Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Picking up the Thread - Reentering the Interrupted Story

When you are in the middle of writing a story, working at full speed with the next scene in plain sight, coming up the with the next words is (usually) easy. When you have been away from a story, you're apt to be lost, disoriented, and stalled.

You can end up in this situation if your commitment fails, you are working from a collection of notes that came together while you were dedicated to another work, or life gets in the way. For me, it usually happens when I am forced to redirect because of a deadline on another work. But whatever has taken you away from a work in progress and allowed it to grow cold, there are things you can do.
  • Read it aloud to get the sound of the story in your head again. (It is best to do this the day before.)
  • Write a list of ten things you love about your story. These can be about any element that appeals to you, but the ones that get your pulse going (twist endings, witty characters, heartbreaks) are more likely to help you reenter the story world than the practical ones (high concepts, saleability, editorial interest).
  • Interview your villain. (You can interview your protagonist, too, but the villain is more likely to be chatty and engaging at the draft stage.) Be sure to ask rude questions.
  • Write a pastiche of a scene in your story. It can be one that is already written. I once did this for a story of mine, recreating a favorite scene in the styles of Stephen King, Harlan Ellison, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Mark Twain. It got my engines going again, and it started a flood of ideas for new scenes.
Please note that all of these are "writerly activity." It's not a good idea to count such work against your day's goals. Nonetheless, you may find these exercises valuable as you work to pick up the thread of your story and get back to the fast draft.

What do you do to get back into a story that has gone cold?


  1. Yay! I needed this--starting to work on a novel again after doing shorts for a while.

    What often helps me is reading it all through, and then taking the rest of that day to kind of get my head back into the story. I need to get back into the characters, re-discover their emotional core. Often this involves imagining them in situations (for example, my novel is set in ancient Rome, and the situation that really got me into my hero's mindset was when Caesar asked him to do something that would give him "clout," but that went against his morals). If I do not get into my characters' emotional centers before I start writing, I end up writing very flat scenes that are just sort of saying what's going on, rather than allowing the reader to experience things as my characters do. So I guess rather than employing the "outer" exercises you list above, I do a lot of inner work in order to get back into the story.

  2. Hi, Melanie
    I think rereading is essential. In theory, you could go to an outline and get the next scene going. The words might be right, but the music would probably clash. One of the reasons I like to do the reread aloud is because it helps me to hear the music of the prose.
    I agree on getting to the emotional core. That's what some of the exercises do for me. Do you do something specific, or does a reading bring it to you in a wash?
    Thanks for your thoughtful comment.

  3. Usually re-reading, and then doing something sort of repetitive, like dishes, or something crafty with my hands that i don't need to think about much, helps. Then my mind can kind of wander and imagine things. The most important thing, though, is to write down all these imaginings! Otherwise, they don't help with the novel much. :) With the novel I am working on right now, I've re-read it, and got my notes and things organized so I am reminded of where I was planning on going with the story. Tonight I will start to write again (so in this case, it's been a couple days since I decided to work on it again, in which i've been doing all the "reinvestment" work).

  4. I like your process, especially the way you let your mind work in background as you do other things. I think forcing yourself back into a story is usually a mistake.

  5. Ha! Wonderful post by the brilliant Krissy Brady on the same subject. See http://krissymediaink.com/creative-breakthrough/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed:+krissybrady/knRH+%28Krissy+Media+Ink%29&utm_content=Google+Reader