Return to site

Don't panic when you don't know what your character will do or say next

It happens to all of us. We finish a line, a scene, a sentence and suddenly don't know what happens next. We were so wound up in what we were just writing, worrying about spelling, punctuation, and syntax that this part of the story has escaped us.

Don't worry. To get back on track, remember who the scene you are writing or the one you want to write next is about. It is that character who will guide you to the next words and actions.

First, you need to remind yourself what it is your character wants or needs in the moment. Scenes are normally small to huge struggles between characters over the goal of the POV character. He wants something, hopes something will happen or expects something to occur. The words that come out of his mouth are most likely to be those he thinks he needs to say to get what he wants.

Don't think that this struggle within a scene needs to be something remarkable. It can be as simple as two characters agreeing on something they must do but disagreeing on when to do it. Here, the agendas are slightly mismatched. That's what we want: Conflict of any size. It is the conflict that generates Dramatic Tension. That is the sense in the reader that before the scene ends things might go terribly wrong for the POV character. Now, note that they don't have to go terribly wrong. Just the feeling that it could jump the tracks holds the reader's attention more than a character stating what he wants, getting instant agreement or satisfaction and the scene ends. How boring.

Okay, that's how to get the answer to what he will say or do next within a scene. How about identifying the next scene? What should it be? Again, drop back to your character goal's for the plot. Then slip into his perspective and ask: What does he think he needs to do next to get what he wants? The answer to that is the content of your next scene.

The problem will be difficult for you to solve if you haven't nailed down a concrete goal for your character. Abstract goals make plotting difficult and make ending your plot nearly impossible. Giving your character an abstract goal of "empowering herself" is mushy and makes next steps difficult to identify. Additionally, trying to end the story with her having achieved her goal or failing to do so is harder to find the moment of success or failure.

This is easily fixed by setting aside the abstract goal of "empowering herself" and asking: What does she see as evidence of having done this? The answer might be something concrete, like: Becoming the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. All abstract goals can be boiled down to concrete ones. Concrete goals give you everything you need to be able to decide on what a character will say or do next and what scene is next in pursuit of a goal.