3 Questions to Maintain Story Momentum When You’re Out of Ideas

March 29, 2021

The first time I set out to write a novel, I ground to a stop on the twenty-ninth page. A year later, I decided to toy with a different premise. That time, I reached sixty-two pages before I hit a blank I couldn’t push past.


In both of these attempts, I wrestled with the same problem: I had a vision for the beginning and the ending, but I couldn’t figure out how to connect them. In fact, my plot refused to stretch beyond a few chapters.


Since then, I’ve studied plot development and structure. I now understand the components that make a story strong and cohesive. But sometimes I still lose my sense of direction in the middle. That’s because, regardless of a writer’s experience level, inspiration and motivation has a habit of fading near the midpoint. When this happens to me, I ask myself three questions to help get the story moving again.


1. What Information Does the Protagonist (or Audience) Need to Learn?

Every story consists of details that must be revealed at the right moments. Some build the fictional world. What kinds of terrain, plants, and animals are indigenous to it? What social norms are people expected to conform to? Some contribute to the conflict. Who or what is causing it? What’s at stake? And some flesh out the protagonist. How does he fit into the events? What are his skills and flaws?


Your protagonist probably knows the answers to several of these questions. If he’s a native to the world, for instance, he’ll be familiar with its history and customs. Your audience, however, won’t be, and that can function as a prompt for your next scene.


Brainstorm creative ways (that don’t involve info-dumping) to share new insights with your characters and readers. Your protagonist could undergo training in the magic system, technology, or war tactics. He could stumble upon an artifact that uncovers his culture’s forgotten past. He could overhear the antagonist discussing his schemes in a coffee shop. And even if your protagonist already has all the facts, you could place him in a situation where he naturally needs to explain everything to another character.


In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, eleven-year-old Harry receives a letter of acceptance into Hogwarts, but he’s completely unaware of his heritage and the circumstances under which his parents died. When he enrolls at the school, his classes begin educating him in magic while his friends Ron and Hermione introduce him to the curiosities of the hidden wizarding world. Readers process all of these discoveries alongside Harry.


2. What Weaknesses Does the Protagonist Need to Overcome?

If your protagonist is capable of defeating the antagonist, he shouldn’t be holding back—unless an internal barrier is separating him from success. It could be fear, shame, guilt, egotism, selfishness, or any number of other faults. When your story stalls, put him through trials that challenge him to grow so that in the climax he can confront the antagonist and win.


Returning to The Sorcerer’s Stone again, at first Harry is largely hampered by his own ignorance. But throughout the series, he also has moments of being impulsive, temperamental, and arrogant. Many of these mistakes lead to disaster and prevent him from outsmarting Voldemort.


3. What Setbacks Could Interrupt the Story?

Now that your protagonist is becoming better acquainted with his world and addressing his personal struggles, he’s making real progress. But you can’t let him achieve victory that easily. He needs to face failure.


Your protagonist should collide with multiple obstacles throughout his journey. Some will be minor, such as temporarily misplacing a map. Others will be devastating, such as a friend being taken hostage. Each hardship will test your protagonist, increasing his stamina and ingenuity. When plans go awry, he must either try again or give up. And with each try, he’ll become better prepared to handle the next predicament.


This advice may sound similar to my previous point, but it’s actually distinct. I’m talking about external forces here, not character flaws. So the problem could be illness, injury, tragedy, or a lack of resources. It could even be a secondary conflict that distracts the protagonist from the main one. In Harry Potter’s story line, his troubles range from interpersonal friction (rivalry with Malfoy, Professor Snape’s disdain, and the disapproval of his aunt and uncle) to frightening encounters with the villain (Voldemort’s return).


Keeping the Ending in Mind

Even the most meticulously outlined stories can fizzle in the middle of a draft. But don’t lose hope. Writer’s block, especially during one of the most difficult segments of a story, is not a mark against you. It’s just an invitation to experiment and explore until inspiration returns.


When your story peters out, use the above questions to provide your protagonist with new information, growth, or struggles that propel him forward. But don’t aimlessly insert scenes to fill space. Do it with the purpose of bringing the ending closer. When you keep your eyes on the destination, you’ll better be able to recognize the twists and turns you need to take to get there.

    1 Comment

    1. Joelle Stone

      Excellent article on the most feared enemy of all writers, Miss Raymond! 😀


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