What is Detail, What is Plot: Deciphering Writer’s Block

Planning a story should produce a strong outline. That outline, made up of interesting and interconnected scenes, ties your ideas together into a cohesive and engaging plot. Faced with a pile of potential scenes to organize into a story, staying focused on the plot can get difficult when details can seem far more important than they really are.

There’s no way anyone, no matter how professional, can say there is a set-in-stone, correct or incorrect, way to come up with a story. There are a few common methods – planning and pantsing – and there are endless variations, tips, tricks, and directions for getting through both with a viable story. Understanding, in the context of your story, what is detail and what is plot, makes both planning and (for pantsers) editing easier.

This is a problem I’ve run into with about every project so far.

In outlining my current story, a middle-grade fantasy adventure, the beginning scenes flowed easily from one to another. Each placement and obstacle made sense.

I’m weak in middles, though, and I made a goal to avoid a sagging center. With my list of potential conflicts, I started a string of obstacles, trials, and twists to see how things would go. After some mixing up and revising, the sequences felt good, progressing quickly with interest and purpose.

Then, I stalled.

In my characters’ journey through an enchanted forest, already with a number of objectives, they’re misled by a mischievous fairy creature. They catch it and are offered a wish in exchange for letting it go.

I love folklore, and this is a common trope going back millennia. One of my other favorite tropes is when a wish is granted, but with a terrible twist.

This is what I needed.

The first part of the outline went onto the paper without argument in a short hour, but I sat on this question for two days. I asked for help, put it to friends, and even took it to groups on social media to see what they had. Of course, it was great stuff, but nothing fit. For every thoughtful, creative, effective suggestion they made, I could see the repercussions would break down the main conflict.

This problem frustrated me, until Monika, one of the ever-faithful Book Owls, pointed out it would be easier to give advice if they knew the story better.

This was the answer to my issue, even though it didn’t click for me until later on.

This ever-so-necessary wish was a detail, not a plot requirement. Yes, the wish would happen. Yes, it would need to be clever and twisty to create more drama for the characters. But the consequence of the wish would be infinitely more important than the wish itself. I had a whole stack of potential consequences sitting in my scene/twists pile!

When hitting a block, then, it helps to look at what you’re hung-up on. Is it a crucial plot point, or is it a well-disguised detail that can be left for a later look?

Here are a few questions to ask to help determine if your block is just a difficult detail:

  1. Does this issue require specific wording within the story?
  2. Does this story element appear and resolve within a single scene?
  3. Does this issue change the course of the larger story arc?
  4. When others suggest options, do you immediately come up with half a dozen reasons why each wouldn’t work?

That last one is always my biggest clue.

Check yourself, sort out that story first, and then play with details. Happy planning!


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