Crossing that chasm in your novel

Sometimes we writers (you know who you are) hit a blind spot in the novel. Not really a bout of writer’s block, but a serious question about What Comes Next.

We might nobly feel like writing but we can’t quite picture the next sequence. Even when we have confidence in the overall plot, sometimes a section is like looking across a chasm where the bridge is down.

All the light goes out of the room, and we may find ourselves sullen and resentful. This is not what we signed up for. Writing flows, it doesn’t require construction work, for crying out loud. We begin to think: My planning didn’t work, my plot is too thin. I am one of those writers whose time is, sadly, up. My novel hates me.

As we get a grip on this hissy fit, we eventually conclude that it’s time to do some deep, methodical plotting. We’re going to have to think through this sequence of the story in excruciating detail.

And truthfully, we’d rather put pins in our cheeks. These are the kinds of times when a writer decides to wash the car or groom the dog. Believe me, I’ve been there (well, got a cat, but you get the picture.) Nevertheless we know that the chasm will wait for us, so really, let’s just Do It.

That is, let’s create a Step Sheet.

The Step Sheet.

The Step Sheet is a logical plot progression composed of 2-3 sentences in each step. First this happens, then this, then this. All the while making sure that it could believably happen in that order and has satisfying dramatic content. It isn’t a scene plan–nothing complicated–just a simple list. Because when you need this much heavy lifting on your plot, it isn’t about nuance. You just need to get across the chasm. You can make it pretty when you write it.

I like to number the Steps. It helps me believe that this is going to be simple. 1, 2, 3, 4. I do my Step Sheets in a notebook, never at the computer. I’m not a superstitious person, but Step Sheets must be done with a pencil and paper.

Like a root canal, it works. And it isn’t as unpleasant as we might expect. If we sic our brains on What Happens Next, the leetle gray cells usually do their job and —voila!– we are out of the woods. We may even find that as we work (and re-work) the Step Sheet, we find cool (for now, extraneous) story ideas occurring to us. If this happens, just jot them in the margins, but continue building that bloody bridge.

Then we can be in a good mood again about the novel. (Oh, fragile writer’s mind!) Nothing annoying or daunting about tomorrow’s work. When we sit down to write in the morning, we’ll just walk over that bridge.

We may sheepishly look around to make sure no one saw us being truculent and faithless. I won’t tell if you won’t.


4 Responses

  1. Michael Bull says:

    I love this. So helpful. Thanks, Kay.

  2. Kay says:

    You’re welcome, Michael — I think, aside from the writing advice, it’s really helpful to know what other authors go through, and that we are not the only ones who suffer setbacks and feel discouraged by them!

  3. I like your step sheet idea and put this into practice today, on paper, on a story started a couple of months back. How many tales have I tried to spin, only to reach that chasm, abandon the effort, and tell myself I’m not a writer? Well, I’m not. Not yet. Just someone who likes to write. There’s a difference. And it’s in the completion. I cannot adequately express the extent your stories and advise have influenced my writing. Suffice it to say, significant. And when I complete the first story of merit, should I live so long, my bio won’t neglect to mention Kay Kenyon and a couple of other authors whose talents I’ve admired, learned from, and become the better writer.

    Thank you.

  4. Kay says:

    You’re so welcome, Peter. This is such a demanding task we’ve put on ourselves, full of reward most of the time, but still, damn tough. So we need to stick together, share what we learn, pass it along. Also, in full disclosure, there’ve been times I’ve been stuck for months, not just days or weeks. I’ve let stories cool off and come back and back to them, and Nothing. But recently I went back to a story, and asked myself, why can’t I just let this one die a quiet death. And then something shook loose with it, and I’m getting deep into it. I had almost given up, and glad I didn’t. So keep going and good luck!

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