Getting Unstuck When Writing a Novel

by Suzanne Lieurance, the Working Writer's Coach

As a writing coach, I see it all the time.

Someone decides to write a novel.

They get off to a brilliant start.

Then – about 4 or 5 chapters in – they get stuck.

They don’t know what to write next.

They try to figure out what to do, but most of the time they don’t, so they give up.

They put the manuscript away and start on something new.

Sound familiar?

If it does, then dig out your half-finished novel and take a look at it with the following elements in mind.

Chances are, one or more of these elements is lacking, or not fully developed, in your story and that’s why you’re having trouble moving forward.

Elements of a Novel

1. Compelling and Distinctive Characters

Readers need to care about your characters, right from the start. Otherwise, they have no reason to continue reading past the first few pages.

Readers won’t like or love all of your characters, of course. In fact, they’ll probably hate your protagonist. But, the point is, they need to have strong positive or negative feelings about these characters. They should not feel indifferent about them.

What have you done in your first few chapters to make readers care about your characters?

2. A Compelling Overall Story Problem for the Main Character

Quite often I see writers run into trouble midway through their novels because they haven’t created a BIG enough overall story problem for their main character. When that happens, it’s often difficult to keep readers’ interest. There just isn’t enough at stake for the main character, so readers don’t care whether or not he solves the big problem.

What is the overall problem your main character (your protagonist) is trying to solve? How much is at stake - what will happen if he doesn’t solve this problem?

3. Rising Action – Dramatic Tension

Once there is plenty at stake for the main character, the next step is to create LOTS of conflict, so it isn’t easy for the character to solve this problem. Things should get worse and worse – this creates rising action.

When your story has plenty of conflict or rising action, readers will worry and wonder if the main character will ever be able to solve, or at least resolve, the big problem. They’ll keep reading to find out!

How do things keep getting worse and worse for your main character?

4. Believable and Effective Turning Points

Turning points are those places in your story where things change. They take a different direction, usually because some choice has to be made or there is some sort of dilemma for the main character. An effective turning point means once a choice has been made, or a specific action has been taken, there is no going back for the character(s).

Do you have several turning points in your story? What are they?

5. Vivid Sensory Details

Details make your story come alive for readers, so they feel as if they’re experiencing the story along with the characters and not simply reading about what these characters are doing and what is happening to them.

Appeals to all 5 senses (taste, touch, sound, sight, smell) should be seamlessly woven into the action and dialogue of the story.

Do you have appeals to several senses in each chapter? Could you create more sensory details to enliven your story?

6. Engaging and Cohesive Subplots

Subplots are stories within the main story. But they relate to the main story. When used effectively, they can create additional rising action and conflict related to the overall story problem.

What are the subplots in your story? Can you create an additional subplot to create more rising action?

7. An Effective Climax

This is the most exciting part of your story. It’s when your main character must do something or make some decision that will cause him to solve or resolve the overall story problem. But it can’t be easy for him.

What is the most exciting point of your story? What is decision or dilemma your main character must face at this point?

8. A Satisfying Resolution

The climax of your story leads to the resolution, where everything is tied together or resolved. Usually, readers get some idea of what life will be like for the main character, now that he has solved or resolved the overall story problem.

It’s a good idea to consider how your story will end even BEFORE you start writing the story. This doesn’t mean your ending (and even other things in the story) won’t change by the time you write the ending. But if you know how you want the story to end, it will be easier to keep writing because you know where you’re going.

How did you tie up all the loose ends to complete your story? What is different for your main character(s) now?

Use these elements as a checklist when writing a novel and you'll be less likely to get stuck and never finish writing your novel.

Try it!

Suzanne Lieurance is an author, freelance writer, certified professional life coach and writing coach, speaker and workshop presenter. She has written over two dozen published books and hundreds of articles for newspapers, magazines, and other publications.

She can help you write your first or next novel. Find out more about her Quick Start System to Writing Novels at


Karen Cioffi said...

Suzanne, great tips on writing a novel. And, it's so true that it takes persistence and patience and helpful tips to help writers make it from chapter one to the end. Thanks for sharing!

Suzanne Lieurance said...

Hi, Karen. You're welcome.

I love helping writers write novels. Most writers don't take the time to carefully plot their novel, chapter by chapter, so it's no wonder they get stuck midway through.

Happy writing!

Magdalena Ball said...

Appreciate the excellent advice, Suzanne. Even experienced novelists can get stuck and going back and reviewing all the pieces can really help. Sometimes characters develop in unanticipated ways and revising the plot or turning points might be necessary to make a story flow.

Mary Jo Guglielmo said...

Suzanne, I think your suggestions are also great questions for the revision process when working on a novel.

Suzanne Lieurance said...

You're right, Magdalena, even experienced novelists can get stuck. I think the difference between experienced novelists and first time novelists or wannabe novelists is that the experienced novelists know that getting stuck can just be part of the process, not a reason to give up.

Suzanne Lieurance said...

Hi, Mary Jo. Don't you just love the revision process? To me, that's the fun part. Getting the plot all worked out is the part that's really tough and where I tend to get stuck. When I do get stuck, it usually means one of the above elements needs more development. Happy writing!

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