot that feels right, it’s always fine to borrow one from one or more other works. Look through several works in your genre, analyze the plots and see what they have in common, and then pick and choose the parts that work for you. Or take a plot from entirely outside your genre and make it your own. There’s absolutely no shame in this kind of borrowing as long as you put in the effort to file off the serial numbers.
Finally, if you’re feeling more easily overwhelmed than usual, be gentle with yourself. 2018 has been a very challenging year for a lot of us. The blank space labeled PLOT GOES HERE might be a lot harder to face than it would be under other circumstances. Be gentle with yourself, and don’t feel you have to keep hammering on aspects of writing that are particularly challenging for you. If now is not the time for that, then set it aside for later, and take some time to write plotless vignettes or whatever else is easier. Rediscover the parts of writing you love, the parts that are fulfilling and joyful. Play around. When you’re ready for a challenge, that blank space will be much less intimidating, and you’ll be much better able to tackle it.