Simple Tricks to Unstick Your Story: The Domino Effect

I tend to have a lot of false starts or write-my-characters-into-inescapable-corners when I’m drafting. It doesn’t matter how meticulously I outline or how freely I try to fly by the seat of my pants, I always get stuck at some point. Maybe what I’d thought should come next (and what I had written on my pretty Scrivener corkboard) no longer feels right, or maybe I’ve just completely stalled out on new ideas.

No matter the reason for getting stuck, I always manage to get the story moving once again. Sometimes it only takes a few hours, and other times it takes a few days…Then there are times where it might take months for my subconscious to slowly unknot the characters and the plot and the world.

Of course, I don’t always have months in which my subconscious can work its magic. If I’m under deadline, I need this story to be unstuck now. And there are a few go-to methods that I rely on.

Today, I’m going to talk about the first trick I use:

Figuring out where the dominoes will fall.

You know how people line up dominoes in elaborate patterns and then knock them over to watch them successively tip? I once heard someone compare the scenes in a book to dominoes–our inciting incident sets off the domino chain, and each scene is a direct result of the scene before.

But it’s not necessarily the plot that follows a domino effect. Sometimes we don’t want our chain of events to be linked. Sometimes, we want things to occur that are out of our protagonist’s control.

For example, if the character has to take a chemistry test the night after she joined a witch coven…well, there’s no clear connection between those two story events.

But how our character does on that chemistry test will be a direct result of the night before. If she’s on an emotional high from summoning magic powers she didn’t even know she had, she might traipse into that test and cavalierly fail. Which in turn might lead her down a new path (toward studying with her cute lab partner, perhaps?).

So the dominoes don’t represent specific events so much as our protagonist’s emotional journey through the events, and the dominoes also represent how events shape/affect the primary goal.

Each new scene will show our character reacting in some way to what happened before.

Example: In Something Strange and Deadly, the book opens with Eleanor going to meet her brother at the train station. But instead of Elijah showing up with a smile, a zombie with a hostage note arrives instead. When Eleanor gets that note, she’s FREAKED OUT (as she darn well should be), and so in the next few scenes, she is dealing with her FREAKOUT. Plus, her original goal of simply catching up with her brother is now out of the question, and she needs to adjust her goal accordingly. Yet event-wise, she goes from hiding in the train station to chatting with her mother to suffering through a fancy dinner. None of those events are connected, but how Eleanor behaves through them is.

Remember this: Every emotional beat in your story must be a direct result of what happened before, and it must lead to a shift in either what the character wants or how the character plans to get it.

To go back to Something Strange and Deadly, Eleanor knows she needs to find her brother and she doesn’t think she can possibly do it all by her lonesome. So she plans to foist the responsibility on this ghost-fighting team that’s visiting town. But when her plan falls through (the Spirit-Hunters don’t want to help her), her emotions shift from “I’m scared out of my mind” to “I’ll just do it myself, then.”

But keep in mind that it takes many scenes for Eleanor’s emotional dominoes to fall and eventually lead her in a new direction.

So, what does all this explanation of dominoes and goals have to do with unsticking your plot? It’s quite simple, really.

When you get stuck, look at your most recent emotional dominoes.

Do your last few scenes (or maybe even your last 20 scenes–sometimes I have to go pretty far back to see where things begin unraveling) logically connect? Do the emotional beats progress and shift as the events and previous scenes indicate they should? Does the character’s goal shift according to his/her emotional shift?

Check all of your dominoes. Make sure that when each one falls, it will actually hit the scene that’s after it. It’s very possible you missed something.

Honestly, there are many times where I didn’t properly deal with the emotional consequences of a scene (usually because it’s so hard to write the dark stuff) and as such, my story will have derailed because no one is behaving as they really should. They’re all happy and bantering and not at each other’s throats like they would naturally be given the previous scenes. So if I go back to where the emotional beats went wonky and try again, I can usually smooth out the issues and get my story moving again.

Sometimes, though, the dominoes are correctly lined up. And when that happens, I simply need to think really hard about what domino would logically come next. What emotions would evolve from the ones in my most recent scene? What goals shifts should my characters organically be making?

Of course, this method doesn’t always work. Sadly. And next Friday, I’ll offer a different method I take when my dominoes trick doesn’t pan out (that will be on my personal blog, though).

You tell me: what’s your go to method if you’re ever stuck while drafting?