“This story just isn’t working for me.” < Something I’ve said quite a lot. You know how sometimes you have an idea for a story and SOMETHING ABOUT IT JUST ISN’T WORKING?? It’s sad because there’s something you like about the story. It just needs help. But you have no idea WHAT needs help.
Maybe you have one or two components 100% sorted. Maybe you have the setting and characters nailed, but you have no idea what the plot is going to be. (Been there.) Maybe you have the plot, but no theme. (Been there too.) Or maybe you have all the “necessary” components of a story but you just don’t feel that excitement to write it. (BEEN THERE SO MANY TIMES.) If you’re struggling with this, YOU’RE NOT ALONE. And I might have your solution in this post. (I say “might” because this is not a boring Q+A type post that grills your creativity for answers it doesn’t have. INSTEAD, this post is the process I actually use to spark my creativity and come up with ideas I’ve never considered before. IT’S ALMOST LIKE A MCDONALDS PLAYPLACE FOR YOUR WRITERLY BRAIN.)
One of you lovely readers actually requested a post about this! I CAN’T REMEMBER WHO IT WAS AND I’M SO SORRY BUT — here we are. Today we’re going to take a look at the story that’s just NOT working for you…and see what we can do to get it up and running. YOU EXCITED? I AM. GRAB SOME WAFFLES AND LET’S GET ON WITH IT.
Allow me to let you in on a little secret: I ONCE HAD A STORY IDEA THAT GAVE ME FITS. In fact, “once” is a funny word to use because it was ACTUALLY LIKE THREE WEEKS AGO but that’s beside the point. I knew the setting I wanted (wild western oh yeah honey) and I knew the cast of characters (cinnamon roll outlaws yaaaas) BUT…THAT’S BASICALLY ALL I KNEW. The plot was super weak and not something I felt excited to write. I told my sister all my ideas (which wasn’t much) and she was like “That sounds cool…so what’s it about?” AND I HAD NO IDEA HOW TO ANSWER HER.
But I loved the premise! I loved the characters! I loved the world-building! I didn’t want to scrap the whole idea. So I tried to help myself… by grilling my creativity for solutions. It didn’t work. Why? Because I kept looking at the story from the same old perspective. I couldn’t see what was wrong with it — because I wasn’t changing my point of view. I wasn’t exactly sure WHAT was wrong with the story… and so eventually I assumed it wasn’t any good. I decided to throw out the whole idea. I told my sister. I sat at the table one morning and sighed and said: “I don’t think I’m going to write that story.” AND THEN MY GENIUS SISTER SAID, “Don’t throw it away! What if you…”
Her suggestion saved my story and sparked my creativity. I’m going to tell you what it is, but first I have to shout about THE POWER OF THE “WHAT IF.” Don’t be afraid to ask “what if” questions! You might be amazed by the new ideas that come alive. I started doing this a while ago (and I can’t think why I didn’t do it with this book) but it’s become even MORE important to me because IT’S PROVEN, GUYS. IT WORKS. Don’t try to puzzle out your story like it’s a math problem — instead, let your creativity take flight. Ask your brain a question and it will answer. Let’s start with the question my sister asked me that day:
WHAT IF I MADE IT THE SEQUEL TO A DIFFERENT BOOK?
EVEN IF THIS “DIFFERENT BOOK” WASN’T GOING TO HAVE A SEQUEL. That’s what happened with my story. I recently thought of a new story (one that actually HAS A PLOT) and the setting was basically the same (because I’m secretly obsessed with the Wild West lol.) This NEW story (let’s call it Justice for lack of a real title) was kind of going to replace the story that wasn’t working for me (let’s call that one Fugitives) BUT THEN… my sister gave me an idea.
What if I made Fugitives the sequel to Justice?? I’D NEVER THOUGHT OF THE POSSIBILITY BEFORE. Right away, my brain said: “Whoa whoa wait. Justice is a standalone, Abbie.” BUT WE ALL KNOW HOW THIS CONVERSATION GOES. Standalones don’t standalone for very long when you have plot bunnies attacking you every 0.3 seconds. So I let myself think about it. And then my creativity EXPLODED. I decided that Justice could easily spin into an action-adventure-murder-mystery DUOLOGY and boom— DONE DEAL.
So this is a perfect example because I was so close to tossing the entire idea of Fugitives in the trash. BUT NOW THIS PAIR OF STORIES HAS BECOME ONE OF MY FAVORITE IDEAS EVER. And that never would have happened if I didn’t ask “what if?” Let’s explore a few more questions that might get the ball rolling for your Problem Story™.
WHAT IF I TURN IT UPSIDE-DOWN?
This one is a bit more subjective. I don’t mean literally turn your laptop upside-down (that might annoy your hard drive actually 0/10 recommend.) I mean: look at your story from a new perspective. What happens if you rearrange events? What happens if you switch things up? What happens if you change the point of view and make a sub-character the protagonist instead? Or what if it was from the villain’s POV? What happens if you change the entire starting point of your story? What happens if you take the end of the story and put it at the beginning?
It’s so important as a writer to ask yourself questions like this. Why? Because you have to keep your creative mind open to new possibilities! We are constantly bombarded with so much Writing Advice™, sometimes it’s hard to strip all that away and get back to a place of pure imagination. ALLOW YOURSELF TO BE IMAGINATIVE. Step outside the box and have a look around. You might be surprised by what you find. JUST THINK ABOUT IT.
WHAT IF I MAKE IT A RETELLING?
THIS IS ALWAYS A FUN QUESTION. I love retellings, especially when they’re not strictly “by the book” — and by that I mean I LIKE NEW INVENTIONS. Maybe you’re writing a sci-fi thriller and it just feels “bleh” to you… what if it was actually a retelling of Around The World In 80 Days? With time travel instead of a geographical race? Or what if your dark faerie fantasy was actually a retelling of The Secret Garden? With evil magical plants and mysterious forces? Or what if your thought-provoking contemporary was actually a retelling of Black Beauty? With people instead of horses??
I ASK MYSELF CRAZY QUESTIONS LIKE THIS ALL THE TIME. And I’m always amazed by the brilliant answers my brain comes up with. Seriously don’t stop at just one “what if” — ASK YOURSELF A WHOLE BUNCH OF WILD QUESTIONS. Don’t be afraid to explore, push the boundaries, think outside the box!
OTHER HELPFUL WRITING RESOURCES:
- How I Became A FASTER WRITER (10 Tried And True Habits That Will Help You STEP UP Your Writing Game!)
- How To OUTLINE YOUR NOVEL Without Losing Your Inspiration, Drive, and Sanity
- How To Deal With Your Plot Bunnies (In 3 Easy Steps)
WHAT IF I COMBINE THIS STORY IDEA WITH ANOTHER STORY IDEA?
There’s a small chance that if you’ve had this problem once, you’ve had it twice. Maybe you’ve got TWO Problem Stories™ simmering on the back burner at the moment. Have you ever thought about mixing them together and cooking them on one burner??? IT’S WORTH CONSIDERING, MY FRIEND. Even if one story doesn’t have the same setting or theme…would that be an issue? OR WOULD IT JUST BE MORE UNIQUE??
Unlikely combinations are so cool because they force you to put 2 and 57 together when you were trying to just put 2 and 2 together. SOMETIMES 59 IS THE BRILLIANT ANSWER YOU’RE LOOKING FOR. Ask questions! Make notes! Write all your story ideas on 3×5 cards and shuffle them around on the floor, just to see what things could go together. THERE ARE NO RULES. BE CREATIVE. BE CRAZY. TRY NEW THINGS.
WHAT IF I MAKE IT A SPIN-OFF STORY WITH CHARACTERS I’VE ALREADY INVENTED?
Maybe it’s time to scrap something. If you find yourself STILL stuck in a rut with your story, try eliminating some of the elements — such as characters. What if you replaced the cast of characters with ANOTHER cast of characters you’ve already written in another book? You’re familiar with them (and probably in love with them if you’re anything like me) SO THAT AUTOMATICALLY MAKES EVERYTHING EASIER. Could this story happen to characters you’ve already invented? Maybe not. But it’s worth thinking about!
WHAT IF I CHANGE THE THEME?
Okay so yes I know that YOU MIGHT ALREADY HAVE YOUR THEME FIGURED OUT. But is it really something you want to write? I was recently reminded about the importance of theme when I read this lovely post by Audrey Caylin — IT GOT ME THINKING. When I write a theme into my story, it has to REALLY mean something to me. Like…I have to be emotionally invested in my theme. It is the backbone of a good book. And in order to write a compelling theme, it has to mean something to YOU.
So maybe the question you should ask yourself is: what do I care about? What makes me angry? What makes me driven to change something about the world? It’s also important to remember that the answer to this question is always in flux — and that’s 1000% OKAY. Tomorrow I might be passionate/angry/driven about something TOTALLY different than what I’m passionate/angry/driven about today. That’s why certain stories need to be written when you feel that burning desire to pour them out of your heart. FOLLOW THAT CREATIVE DRIVE. It will lead you to great places.
ARE YOU STILL STUCK?
If you answered yes to this question, here’s my advice: GIVE IT SOME TIME. Ideas can’t be manufactured (not unique ones, anyway) — brilliance strikes like a bolt of lightning sometimes! OUT OF NOWHERE. That’s how it happens for a lot of people, myself included. Also: TALK TO SOMEONE ELSE ABOUT YOUR STORY. Whether that person is your mom, your sibling, your writing support group…anybody you trust. After all, it was my sister who gave me the brilliant idea I mentioned at the beginning!
BUT REMEMBER: stress doesn’t help. Sometimes you’re just thinking too hard and actually stressing yourself out, which makes your creative flow clog even more. RELAX. TAKE A DEEP BREATH. LET YOURSELF IMAGINE AND DREAM AND CREATE LIKE A LITTLE KID AGAIN. All good things take time. The oak tree sleeps in the acorn. It doesn’t look like a tree right now, but it will. Don’t throw it away.
Do you have a Problem Story™ giving you fits?? If so, I HOPE THIS POST WAS HELPFUL TO YOU. Were you ever stuck on a story and then broke through with a brilliant idea?? DO SHARE WHAT SAVED YOUR BOOK. Tell me all about your writerly victories in the comments below!