Three Ways to Jumpstart Your Draft When the Plot Starts to Sag
I don’t know about you, but I find it’s much easier to start something than finish it. When I begin a new draft it’s all sunshine and rainbows. The ideas just come unbidden, new characters leap onto the page like circus tumblers, and conflicts pop up unbidden.
Then I get about halfway through the story and bam: suddenly the fun’s over. I’m not sure where I’m going or what happens next. Maybe the story has begun to feel stale, or the tensions I’ve created aren’t enough to sustain my interest. The middle is where our author-brains begin to fatigue, and as a result, this is where many of us get stuck.
There are a few remedies, I think, for that middle-of-the-novel slog, tricks for jumpstarting your story when your characters are as lost as you are.
TIP 1: FIELDTRIP
In life, if you’re in a funk, you might need a change of scenery. Chances are your characters feel the same way. Try switching up the setting. Have your detective chase a lead to Beliz, or your hero seek the counsel of a distant oracle. In Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, halfway through the novel Elizabeth Bennet leaves home to tour the Derbyshire countryside, a journey which ultimately brings her closer (emotionally and literally) to Mr. Darcy. A new location can keep the story fresh and open up new avenues you’d never have discovered if you’d stayed at home.
Writing Exercise: Drop your hero and a few pals into a new setting. What new conflicts await them there? Does the change of place change the way the hero behaves or thinks?
TIP 2: QUANTUM LEAP
A change in time can be as effective as a change of location. In John Irving’s The World According to Garp, an early scene features a horrific car crash involving most of the major characters. The reader turns the page and…whoa. We’ve jumped ahead in time and the exact outcome of the crash is unknown (until much later). The leap forward creates a terrific cliffhanger, and pulls the reader deeper into the story. The effect is more compelling and exciting than if we were shown the aftermath of the crash immediately.
Writing Exercise: Explore what your characters are doing a week, a month, or a year from now.
TIP 3: PARTY TIME!
Ever run into an ex at a party? Things can get…interesting. If you’re not sure what happens next in your story, try bringing your whole cast together for a big group scene. Nothing stirs up tensions and conflict like getting a bunch of characters with differing agendas into the same room. Dostoevsky is famous for his large, chaotic dinner scenes. In Crime & Punishment Raskolnikov attends a funeral dinner thrown by Katrina, only to have Sonia, Luzhin, and most of the main characters show up. The result is a disastrous series of arguments that propel the story into its next phase.
Writing Exercise: Write a scene in which all of your characters attend the same party. What goes wrong? Who argues with whom? What secrets are revealed?
Keeping your story feeling fresh and vibrant is as much for your readers’ benefit as it is your own. It’s easy to get bogged down halfway through a draft, with all that writing still left to do and possibly no clear end in sight. Fatigue often means boredom, and if you’re not excited by your story, chances are your readers will be bored too. So shake things up, surprise yourself, and you’ll get through it. I promise.
John M. Cusick is an agent with Folio Jr. / Folio Literary Management, representing picture books, middle-grade, and young adult novels. He is also the author of GIRL PARTS and CHERRY MONEY BABY (Candlewick Press), as well as a regular speaker at writers conferences. His clients include New York Times Bestselling Author Tommy Wallach (WE ALL LOOKED UP, Simon & Schuster), Courtney Alameda (SHUTTER, Feiwel & Friends) and Hannah Moskowitz (A HISTORY OF GLITTER AND BLOOD, Chronicle Books) You can find him online at and on Twitter @johnmcusick.
John is giving away signed copies of GIRL PARTS and CHERRY MONEY BABY. If you are a registered Summer School student and would like a chance to win, please leave a comment on this post to be entered into the drawing. Good luck!
If you are registered for Kidlit Summer School, you can download a worksheet of John’s writing exercise at our Exercise Book. This is a password-protected area — only members allowed! Please check your email for the password.