Indelible Blue Pen

Jason C. McDonald (CodeMouse92)

July 05, 2013

You know that tar pit in chapter three…?

Your story is brilliant. You just know it! It has great plot, well-rounded characters, and your readers can’t put it down.

Or rather, that will be true, once you can actually get your story written. You’re stuck on chapter three, right where you were six months ago.

Does any of this sound familiar?

Chapter 3 is not some random spot for this tar pit (though it occasionally shows up earlier). It’s a fairly common place. I often tell young writers, “The first three chapters are easy.” Why is that?

Think about the general structure of a story. It looks something like this:

Introduction -> Inciting Incident -> Conflict -> Climax -> Resolution -> Denouement (Ending)

If you’re not too familiar with this structure, let me give you a quick review.

The introduction…well…introduces your world: for example, a one-horse old west town that just happens to have a gold repository, a nervous lawman who feels unqualified for his job, and a woman who is tired of running her little cafe day after day.

The inciting incident sets off the conflict in the story. A masked stranger rides into town. He’s a wanted bandit who plans to steal the gold. Now the conflict…all of the events in the story surrounding that bandit trying to get to the gold, and the townspeople foiling his plans.

This leads to the climax, the most tense part of the story. The bandit challenges the nervous lawman to a gun battle at high noon. The townsfolk chase the bandit out of town with rocks (the resolution), and then the lawman rides off into the sunset with the woman who ran the cafe and who fell in love with him (the denouement).

Yeah, pathetic story, but you get the point.

A lot of stories will actually have a number of ups and downs within all of that – other conflicts, minor climaxes, and resolutions – that move the story forward.

That tar pit almost invariably takes place around the inciting incident. Why?

A few possible causes:

#1: Underdeveloped Characters

A common mistake is in not fully understand the inner workings of the story. My sister Kate and I have gotten stuck many times because of this, most recently while planning the third book in our trilogy. We couldn’t figure out what was supposed to happen.

We finally got unstuck by asking each of the characters “Why are you here?” That simple question uncovered many a plot point. “I want to prove I’m a man for my father.” “I’m running away from my past.” “I want to defend my country.” Of course, that generally opened a longer dialogue, allowing us to get deeper into the character’s mind.

Virtually all good stories must involve some degree of character development. The hero or heroine should learn something about themselves, make a change in their lives, or something of that nature. That rather makes sense if you think about it, because if there is no internal conflict and growth, you get one of two things: a character who is perfect, or a character who is an insufferable jerk. Both are boring.

Think about how this affects our earlier example story, which at the moment could be aptly titled “How the West was Indescribably Dull”. Imagine how irritating it would be to read that book. The nervous lawman doesn’t actually change at all, which, of course, results in the ending making no sense. The townsfolk run off the bandit. The lawman never really does anything.

If we were to ask him “Why are you here?”, we’d probably get the feeble response “I’m here to act nervous and get in the way.” Hoo boy, he’s a keeper (or not.)

By extension, the dame would probably answer “I’m here to provide the cursory romantic interest for Sheriff Wimp Boy.”

New York Bestseller, this is not.

If I were to try and write this thing, I would undoubtedly hit that Chapter 3 tar pit. Without character growth, there aren’t sufficient character motivations. Without motivations, almost everything between the Inciting Incident and the Climax is blank, and there is no crossing that canyon.

The fix here is easy. Force Sheriff Wimp Boy to overcome his fear of…well…everything.

#2: Wrong Turn

A lot of times, writer’s block is caused by taking a wrong turn in the story, effectively painting oneself into a corner. This could be caused by an unsolvable conflict (the jittery lawman gets pushed over a cliff by Mr. Bad Guy), a boring turn of events (attempting to write a scene in which Miss Romantic Interest makes lunch for Sheriff Wimp Boy), or an overly predictable scene (Mr. Bad Guy gets arrested, but breaks out of prison).

Characters are often merciful in a subtle sort of way. If you make a wrong turn, they just stop talking until you figure things out.

Best-selling author Steven Bly once said “If you get stuck, shoot someone.” As a writer of westerns, he sometimes meant that in a literal (and literary) sense. More often than not, however, his application of that advice involved something more unique, like having a runaway bull crash through a taco stand. (Yes, that really happened in one of his novels.)

I’ve found that, barring issue #1, the easiest way out of any tar pit is unrestrained brainstorming. What if the character dreams he is in an old detective movie? What if a giant snake attacks? What if a tornado hits the town? I have used all of the above in various books, by the way. Personally, I call it “Pandora Boxing.” I open up my mental Pandora’s Box of all the terrible and strange things I could possibly have happen. Eventually, one of them will stick.

Our example story might have a brainstorming session like this: “What if the bad guy has a twin?” “What if the bad guy and good guy are related?” “What if the gold was stolen from him?” “What if the bad guy is really the mayor in disguise?”

Heeeeeey! That one actually sounds pretty good! We write it in, and what do you know, we’re unstuck. We can start weaving in clues that the Mayor and Mr. Bad Guy are one and the same.

#3: Eternal Introduction

Of course, there is the possibility that a beginning writer may have neglected to come up with a conflict at all. The last three chapters have been nothing but introduction, introduction, introduction. That may sound unlikely, but I have come across (and written) stories like that. It happens.

If our earlier story had that issue, and Mr. Bad Guy had never rode into town, our story would be nothing but scene after scene of Sheriff Wimp Boy being afraid of his shadow, and Miss Romantic Interest bring him pie after pie and sighing dreamily in his general direction. Books like that wind up on the discount rack at Cheapo’s Second-Hand Grocery. (And, no, that does NOT classify as a romance, people.)

I might add that books with this problem often don’t even make it to Chapter 3 before hitting the tar pit.

#4: Words of Gold

One last warning: one can never make it past that tar pit unless he or she stops carrying so much gold in their pack. In other words, don’t consider what you’ve written to be sooooo precious and untouchable that you’re unwilling to cut anything.

This was a major struggle for me early in my writing career. I figured that everything I wrote was literary gold. I was unwilling to trim an overly long scene (because the “dialogue was brilliant”), cut out an unrealistic event (because “I can totally see that happening in the movie version”), or make over a character (because “he’s so believable”). I gave myself entirely too many airs.

I’ve come to learn, through a long and hard growth process, that not everything that flows from my fingers to the keyboard is worth a donkey’s snot rag. That said, I will seldom delete anything, instead storing it in what I call my “Bits” folder. These often make for great Pandora’s Box fodder. But, nowadays, I will cut entire chapters from one of my manuscripts.

No manuscript on the planet is immune to this principle, which can be summed up as “Revise or Demise”. Even the most meticulous and experienced author cannot churn out a completed manuscript on the first try. My co-authors and I will often go back and revise a completed (yet unpublished) manuscript, sometimes five or six years after we called it “finished.”

Most recently, I completely scrapped the first chapter of Freedom’s Warriors, the first book in the trilogy I write with my sister Katelyn, and wrote them again from scratch.

Even more notorious to me in the way of revision are the first two books in the children’s series my mother and I are writing together. It first took form as “The Mystery of the Noonday Bandit,” which I penned when I was nine on an old Brother word processor. I still remember bounding out of my room shouting “I finished it!”

Hah. Hardly. I had yet to learn that writing is 1% writing, and 99% revision. “Noonday Bandit” just lacked…something. Actually, at 17 pages, it lacked a lot. (It is worth noting that this blog post actually has half the word count of my original “Noonday Bandit” manuscript.)

I was resistant to changes. However, over the next few years, my mother and her critique group helped me revise and expand the story, though my reluctance slowed down the process greatly. A giant carrot crept its way into the story, a plot point I can thank Jan Peck directly for.

Then, a brainstorming session led to the addition of a conflict about a missed family reunion, which led to a prequel titled “Muskrat Island Mystery”. That went through hundreds of revisions over the next five years, growing from 48 pages to 97 pages. That process also resulted in major name changes, addition of other characters, discovery of further plots, and the invention of an entirely new culture.

By time we had started on the second book, the little town I had first written about was completely unrecognizable. A new storyline had surfaced – one with the depth and momentum to potentially keep the series going through a good two dozen books, and then some!

Just imagine if I had continued to resist revisions to my 17-page “masterpiece”!

That little rabbit trail may seem to have nothing to do getting out of that chapter 3 tar pit, but I assure you it does. In fact, it is key. A writer who resists touching what they’ve written will avoid the addition of character motivation, the inclusion of plot-altering events, or the trimming of an overly long introduction.

There really isn’t any way of avoiding the Chapter 3 tar pit. But, this is what separates the hobbyist from the professional: a true author has the passion and the patience to fight their way across. It isn’t easy, but nothing worth doing is.

Shoot, if it weren’t for those tar pits, we’d have a LOT of boring books out there.

And speaking of boring books, Sheriff Wimp Boy and Miss Romantic Interest still ride off into the sunset. The curtain falls, but not hard enough (as Victor Borge would say), and I promise you, I will never saddle you with such a terrible story.

Hopefully the preceding tips will help you ensure said story is never published with your name under it, either.


One thought on “You know that tar pit in chapter three…?

  1. Aunti Jane says:

    Hi there. I started reading this blog and thought to myself, is this REALLY my nephew, writing this stuff? As I read further, I realized that it was YOU and an overwhelming feeling of how proud I am of you came through. This was such a well-written blog. Full of fabulous and important information to the “hobbyist” writer, like myself. ;-)

    I do have one final comment to make: Uncle Ed really loved this blog too but he was upset that you didn’t ask him for assistance. He saw a few spots that needed some corrections (very few and very, very minor). We can talk about this later if you like.

    At any rate, the whole blog was fun and full of great ideas and information that I think the new writer can take and learn from.

    I am so proud of you Jason!

    by the way no need to publish this stuff if you don’t want to.

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