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Unstick your story draft: Start with one specific question 

 May 8, 2022

By  Sue Brown-Moore

Trying to unstick your story can be one of the most frustrating experiences for a writer. 

You're cruising along, pouring your heart into a scene, when the energy just stops. Or your character goes quiet. Or their transformation journey takes an unexpected turn. 

There are a lot of reasons authors get stuck in fiction writing, but the trouble can usually be traced back to the main character. 

And while there are tons of plot tools and writing exercises out there to help you push through a block in a stuck story, one in particular can serve a double purpose.

Today, we're talking about a powerful technique that will help you cut to the root of a problem while also deepening a character's backstory: writing a new scene.

That may sound simple, but knowing where to start is half the challenge. So I'll show you how to know where to start and what questions to ask yourself once you've written the scene to be sure you're on the right track.

Plus, I'll share my Emotional Transformation Ladder approach to scene writing that will help you zero in on your story's trouble spots.

The faster you can unstick your story, the more energy you can dedicate to writing the fun scenes. 

Ask the right question (to unstick your story)

To unstick your story, start with a question

Solving a mystery is all about asking the right questions. And a stuck story is just a mystery you haven't yet solved.

But before we can start solving the mystery, we first need to set some writing constraints. You could just free-write any old scene that strikes your fancy, and that would probably be fun. It might even be helpful. But probably and might aren't reliable plot tools, and you could end up in more of a quagmire than where you started.

So what question should you ask to jump start this discovery process and unstick your story? 

woman considering with pencil in mouth

Before we get to the question, first check to be sure you've developed your main character enough to write their transformation journey (or growth arc). Identify your character's root fear, deepest desire, and most urgent emotional need. If you struggle to answer these questions concisely or quickly, you need to spend some time getting to know your character better.

Because you can't write a strong story arc or design a powerful turning point if you don't know what your character needs to overcome or where they need to end up.

But if you have mapped out your character's core values and know what the key plot points in their growth arc will be, your stuck story problem may be that you don't have enough external events or stressors acting on the character.

In this case, the question you need to ask your character (or yourself) is:

What decision must the character make later in the story that they couldn't even fathom choosing when the story starts?

This is the character's turning point, and good storytelling hinges on understanding and building up to this moment. If you can't answer that question, go back to your character profile and fill in more of their backstory until you get clarity.

What's your character's backstory missing?

Take this quiz to find out!

Climb the Emotional Transformation Ladder (to unstick your story)

Then follow the feels

Assuming you understand what decision your character will have to make in their turning point moment, you now have to figure out the stepping stones that will slowly lead them to that fork in the metaphorical road. A person doesn't fly directly from fearing something to facing it. They usually need some help (or shoves) from outside their comfort zone.

So before you can write your new discovery scene, you need to understand the micro-steps of personal growth the character must experience along the way. This Emotional Transformation Ladder will be different for every character and every story, but there are some common patterns you can adapt for your own needs. 

Here's an example of an Emotional Transformation Ladder. Throughout sequential scenes in the story, the character would:

  1. 1
    Acknowledge that the feared/abhorrent choice or path is a possibility
  2. 2
    Deny or reject the idea (by clinging to comfort or safety)
  3. 3
    Doubt whether rejecting the idea was the best decision
  4. 4
    Consider the possibility of a better future by taking the feared path
  5. 5
    Choose to face the fear and walk the once-rejected path
  6. 6
    Act in a way that rejects the old fear and invests in the new path

Imagine each of these steps taking place in a different scene. Your story might ultimately combine a few of them together in one big, explosive Aha! Moment, but start first with the slower approach and see how that plays out (and avoid accidentally infodumping).

Which step from the list above stood out as incomplete or missing for your character's growth journey? That's the scene you need to write (or revise). 

Write the right scene (to unstick your story)

Next, write the right scene

Now that you know what moment you need to explore, you need to decide how the character approaches this moment and why.

So instead of writing the scene that will show the character's stepping-stone moment in the story arc itself (meaning on page), think about how and why they got to that point in their ladder. These nuggets of epiphany are likely buried somewhere in their backstory. (What is backstory? Read more here.)

The scene you need to write is the one that helps you uncover the root of their resistance to that specific growth step on the ladder. 

For example:

  1. 1
    If the character has not even acknowledged that there is another path, explore a moment from their backstory where they saw someone else take this same (or a similar) path
  2. 2
    If the character realizes there is a different path but has not yet rejected it as a possibility for themself, look into what circumstances might have shielded them from needing to make that initial choice.
  3. 3
    If the character has denied their growth path out of fear but hasn't yet begun to doubt that decision, think about what historical moments they might recall that could start to change their mind if they just remembered them and experienced something similar in the on-page story.
  4. 4
    If they have acknowledged and rejected the better path, doubted their choice, but not yet considered how it could make them happier, design a situation that could help them see this possibility through someone else's eyes.
  5. 5
    If they have done all of that but still haven't made the choice to face their fear and walk this new path, explore what is holding them back from making that choice. Write a scene that gives a strong reason for this reluctance, especially if it ties directly into other elements of the story itself.
  6. 6
    And finally, if the character has taken all the growth steps on the ladder except following through on their choice, dig deeper to figure out what steps or actions will demonstrate their belief in their new choice and show that they have fully embraced their transformation.

If you're still not sure how to write the discovery scene, consider your starting point from the list above, then check out this article on how to write an authentic scene in 12 minutes or less.

Ask more questions (to unstick your story)

Then ask even more questions

If the writing prompts above solved your stuck story problem, awesome! Hopefully your creative juices are back in full force and your core story is on the right track. 

But if you're still struggling with how to get your character through all the rungs on their Emotional Transformation Ladder, start asking them specific questions around how, what, why, when, where, and who. These questions will be unique to your story, but here are a few examples to get you started.

Ask your main character:

  • How do they tend to approach change? Do they throw themselves into it, or is each step a grudging shuffle forward? What happened in their past to make them react this way now?
  • Is there any trauma in your character's past that still haunts them? What exactly is stopping them from fully recovering from this experience?
  • Is there a less consequential moment in their past that still affects them today that you haven't sketched out? Why is that moment important?
  • Are there any moments in their history that they are emotionally or physically running from? When did those original events happen, and what has happened since then to reinforce their fear?
  • If your character could go anywhere for comfort or to find balance, where would they go and why? What happened there? What do they expect to get from visiting there? (This might be a physical place, an emotional state, or a psychological safe space.)
  • What secondary characters were instrumental in their backstory, and who are those people? What role do those minor characters play in the on-page story?

You can also take inspiration from the 6 genuine ways to show backstory in a scene that I shared in another article. Check your existing story scenes to see if you've used any of the 6 techniques but not followed up on the backstory moments they reference. Then write a scene that digs deeper into that subject or moment in the character's life.  

Make revisions (to unstick your story)

Finally, unstick your story through revisions

Once you've uncovered what's missing from your character's growth arc, all you may need to do is plug it in and adapt the rest of the story to flow into and out of that moment. 

While this technique is simple—ask the right question, then explore the answer through writing a backstory scene—putting it into practice could be harder than it sounds, especially if you realize you've misidentified other steps of their journey and need to do significant rewrites.

Whatever the case, don't despair and don't give up. Be patient with yourself, even if that means taking a little time away from the story before starting your revisions. You've got this

And if you've done all that and you're still stuck, consider consulting an expert or finding a fresh set of critique partners or beta readers to give it a look. Sometimes all you need is a new perspective.  

Keep learning: More self-study resources

Book: How to build a Breakthrough Backstory (a Storysmith U playbook)

Learn how to Build Breakthrough Backstories for your characters that can help you bust through creative blocks and write a stronger story from the very first scene.

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Comments and questions

Did you give this technique a try? Which rung in your main character's Emotional Transformation Ladder was missing? Were there any secondary characters that held the key to the puzzle?

I'd love to hear your thoughts, so leave a comment below and we'll chat!

About the author 

Sue Brown-Moore

Creator. Speaker. Feminist. Human. (She/her)

Known for being a tough editor with a soft touch, Sue Brown-Moore specializes in teaching revision techniques for character-driven fiction and champions progressive, inclusive literature. Sue helps writers rediscover their inner spark and push through vexing story problems using the character-first editing and storystorming techniques she teaches in her online university.

Sue has been featured in writing-focused events and publications, like Publisher’s Weekly and online writing summits, and the stories she collaborates on as both a freelance and acquiring editor have been celebrated with nominations and wins for industry awards like the Vivian, the Golden Heart, and the Lambda.

Learn more about learning from Sue and choose the confidence-building workshop, playbook, or bite-sized training that’s right for you, here on Sue's website.

You only get one chance to make a memorable first impression, so make it count!

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