Are your characters flopping over like wet cardboard? Is your plot fizzling in the middle or bouncing around without direction? Maybe the problem and solution is simple: you need different tactics, like when you’re carrying a heavy load of laundry up the stairs and adjusting your grip makes the basket easier to balance.
In this article, I’m going to give you two lists of outside-the-box strategies to cracking the big-picture puzzle of an engaging story. The more you experiment, the more sides of your story you’ll reveal until you can visualize how every piece fits together and find the jewel at the center. As you consider the possibilities, don’t be too quick to discard any, because sometimes the ideas you’re reluctant to try will help you the most.
- If you’re a pantser, leave yourself notes or questions at the end of your writing session to jumpstart your next round and keep you on track.
- Create characters who will risk almost anything, good or bad, to fulfill their goals and desires. This will throw them into conflict with their world, setting off a chain of events that, guess what, makes a story.
- Write yourself into a corner. Cover the wall with Post-its to assemble an overview of the characters, plot points, and other elements that influence (or could influence) your story’s trajectory. When you can see all the forces at play, the troubles your characters face can remain wild and unpredictable while the solutions can be epic and well-thought out.
- Be flexible between pantsing and outlining. I’m more of a plotter, but the complexity of one trilogy overwhelmed me. I had to pants the first book to discover more about the characters and world. With that knowledge, I was then able to start outlining the next book.
- Search for a novel that’s roughly comparable in voice and genre to your work-in-progress. Although you don’t want to carbon-copy it, you’ll gain a sense of how long your manuscript should be, the appropriate pacing, how to build tension, the expectations readers will or won’t have, and more. As you analyze all of these areas, ask yourself, “How can my book be similar yet unique?”
- Attempt pantsing (or stick to your habit if that’s what you normally do), but with this twist: watch for the upcoming plot points you need to hit. For instance, you might have no clue how your story ends, but if you’re at forty thousand words, and twenty thousand brought you to the first plot point, you’ll realize that you need to usher in the midpoint pronto.
- Draft your novel as a screenplay or short story first to distill it down to its core much faster than writing it at full length. Themes will emerge naturally as opposed to you conforming the story to themes you think it should convey.
- Discovery write—not the main story but your character’s backstories. Your characters will feel more organic, and where they’ve been will clarify where they’re headed.
- Externalize how your characters look in your imagination. Sketch a portrait or have a conversation with them out loud. Like real people, as you interact with them more, you’ll understand them better.
- Fill out in-depth character sheets, like the one available in our Resource Library. It’s designed to focus on all of the significant details and none of the irrelevant facts.
- Place your characters in situations inspired by writing prompts to test how they react. You don’t have to include the material in your actual story—the purpose of the exercise is to expose your characters’ temperaments so you can portray them authentically.
- Write journal entries or soul-dumps from your characters’ perspectives. You may uncover secrets about their pasts, their relationships, and their wants/needs.
- Identify your characters’ personality types. You’ll be better equipped to accomplish this if you’re familiar with the cognitive functions because those will directly affect a character’s mental processes. You can also compare her to others of the same type to gauge how she might think and act.
- Even as a plotter, you can let your characters take control and evolve on their own. If their independence starts to interfere with the plot, use the information you’ve learned about them to manipulate them into following the path you’ve laid out.
- Put together a playlist that matches the mood of the scenes you plan to write. Listen to it throughout the day (not just while you’re writing) to steep your mind in the emotional arcs you need to craft.
- Draw your characters’ weaknesses and flaws from their personality types and traits (such as introverted or dominant).
- Choose characters who defy stereotypes for the setting and genre. For example, a cartoonist in a medieval time travel adventure, or an Amish farmer in a steampunk. The incongruity can spawn a fascinating story.
Never Stop Improving
When I heard about writing journal entries for characters to flesh out their psychology, I dismissed it as cheesy. But low and behold, after I ran into a character who refused to show me his inner self, that tip led to a breakthrough!
Some of the most effective writing strategies are ones you’d never devise on your own. My best advice? Study the hundreds of ways to write, then tinker with each one to determine what works for you. A little pantsing here, a little plotting there. Even if you aren’t pleasantly surprised, the experience will teach you valuable lessons.
To broaden your horizons, I challenge you to implement at least one of the suggestions above that you’re unsure about, as well as one that arouses your curiosity. Then tell me about your results in the comments!
Many moons ago, a series of suspiciously providential events led Daeus to cast his lot among the worldwide community of Christian storytellers. Since then, no reports indicate that he has come back out. Perhaps he is lost among those fine gallivanters forever. Rest in peace, Daeus Lamb.
Daeus dreams impossibly large (which doesn’t bother him a bit) and tends to bite off more than he can chew. Watch this in action as he tries to capture the depths of the fantasy genre on his YouTube channel, or as he seeks to express the meaning of life in just a short novelette. (Psst. It’s a popular little book called God of Manna and you can get it for free here.)