Thursday, September 6, 2012

The Scene between Scenes: How to Get Unstuck

Every feel like this poor fellow spinning his wheels in the mud? Recently I had one of those dreaded writing moments. I was stuck. Frozen. Bogged down. I stared at my screen, waiting, hoping the next plot beat would spontaneously burst forth sending my fingers clicking over the keys. Instead, I stalled like a computer taking too long to download. Working … working … working … nothing.
Can you guess which particular section of the plot left me in this suspended state? The beginning, perhaps? That difficult chapter where a bazillion elements must flow together with reader-grabbing tension? Nope. Perhaps the middle? That sluggish zone where keeping things hopping becomes a Herculean chore? Again, nope.
A much more incendiary little corner held me hostage. It was that spot between the beginning and the middle. Right after the inciting incident, but before the second big conflict. I knew what the middle would look like. The beginning was in the bag. But how to connect them?
After more staring at my screen (very productive, let me tell you), I finally pushed my way through. Here's how.

Liminal Space
While hopping around the Internet trying to get unstuck, I found a lovely article[1] about “liminal space.” Perhaps you’ve heard of the concept. I hadn’t. I learned that liminal space is the time of preparing before something happens. It can involve a physical place, such as a courtyard or breezeway, or a non-physical space like the moments of readying my heart before a worship service. The blog author associated liminal space with those times when a writer waits for an editor to accept or reject a manuscript. (Been there!) It’s a pause, a holding back before the next step. 
And it hit me. That’s where my characters were suspended. Both were stalled at the threshold, as if resting on the edge of a cliff, waiting to jump. What a relief to define the spot. Yay for liminal space!
When I thought about it, I realized a lot really does happen in the inbetween spaces. Maybe not big splashy action, but decisions, attitudes, and relationships often shift in the right or (even better for our plots) wrong directions

Plot Point One
            But, now that I defined it, the question remained—how do I keep the threshold compelling, inviting, and riveting? I discovered a trick. In the opening of my story, I answered the question, “what?” What’s the big problem my darling protagonists must overcome? Well, at this point, it was time to answer another question—“how?”
            Recently my husband brought home the first season of Stargate SG-1. The writers do a great job blasting the beginnings. Man, you can hardly blink before Jack, Major Carter, Dr. Daniel, and Teal’c are plunged into life-threatening action. The viewer immediately gets what the problem is and what’s at stake.
But what happens next? In most of the episodes I watched, the characters hunkered down in the planning room, gathered around the table, and figured out a plan of how to overcome the problem. Never a long scene, it always included conflict between the characters. By the end, they knew how they were going to proceed.
And that’s where we find the trick.
In the scene between the beginning and the middle, the hero figures out how she will reach her goals. It doesn’t matter whether the plan shines of brilliance or gapes with holes, my hero must embrace it. And when she does, bam! the plot gets unstuck. Yahoo!

            For this scene between scenes, everything that happens should answer the question, “how?” It may involve meeting a new character who will help get the hero through the obstacle-laden journey. A guide through an uncertain land, a lawyer, or a doctor might be introduced.  
Perhaps a touch of introspection will reveal the “how.” In my first book, Love Finds You in Lonesome Prairie, Montana, the heroine, Julia, must overcome her grief over letting go of the orphans she desperately loves. In the stillness of night, she quietly releases them to God. Although painful, she needs to make this shift in order to continue her journey. The “how” for her (and for all of us) is finding her strength in God.
Another way for a character to uncover the “how” is through a conversation with a friend or enemy. In Stargate SG-1, a really nasty officer acts as a naysayer to everything the team wants to do. Their leader knows that taking the opposite strategy from him will start them on the best path.
In what way does your character decipher how to achieve her goals?

Three Keys to Remember
1.      Don’t take too long. Let your character breathe (or talk, or pray), figure out the “how,” then move on. Drawing it out will slow momentum—and you don’t want that!
2.      Conflict, conflict, conflict. Don’t let the plan of attack come easily. She should have to wrestle for every inch of ground she takes.
3.      It’s a good idea to answer the “how” for your subplots as well.

Have fun with this. I know once I figured out what to do, writing my scene between scenes became a joy instead of a burden.

photo credit: <a href="">The Henry Ford</a> via <a href="">photo pin</a> <a href="">cc</a>