How to Unravel the Impossible Knots of Your Plot

Rainbow manWriting the beginning of your book is the fun part. The characters are bright and vivid. The storyline is relatively simple and you don’t have to explain much—yet. But for many writers, as the plot progresses, things get increasingly difficult.

That’s where they get stuck.

Much of the time, it’s not the actual story that is bogging us down. It’s our attachment to writing it in a certain way. We might feel that we have to write it in chronological order, or that we have to write this character’s back story before we can tackle that one’s.

Yes, it’s true that the way we pictured writing the book in our mind is usually the most efficient way to do it. For instance, if you’re successful in writing in complete chronological order it will make the editing phase go a lot faster. However, the thing with creative work is that it doesn’t always show up according to your preferred schedule.

That’s part of being an artist. When you get into the really deep levels of creating anything cool you find that you’re not so much dictating the work anymore as the work is dictating you.

After the beginning burst of inspiration wears off and the writer has hit a brick wall, we tend to blame ourselves. We assume we should have planned better and we put pressure on ourselves to focus on the impossible knots of the story. If we switch our focus to writing the fun scenes we’ve been looking forward to, it feels like a cop out.

But sometimes switching focus is the best thing we can do for our creative muscle.

It’s like peeling off an old label that’s become glued to the cover of a book. You start scraping at one corner and at first it gives a lot. Then you get to this place where if you keep scraping at the label you’re going to end up damaging the cover. So you switch focus. You move to a different corner and begin scraping away there. Then you fall into the swing of it and work this corner and then that one, switching on and off as you feel the lack of give block your progress.

If you’re patient, and you work all the angles, you’ll eventually work your way to very heart of that stuck label and get it off. Sometimes tackling the plot of your novel is like that. Strict chronological order would be nice, but it just so happens that it’s one of those stories that functions like a stuck label. Challenging creative projects call for creative methods.

This is always how I’ve pictured Michelango working on his masterpiece David. Perhaps he started working on the head and face at first, because this was what he saw in his dreams and his inspiration behind the work. But then maybe he got stuck on the eyes or the mouth, knowing they had to be exquisite but not knowing how to make them that way. So he switched focus to the butt. Because Michelango was a master and he knew that anyone could create a halfway decent butt. He also knew that while working on the butt, he would open a path to the waist and the back, and finally the neck and the skull.

By following this unconventional path he would end up right back at the face, but this time coming at it from a new angle. And that new angle made all the difference.

So if you’re holding back from writing the fun scenes because you think you need to get through the impossible scenes first, give yourself permission to switch focus. Write those fun scenes. Have a blast with them. You can be a serious writer—a career novelist, even—and still have fun.

That’s why you got into this whole writing thing to begin with, right? Because it made you happy?

Give yourself permission to bring back the fun.

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10 Comments

  • Reply Chris creed 16 July, 2014 at 8:31 am

    I love the “old label” analogy! Thanks for sharing!

  • Reply Margit Sage 16 July, 2014 at 8:44 am

    I love your analogies.

  • Reply Michelle Mueller 17 July, 2014 at 4:22 am

    This is advice I need on an almost daily basis. So thank you for the informative reminder and the inspiration to buckle down and work on a scene that I want to work on!

    I am a very stubborn person, even with myself, so sometimes I have trouble breaking away from the “writing chronologically” issue. I don’t know why I like to write from start to finish, or why I insist on doing it in order. It might be because I don’t know where the novel is going, exactly. (I only plan for the beginning, end, and a few milestone scenes — the rest is all undiscovered territory.) Either way, it does cause me to stall out after the initial inertia wears off. Many a book has been left in tattered pieces, half-finished, and ignored this way.

    As always, great post!

    • Reply Lauren Sapala 17 July, 2014 at 1:18 pm

      Thanks Michelle! My inspiration for this post came from the problems I see my clients go through when they try to stick to a rigid way of writing in chronological order. I suspect that it makes us feel like we’re at least halfway in control. And writers love control, even though writing forces us to give up most of it.

  • Reply Catherine North 17 July, 2014 at 6:23 am

    Thanks for this, Lauren. This is exactly how I write: working on whichever scene is coming to mind most clearly that day, and then stitching all the pieces together at the end. For ages I assumed most writers wrote in a linear fashion, and that I was weird because I can’t work like that, so it’s great to see my method as a recommended one!

    • Reply Lauren Sapala 17 July, 2014 at 1:17 pm

      I also thought that Catherine. It took me a long time to realize that not every writer writes in a linear order. And I have a lot of fun stitching together the pieces!

  • Reply Brigid Amos 18 July, 2014 at 12:24 pm

    I completely agree Lauren. The important thing is to get something down on paper! Piece it together and smooth it out later.

  • Reply hilarycustancegreen 19 July, 2014 at 4:25 am

    I often find myself working like this and feel guilty, now I’ll just think of the label.

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