Three Things To Do If Your Story Gets Stuck On A Mini-Cliffhanger

Well, I though that I’d talk about what to do when you suddenly come up with a brilliantly dramatic idea, usually a suspenseful mini-cliffhanger (eg: a puzzle, a predicament etc.. that you characters have to resolve), for part of your story but then suddenly realise that you have no clue how to finish it. I probably haven’t described this very well but, if it’s ever happened to you in the middle of writing a story, then you’ll know what I’m talking about.

So, how can you solve it?

1) Take a break, play some games and/or think logically: If you’ve created an intriguing puzzle for your characters (eg: how do they escape from a dangerous situation?) but suddenly find that you have no clue how to solve it, then taking a break and either playing some computer games and/or thinking about your situation logically can help a lot. But why?

First of all, taking a short break from your story gives your mind time to work on the problem in the background. Although daydreaming or distracting yourself until an answer appears can work, one useful way to coax some story solutions out of your brain is to play a fun, challenging computer game that you are good at. But, why?

Simply put, games are designed to be fair. Whether it is a challenging battle in an old first-person shooter game or a tricky puzzle in a “point and click” game, no game is designed to be unwinnable. If you play challenging games, then you’ll get into the mindset of finding solutions to seemingly “unwinnable” situations. You’ll re-load saved game after saved game, try different things until something works etc.. It’s more of an attitude than anything else, but this “nothing is unwinnable” type of determination is really useful when faced with one of these story problems. And playing a challenging game that you are good at can put you in this mindset.

But, more than all of this, computer games also train you to think logically. They have a defined set of “rules” and it is up to you to use them to your advantage. They force you to look at everything and then try to find some clever way to get the best out of it. And, well, thinking about your story problem this way can result in a solution that feels like a consistent part of your story. It forces you to think of things from your character’s perspective and pay close attention to what they can and cannot realistically do. And, if you take the “nothing is unwinnable” attitude that I mentioned earlier, then you’ll probably crunch your way through every possible solution (or way to apply the “rules”) until a good one appears.

2) Avoid contrivance: If possible, avoid suddenly throwing in a contrived “solution” to your problem. Like games, stories are at their best when the reader feels that they are following a series of clearly-established “rules”. These can be ordinary things (eg: the laws of physics, legislation, human nature etc..) in a realistic story or a pre-described set of limitations in more fantastical stories (eg: how magic works, the limits of teleportation technology etc..). These rules are what makes your story feel real and believable.

Yes, it can be tempting to just drop in a solution out of nowhere, but this will make your story suffer. For a cautionary example, take a look at Daniel Suarez’s 2017 sci-fi thriller novel “Change Agent” (SPOILERS ahoy). This novel has a really gripping puzzle-like premise – an Interpol agent has been injected with a substance that alters his DNA so that he looks like a wanted criminal and he has to find some way to change back into himself whilst also avoiding not only the authorities but also the numerous surveillance devices lying around the story’s futuristic setting.

This is a challenging puzzle and, for the earlier parts of the novel, it is so much fun watching the main character come up with realistic solutions to all of the tense and suspenseful predicaments created by this premise. But, after a while, this story tends to drift towards contrivance a little bit (eg: the main character needs to cross a heavily-patrolled stretch of water? Luckily one of his friends just happens to have a shark-shaped submarine lying around etc..). The story is still enjoyable to read during these parts, but it loses a certain something thanks to the “deus ex machina” solutions that just appear out of nowhere.

So, as tempting as it might be to just throw in a contrived solution out of nowhere, don’t do it. But, if your puzzle is truly unsolvable, then….

3) Rewrite: Yes, your story has to follow a consistent set of “rules” but the good news is that you get to make those rules. So, if something really doesn’t work, then one way of solving the situation is to change the rules. But, and this is really important, you need to do this before the scene in question. If you suddenly change a rule when your character runs into difficulty, then it will feel very contrived.

So, go back to an earlier part of the story and establish the rule change there. I cannot stress this enough. Likewise, when you’ve changed the rule, you also need to think about how it will affect both previous and future events of the story. Again, your story will be at it’s best when the reader feels like it is following clearly-defined rules, so make sure that you don’t accidentally end up breaking your rules in other parts of your story once you change them.

Even so, if you are really really stuck, then going back to an earlier part of the story and changing something can help a lot. But, again, be very conscious about other parts of your story when you are doing this – because changing one thing earlier in the story will probably also require you to change other stuff too.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

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