How to Keep Your Story Engine Running

By James Scott Bell

Beginning a novel is easy. You can start with a bang, introduce colorful characters, set up intrigue, and generally gun the story engine like teenager in his first car.

It's that long middle section that's a challenge. Sometimes your plot engine starts to sputter and spit as it rolls through Act 2.

It may even stall. Instead of words flowing out of your tapping fingers, your hands freeze over the keyboard as you stare at the screen. You don't know how to answer the question What happens next?

Some simple repairs may be in order.


Review your basics.

Do you have a protagonist with an objective? Arresting characters can only carry a book so far. Unless they are actively, passionately trying to get (or get away from) something, you'll soon run into plot stall.

Further, the objective must be absolutely crucial to the protagonist's well-being. If it isn't, why should the readers care about what happens?

Suppose you have a lawyer whose objective is to leave his law firm and start his own practice. That has implications for his professional life but is not, by itself, enough to sustain novel-length interest.

But what if the law firm is a mafia front and leaving is not permitted (unless it's in a pine box)? Then you definitely have the protagonist's well-being at stake, and a plot that moves--as does John Grisham's The Firm.

Watch out for the decision objective, because it is usually weak. This is when a character decides to do something, maybe out of interest or curiosity. Yes, he moves toward a goal, but only because he's decided to do so; he could very well have decided not to.

The best objectives are thrust on the characters. In Star Wars, Luke Skywalker could have decided to leave his planet and go off to become a Jedi. Weak. But when his aunt and uncle are killed by Empire minions, he has a strong reason to leave and join the rebellion.

Sheriff Brody in Jaws does not simply decide to take a fishing trip. He goes after the shark because it will kill more of the people in his town, and the mayor has decided to keep the beaches open. The hunt for the shark is a forced decision.

Next, look at the opposition character. Is he as strong (or preferably stronger) than your protagonist? Is he three dimensional? Have you given him a complex background so he's not just the personification of evil?

All opposition characters believe what they are doing is justified. Create this justification, and even some empathy, for your opposition. Attractive villains are more dangerous than the old-fashioned moustache twirlers. In The Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal Lecter's charms nearly outweigh his, ahem, appetites. He is an unforgettable--and scarier--character as a result.


There is also a chance that your main characters run out of gas in the desert of Act 2. Here are some warning signs:

• An overabundance of small talk
• Too much introspection
• Too little conscious action

The good news is, character solutions are easy once you identify what's gone wrong.

With small talk, the character is usually in a scene with someone on her side, an ally in the overall story. Perhaps these two are sitting in a restaurant, chatting about events:

"What's the good word these days, Tina?" Rhonda asked.

"Oh, a little of this, a little of that." Tina smiled and raised her water glass.

"I know, same old, same old. How's Bill?"

"Bill's just fine. A good man."

"You're a lucky woman."

"Yes, I guess I am."

Dull. So put some inner or outer tension in the conversation. For inner tension, show us a character's thoughts and little actions that reveal her insides:

"What's the good word these days, Tina?" Rhonda asked.

"Oh, a little of this, a little of that." Tina gritted her teeth into a smile. She raised her water glass, holding it too tightly. Relax, she told herself. Don’t let her know Bill walked out.

"I know, same old, same old. How's Bill?"

Tina took a deep breath and fought to keep from trembling. "Bill's just fine. A good man."

You can also show outer tension between friends by creating arguments:

"What's the good word these days, Tina?" Rhonda asked.

"What is that supposed to mean?" Tina took a sip of water.

"I'm just asking. Are you all right?"

"Of course I'm all right. What is this, psych 101?"

Rhonda looked away, shaking her head.

Introspection, a character reflecting on his plight, is good in small doses. But if the character's thoughts run on too long -- and a good rule of thumb is that 200 words is getting too long -- the reader may start to lose interest.

Simply break up introspection with action. The action doesn't have to be violent or intense, though it should at least contain some uncertainty. A character walking through a house, alone, can be trying to find a lost object. Or a phone number. Introspection can then be dropped in between beats:

Where had he put it? If he didn't find the keys, he was cooked. But he was always cooked, it seemed. Life had handed him plenty of slaps. He was used to it. So what if he lashed out at others? Why should he suffer alone?

He lifted the sofa cushions. The keys weren't there, either.

Finally, if a character is not taking steps toward her objective, it is a sign that she is not passionate enough about the stakes.

In her book Getting Into Character (Wiley), Brandilyn Collins counsels coloring the passions of the characters. This deepening will generate layers of emotion that propel the character forward.

To begin coloring a character's passion, identify her deepest desire. Name it. Then explore all the emotional aspects surrounding that desire. The desire for revenge, for example, can include anger, shock, resentment, embarrassment, shame.

Delve into each of these and the reasons they attach to the character. Push them to their limits and analyze your character anew.

Now look at the opposite of the main desire. For revenge, you might take a look at compassion, mercy, love. These will give you the seeds of a character's inner conflict. And a character with doubts is a lot more engaging than one who has everything all figured out.

Now it is left to you to illustrate, in dramatic fashion, the character's multi-faceted emotional struggles. You have a deep well of passion to draw from.

Driving a novel to the last page involves frequent stops, refueling, and some work under the hood. Use these techniques to keep rolling toward a satisfying end.

James Scott Bell is an award-winning novelist and writer conference speaker. His latest novels are the legal thriller Sins of the Fathers (Zondervan) and the historical epic Glimpses of Paradise (Bethany House). He's also the author of Write Great Fiction: Plot & Structure (Writers Digest Books). Visit his website:

© 2005 James Scott Bell. All Rights Reserved. Used with Permission.

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