We’ve all had that moment: our characters are fighting toward the final climax of their journey and adventure, only to realize… we got them stuck.
After all, we’ve done our best to create a formidable villain, humanly flawed allies and mentors, and equally strong henchmen for our villain who won’t be easily tricked, trapped, or won over. By complete accident, we’ve made it impossible for the hero to win.
We now have two options, seemingly: we can either weaken the villains or strengthen the heroes. When you look at it, neither of these options are great ones. Why? They result in immediate deus ex machina, which is not something you should want for your story. Meddle in the affairs of your story, and you become a god in the machine.
So what then? We’ve backed ourselves into a corner, and our brains have come up with nothing good. Or… have they?
A Second Brain
When you’re stuck, there’s always a chance that someone else isn’t. There’s a nice little idiom for this: “two heads are better than one”. This is where having your group of people who are writers comes in so handy. This is where having people you can confide in becomes so vital.
Your brain, when it is stuck, will run out of ideas. You’ll reach a slump. Sure, you might be able to think of a few cheap ways to escape from the corner, but you’re a better writer than that, to resort to cheap tricks and resurrected mentors and sudden gifts from the Author Upstairs.
Other people, on the other hand, are more likely to come at your story from an objective standpoint with fresh ideas and new perspectives. They’ll take you out of the corner and say “okay, here’s where you are, here’s where you need to get to, and this is the big picture. What if this:”
Brainstorming partners don’t work for everyone, but they can be amazing and helpful and encouraging. If you find the right person, you can change each other’s lives. It’s the power of vulnerability.
A “Second” Brain
When it comes to writing, you have two brains.
No, not a second physical brain. More of a mental second brain.
That made no sense, let me try again:
We have the part of our brain that is lazy, and we have the second brain, which is not lazy.
It’s nearly impossible to find that not lazy part, however, much like the hermit atop the mountain ready to give sage advice. We can work our way out of our own problems, once we scale the mountain to find our inner hermit.
When we’re stuck in the corner, we have to return to the hermit within us: we have to brainstorm. We have to choose to not be lazy.
While these ideas are all very nice and high and thematic, I want to give a few basic ideas for writing oneself out of a corner. As it turns out, I think it’s fantastic when we run into corners we’ve written ourselves into. Usually, it means we’re writing a villain that’s formidable and a protagonist cast that is human and flawed. The hard part is coming up with ways to get back out.
A Few Simple Tricks
One of the first things you should try when you’ve written yourself into a corner is to stop writing. Just… stop. Sometimes, the corner has a false wall on one side. However, you’re too close to the situation to be able to tell. The wall looks real, sure. When you stop and walk away, however, you allow yourself to take a break and distance yourself from the walls. This break can be an hour or a day or even a week. Write something else, or don’t do any sort of writing at all. Take a break. Refresh yourself, absorb another form of art.
Then come back, and search the walls again: first at a distance, and then up close. Maybe one of the walls forming the corner isn’t actually a wall at all, but a door to a new plot twist, to a new development, to a new conflict and struggle and theme. This often comes up when your characters are either searching for something or are trapped by the villain. When you’ve written a search and it feels like the characters won’t be able to find what they’re looking for (a key, a map, whatever), what if… they didn’t? What if, instead, they’re set back even farther because the villain finds it first?
That results in whole new conflicts and plot twists, and probably extends your story for several scenes, but it also creates tension, conflict, and raised stakes. This is something Brandon Sanderson does very well in his Mistborn trilogy. Every time the characters are looking for someone/something, the villain finds them/it first. It creates a sense of hopelessness, but also a greater payoff when the heroes finally succeed.
The second thing, when you find that they really are walls and not false walls or doors is to look for a sledge hammer. Note that YOU are NOT the sledgehammer. Deus ex machina is a bad choice for a sledgehammer. No, you want a subtle sledgehammer. Your characters need a realistic moment of strength where they can bust through the wall into a victory.
But… that means the main character defeats the villain, right? Maybe.
But… it’s not the climax, so won’t the villain look weak? He doesn’t have to.
Here’s the deal: your protagonist CAN win, sometimes. There just has to be consequences. Say your characters are looking for a key, and so is the villain. Now the characters find the key at the same time: the protagonists and the villain. Now you have a conflict that maybe the characters can’t get out of, necessarily.
But maybe the do. It might make your villain look momentarily weak, but maybe they do escape.
How do you avoid making this cheap?
Make them pay dearly for it. For every one thing they gain (a key) make them lose two (perhaps they lose a friend who’s taken hostage or killed or wounded, or another essential item like a map or a weapon).
One last thing: you can always start over. If there’s no false wall, no door, and no subtle sledgehammer, then you need to retrace your steps. Back up to the last turning point and ask yourself this: “what if we go this way?” Writing a novel is like a maze: sometimes you meet dead-ends and need to turn around.
I don’t encourage this until you’ve done everything above. Find someone to brainstorm with. Take a break. Climb the mountain to find your inner wise hermit. Look for the doorknob, the hidden lever. Search your writing tools for a sledgehammer.
Just… don’t give up on everything. Sure, you might have to re-write a scene or two, get rid of one or two conflicts. It’s better to cut one thing than to abandon it all.
Never give up, and never settle for the cheap cop-out. Fuel the conflict. Write your way out of the corner. You can do it.