Three Ways to Prevent a Story from Stagnating

Three Ways to Prevent a Story from Stagnating

It’s hard to let go of a story, especially a long one. You get attached to the characters and the world they live in. As a reader, putting down the final installment of a series feels like losing a friend. As a writer, it’s even harder since you eat, sleep and breathe the details of your weaving for years before you polish the last chapter.

But I’m a big believer that stories should eventually end. If they go on too long, they get bogged down and start spinning in circles. I’ve seen too many amazing stories with detailed characters turn into a slog because someone wanted to milk more money out of it. And it’s not just books. Sometimes it’s TV shows and movies that fall into this treacherous pit.

As with all vicious cycles, there are signs of its approach. Which means disaster can be averted, just in case you really need a story to keep going. Sadly, this only delays the inevitable. But it’s not a bad idea to make sure the story you love isn’t starting to stagnate.

Here are three signs your story is stuck in a rut as well as a few ways to reverse it.

Lack of Character Development

The fastest way to run a story into the ground is lack of character development. The primary way we identify with characters is watching them grow in order to overcome challenges. By learning something new or becoming stronger, the characters in our favorite stories show us what we can accomplish if we put our minds to something.

But if a character comes up against the same challenge many times and never changes their approach, their story might get stuck. This problem is easy to spot. It manifests as repetition. A character might receive the same advice several times, but consistently fail to follow it. Or they might face a series of challenges but fail to understand why they can never overcome the barrier.

Failure allows us to bond with characters because we recognize they’re fallible. But if they never learn from their failures, they become exasperating.

My husband and I recently watched Castle for the first time. We really enjoyed the show until the final season, then things got weird. The two main characters “took a break” from their marriage. For about five episodes in a row, the show ended with someone telling Castle that his love for his wife was true and they would probably be okay. But the very next week, he resumed his usual antics. Instead of talking to his wife or respecting her wishes, he hatched ever more elaborate plans to win her back. But because of the show’s structure, none of them ever worked.

How do you fix it?

If you’re having a hard time advancing the story, take a look at your character arcs. You should be able to trace growth or change for each major character. That should change the way they approach situations and challenges as the story goes on.

Remember that not all change or character development needs to be positive. Characters can develop bad habits. Though readers may also expect them to eventually break or overcome those habits.

If a character hasn’t changed since the story began, you may be missing a plot beat. Or you may need to have your character face their refusal to change. Lack of forward momentum can become a character’s challenge. Or you could introduce consequences for failure to grow or progress in the form of damaged relationships or raised stakes.

Either way, in order to properly move forward, your character will eventually have to receive some form of development.

Stuck in a Loop

If a story goes on long enough, plot points start to repeat. Callbacks are okay. You want your story to build on its past foundations. But if a character keeps having to deal with the same problem over and over, your story will feel repetitive.

How is this loop different than the last one? In the first case, the character repeats their actions. In this case, the characters encounter the same events, sometimes dressed in new wrapping.

These situations grow frustrating because the plot feels stuck in a loop. The character keeps solving the same problem or fighting the same enemy over and over. Even if they solve the challenge a different way every time, you wonder why they don’t recognize the endless loop.

Like our characters, the stories and worlds they occupy need to grow and change in order to remain fresh. If you repeat the same handful of plot points endlessly, the story goes stale.

Star Wars fell afoul of this with its newer iterations. In the prequels, Obi-Wan trained Anakin despite Yoda’s protests. Anakin ultimately failed to overcome the bond he formed with his mother and fell to the dark side. Luke rejected the Jedi’s traditional belief in the danger of forming bonds by drawing on his connections with his friends to give him strength. And he overcomes Darth Vader by drawing on their familial bond.

But in the sequel trilogy, when faced with a young child leaning toward the dark side of the force, Luke repeats the mistakes of his teachers. Instead of drawing on his connection with his student to make a different choice, he panics and creates an unbalance in the force, creating a plot loop.

How do you fix it?

During long-running stories, characters should experience a wide array of different challenges. If you’ve been throwing a lot of external problems at them, try using an internal conflict. Perhaps they have a crisis of coconscious or face a moral conundrum they can’t avoid. Maybe they have to deal with a ghost from their past or an unfamiliar emotion.

Conversely, if your characters have been dealing with a lot of personal conflict, try throwing environmental situations their direction. Rather than focusing on how they feel about something, maybe they need to help others resolve a conflict or overcome a fear.

If your characters absolutely have to encounter a similar situation, just have them solve it according to what they learned in the past. There will still be a measure of repetition if they keep coming up against the same challenges. But if their approach changes each time, the story will feel fresher for awhile longer.

Going Over the Top

One of the ways that stories change and grow is by raising the stakes. Each time the characters encounter a new problem, you want it to feel more intense, urgent or personal than the last challenge they faced. It could be because they’re more invested in the problem due to past experience. Perhaps the problem more closely relates to their family or ambitions. Or maybe it threatens to undo their previous progress.

There are lots of ways for writers to raise a story’s stakes. But if a story goes on long enough, it might start to feel like only the most dire circumstances can affect the main cast. This often leads to constant threat of death, harm to a loved one or destruction on a massive scale. And depending on the type of story, the stakes can end up completely off the rails. When a story gets that over the top, it starts to rub against an audience’s suspension of disbelief. Everyone has a different tolerance threshold when it comes to suspension of disbelief, but you don’t want to flirt with the abyss by constantly throwing ridiculously high stakes at your characters.

I actually think the final season of Castle fits all three of the criteria on this list. But it’s also fresh in my mind while I’m writing this list. This show started out a light-hearted crime drama where a writer and a cop solve murders. By the final season, they’ve experienced so many tense situations, the only way to rattle them is with non-stop secret black ops CIA nonsense. The phrase ‘this is so far over your head’ is laughter inducing because you hear it so many times.

How Do You Fix it?

If you’re not quite done with a story or world, but it feels like your character has become unshakable, try focusing on another character for a while. This is really easy if a story is generational. It can safely be assumed that the next generation doesn’t have as much experience and, therefore, can find less over the top problems daunting. Perhaps they need help from the original characters to find their footing so we don’t lose all contact with the original cast.

Even if a story isn’t generational, you can still introduce less experienced characters. Or, once again, force your experienced characters to deal with situations they have less experience with. The more you take them out of their comfort zone, the easier it is to raise the stakes without having to go over the top. So long as it makes sense for the characters to actually deal with those types of situations.

Conversely, you can try to make the stakes more personal rather than more dangerous. Or if the stakes have been personal for a long time, switch it up and put the character in some danger for a hot minute. Maybe a situation becomes time sensitive so that it feels urgent but isn’t necessarily deadly. As long as you’re switching things up from time to time, you should be able to get a lot of longevity out of your story.

What do you do when your story feels stuck?

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