How to Write (Good) Fiction: Part Three — Troubleshooting

So you have thoroughly planned out your novel, having decided on a theme, direction, and the nitty-gritty details such as Point-of-View and characterisation. But even the best-laid plans can unravel like a jumper caught by a button in the washing machine, especially if you aren't an experienced writer. Here's a handy guide in case you get lost along the way.

1. Running out of Steam
The first ten thousand words have flown by. At this rate, you'll be done by the end of next week. 100k, no problem! You're a tenth of the way through already, woo-hoo! Hmmm...this scene seems a bit tricky...oh God, what have I done? Why is this part so hard? I'm meant to be reaching the crescendo of Act One, but I'm losing momentum....*lots of head scratching*.

Sound familiar?

When I start a novel, I'm usually so full of enthusiasm from all that planning and daydreaming that I'm like a horse chomping at the bit to get out the starting gate. The initial inciting incident and the fallout from it carry you for a while, but quickly an endless chain of micro-decisions (for you and your characters) need addressing. It's likely you have left a gap in your pre-plan between the end of the opening scenes and the meat of the middle. So what now?

> Take stock for a day.
I know you don't want to lose momentum, but if you push ahead blind, the rest of the book will spiral out-of-control. Read over what you have written so far and make a note of what is working well. Which sections excite you? Keep that in mind as you refer to the notes you made before you started. Have you stuck to the plan? You have probably diverged a little. That's okay if it's working well.
> What is the next clear scene in your head?
Maybe your heroine has just been fired and booted out her apartment, and you know the next major scene involves her getting in an argument with a stranger who'll end up being The One. With pen and paper, figure out how she's going to get from A-B in an exciting way. For example, maybe after collecting all her clothes that her roommate has just chucked on the street, she drives off in a rage, tears streaming down her face, and ends up bumping into the car ahead. Even though it's her fault, she loses it and accuses Mr Right of causing the accident. This case is straight-forward, and some plots will take a lot longer to figure out, but sitting with pen and paper is sometimes the best way to reignite the story or sort the finer details.

2. Boredom
Writing a book is often tedious and difficult, but if you're not caught up emotionally in your writing, it's likely that your reader will be unconvinced at best and bored to tears at worst. Not ideal. But why is this happening when you have injected so much conflict into the plot? It's likely one of a few things:
>Conflict not relevant to the story
Your MC is constantly battling conflict after conflict, but it's starting to feel like you're completing some kind of disastrous shopping list. Although plenty of hardship is a good thing, it should always move your plot and character forward in a way that means something. Too mundane, too irrelevant, and the reader will be asking, 'So? Why do I care? What's the point?' Have another look at your scenes and highlight stagnant sections. Then fix it!
>Repetition/samey content and plot-drivers
Has your plot become Groundhog Day, endlessly repeating itself? I often see plots where the MC is only motivated to act after a telephone call or invites her friends round to eat dinner every night. Other offenders are constantly showing characters getting dressing/undressed, preparing food, and daily routines that add nothing. We don't have to see Jane driving to work every day. You are allowed to open a scene when she's already there, about to throttle her chauvinist co-worker in the middle of a meeting.
>The wrong protagonist
Hate to break it to you, but you might have chosen the wrong Main Character. Perhaps the successful politician isn't quite as interesting as you hoped. But maybe his wife is hiding a dark secret that might just derail everything, and maybe it's her eyes the reader wants to see through.
>Dull characters
You may have invested a lot of time in your MC without thinking hard enough about the supporting cast. No one will care that Uncle Harry has been wrongly accused of robbery if he's a cardboard cutout character. Dull characters are often a problem when your MC has a huge group of family or friends. Cut a few, and make everyone distinct and interesting, even if they aren't likeable.
>Yawn-worthy dialogue
Do your reader a favour and forget about small talk and constantly having characters introduce one another. As long as it's implied, that's all you need. Readers fly through dialogue, so invest it with as much wit, interest, and relevance as possible.
>Too much exposition, not enough action
A simple fix, this one. Delete the pages of endless description and telling, and show it instead. Keep things happening all the time, even if it's just your MC reflecting.

3. Flat Endings
So your firework end is more of a fizzle. It doesn't pack a punch and you're bewildered why it feels anti-climatic. Here's why:

>Not enough lead up
There's no point putting a roof on a house when you haven't finished the walls. From the middle, you should be stacking up the problems and conflict until everything explodes. Think of an elastic band stretched to breaking point; it will either ping off, forcing your character to act, or break, sending the MC into crisis-mode. Too little tension and the band won't do anything. Remember, the middle of the book should be the longest part.
>Forgetting the False Ending
Your reader should be on the edge of their seat just before the final resolution. Consider lulling your MC into a false sense of security. They've run out of bullets, but the assassins are dead so, phew...then they hear the hooves of a thousand Mongol warhorses galloping over the hill...
>The end doesn't relate to the beginning
Remember that the reader followed you on a journey for a reason, and they want an ending that satisfies the promises the author made at the outset in a surprising but gratifying way. Keep to the point of the story, and if you've gone awry, backtrack and figure out where you went off course.
>Convenient Resolutions
The evil-genius antagonist slips up and makes a rookie mistake at the last moment, letting the MC win. Yawn. The woman who wouldn't date John suddenly finds him more attractive than a bee finds pollen (but John hasn't earned it). Eyeroll. This can also work against your MC, which makes the conflict unbelievable. For example, the MC has installed a bank-vault strength door but the antagonist barges through it like it was made of wood. Or the magical security system fails at the crucial moment for an inexplicable reason that's never explained. Just because the ending is fast-paced, don't rush it, and remember to tie up all the loose ends.

Of course, there are hundreds of potential problems you might encounter during the story writing process. Sometimes you need to go back to the drawing board for a bit or conduct more research so you can write about that survival scene like you have actually performed major surgery in the middle of a rainforest with nothing but a hairpin and a sharp stick. That's the joy and misery of being a writer! It's the extra work that will make you stand out of the crowd, so take it one step at a time, and go write some good/great/kickass fiction.

Ciao for now,


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