1.17 – I Ran Out of Ideas

In this episode, I . . .

I answer the question: “What do I do when I run out of ideas for my story?”

When you’re trying to write a novel and get stuck, here are some ideas to help you:

1. If you’ve never written a novel, you might try to complete shorter stories first. Once you get good at shorter stories, you could work on writing some longer ones.

2. Ask yourself some questions:
-“Who is my main character?” Make sure you have a clear main character that the reader can root for.
-“What does my main character (my hero) want?” You need to know what your main character wants in the story to be able to know how he will behave in each scene.
-“What is the story question (story goal)?” Your main character needs to have a goal that will last until the story is done. Frodo making the decision to hold onto the One Ring isn’t “story goal” enough. It’s when he decides to carry the ring all the way to Mount Doom to destroy it that we have a strong story goal. It’s important to define the story goal early on so your readers know what to root for as they read.
-“What are the stakes?” What happens if your hero fails to achieve the story goal? It needs to be something worse than getting a failing grade in a class. You don’t have to put the fate of the world at risk, but do keep in mind that the higher the stakes, the more invested your reader becomes.

3. Examine (and strengthen) your plot structure. It could be that taking a look at your plot structure will help you see where you have plot holes.

4. Get to know your character better. You can’t write much about a person you don’t know very well. Dig deeper into your hero’s backstory. Create parents, siblings, friends, a boss, habits, likes and dislikes, lies he believes . . . make sure you come up with all the ingredients you need to create a character who feels read to your reader.

5. Spend more time building your storyworld. If you’re writing fantasy or science fiction, sometimes you can get stuck when you don’t know enough about your world. Depending on your plot, you might need to spend some more time brainstorming a certain storyworld element, like: government, history, weapons, magic, culture, creatures, etc.

6. Use Try/Fail cycles to keep things moving. Try/Fail cycles can help you get un-stuck by answering a simple question in one of two ways. First, define what your character wants. Then ask whether or not he will succeed? The answer is one of these two: “Yes, but . . .” or “No, and . . .”

For example: My character wakes up late. Will he make it to school in time?

Yes, but he misses the bus and has to walk.


No, and he locked himself out of the house, so now he’s stuck outside.

You can continue this cycle by again asking what he wants, then answering the question of will he succeed with the “Yes, but . . .” or “No, and . . .” replies.

7. Try Stephanie Morrill’s index card trick in which you make three stacks of cards, one with character names, one with settings, and one with plot situations. Then shuffle and draw one of each until the combination sparks an idea for a new scene.

I hope these ideas help you find a way past where you’re stuck and get you back into the story.

Keep on writing!