What to do when you get lost

What happens when you’re chugging right along in a story and suddenly you’re lost? You don’t know what’s going to happen next, or –worse in some ways– you know what needs to happen but you have no idea how to get there.

Here are a few tried-and-tested solutions, some of them may work in your situation, some will not, and I definitely do not recommend any specific order-of-use:

A) Write a synopsis/summary of your idea

Often this will shake something loose. It doesn’t have to be a long synopsis — a few paragraphs, a couple of pages — the important thing is to think critically about the idea. Find out what’s going right, what isn’t. Often times a synopsis will show you flaws in your story you didn’t even know were there.

This technique is especially effective for novels, and is sometimes overkill for a short story — although you might be surprised.

B) Do a scene-by-scene outline and projection

Outline your current work scene by scene (or if it’s all one scene, plot point by plot point), and project forward to the scenes you haven’t done yet.

Often times if I can’t get a synopsis to work, this technique works instead. I think the smaller, bite-sized chunks of plotpoints and scenes can be a lot less scary when boiled down this way.

C) Read a book on plots, or a novel/nonfiction book/philosophical treatise on themes similar to the ones in your story.

Figure out where your story fits in the scheme of things. Which plot type applies to which character? What are the critical elements? Do you have them all? Maybe you’ve forgotten, say, a convincing villain. Now you know what you need to work on to fix things.

D) Brainstorm

Make lists of images, words, concrete objects, adjectives, places, faces, names, phiosophical ideas — anything that has to do with your story.

Draw sketches, collect pictures, whatever — then try to arrange all of the ideas in a logical structure. Think about them. Most of them are junk, others may be your new beacon in the dark.

The idea behind this technique is to simply try and “shake something loose” — the danger of it is that you may get obsessed with a completely new story idea and abandon the current one.

E) Take time off

I hate to recommend this approach, especially for novels, but it has worked for me at least twice. I’ve gone away from novels after getting lost, chewed on it a while, had a major insight (preceded by several false insights that lead to dead ends), come back, and the story flows.

Usually when you come back, you realize there were SEVERAL problems. No major villain, no convincing threat, a wrong turn several scenes/chapters back which renders all work after it mere junk, etc.

This is my last-ditch response, and if I come back and the idea is junk — after a break I can tell. And I can let go and move to another project. The major danger of this technique is that most people DON’T come back.

That’s why I don’t recommend it unless you have already exhausted every other technique.

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