With National Novel Writing Month upon us, one of the greatest struggles among writers for the next few weeks (aside from just plain getting our rears in gear and writing!) is figuring out what happens next in our novels.
Whether you are a plotter or a pantser (one who flies by the “seat of their pants”) or somewhere in between, you almost inevitably run into points where you just don’t know where to go next. Or maybe even though words are coming, you feel like your story is lagging, just too slow to keep interest—even yours. What is the answer?
Good writing centers around trouble
Gail Carson Levine, author of Ella Enchanted, says, “So what makes the difference between caring and not caring [about a book]? The author’s cruelty. And the reader’s sympathy.”¹ There is, of course, the main problem that your protagonist is trying to solve, and often that lends itself to all kinds of trouble, but it doesn’t usually provide enough trouble to get through a whole book. Ella deals with trouble from her curse (which makes her obey any direct order given her), but she also deals with trouble from hungry ogres, weather, the physical hardships of journeying, a terrible finishing school, and the risk of falling in love with the prince. She is almost constantly beset by trouble of one kind or another.
Pick up any book or watch any movie. You are unlikely to find a story of any kind that doesn’t deal with the protagonist getting into trouble somehow. Even kids’ shows have troubles: Steve plays Blue’s Clues to figure out what Blue wants, but he also helps his other friends solve problems along the way; Dora is always travelling somewhere and overcoming obstacles—with the chance that Swiper the Fox could show up at any time; the Backyardigans’ imaginations create all kinds of challenges for them. Good times are boring. Give your characters hardships and difficulties to overcome.
What could possibly go wrong?
Sometimes the thing that your average two-year-old can handle with ease comes a bit more difficultly for adult (or teen or even preteen) writers. How do we get into trouble? Whenever your character does something, think of the potential consequences of that action. What is the worst that could happen? If you don’t want the absolute worst (because that often involves someone dying), think of all the ways it could go wrong. If you’re making a potion, it could blow up or melt the cauldron. Or you could put a cat hair in it and end up half-transformed with fur all over your face. A simple birthday party could be ruined because no one remembered to buy a cake or the clown didn’t show up—or worse he shows up drunk.
Often, more than one thing will be going wrong at the same time. That adds a bit of depth and reality to your story. As you seek to add trouble, come up with many ideas of what could go wrong; the best ideas often take a little more thought to get to. If you go with your first thought every time, your story could end up very predictable, and your reader will lose interest anyway. Even during NaNoWriMo, it pays to do a little brainstorming before picking a path.
All that said, your protagonist doesn’t have to go from one horrible thing to another constantly. They can take a break now and then. But don’t let it be too long or your readers will get bored.