Plots · Rewriting

Solve the enigma that is blocking your story

Sometimes I feel as though my WIP's been typed on one of these - an Enigma machine, courtesy of

If you’re stuck, is there a layer of your story that you haven’t yet understood?

I’ve just finished reading Robert Harris’s Enigma. In the acknowledgements he thanks two special people, ‘neither of whom ever lost faith in the story, even on those occasions when it was a mystery to its author’.

How those words resonated. Enigma, about code-breakers in World War II, is a great read – and yet there was a point at which the author felt deeply lost. Which made me think, especially as I’ve been feeling lost myself.

My MC had got to a crisis point but it wasn’t gelling. I came up with something that would definitely be shocking but it looked desperate. A clumsy attempt to play the sympathy card.

Finally, it clicked. I hadn’t understood what the real story was, where Act One was leading. My horrifying event wasn’t germane to the true problem the MC faced – his journey to discover who he really was. The most appalling thing to the reader would be for him to give in to the pressure around him. Surrender his spirit by deciding to be like everybody else. That would be much more powerful than doing something violent, say.

In fact it was one of the options I’d thought of earlier on and discarded – because I hadn’t understood what the real story was. But now I realised it was perfect.  

(Frankly, I wish my subconscious would be a little more explicit, instead of letting me waste time with guessing games.)

You may know what the characters are doing and the quest you set up for them. But these details are superficial. Story events and characters’ urges are often code for something deeper, and that may be what is making the real connection with the reader. If you haven’t cracked that code and figured out what it is, you may remain blocked or make choices that feel hollow and wrong.

Have you felt, like Robert Harris, that your story is still a mystery? Did a realisation like this help you move forwards with it?

14 thoughts on “Solve the enigma that is blocking your story

  1. So true! I had been feeling like that about the entire 3rd Part of my story and one night had an epiphany about the MC and realized that I was writing in the exact opposite direction that she was headed. Thank God for rewrites! After adding two new chapters and overhauling two whole sections it’s finally on the right track. 🙂

  2. I know exactly what you mean, and it’s happened to me too. I think (for me, anyway) it stems from me trying to complicate my protagonist’s story. Sometimes the simple emotions, the simple obstacles can be much more daunting than any complex configuration I can pull out of the air. I’ve also found keeping the story line simple can make it more poignant.

    I too wish my subconscious would be a little more detailed regarding where we are going with our characters sometimes! More than once, I’ve had to blunder my way into a character’s motivations.

    1. @Michelle – isn’t it amazing the wrong turns a story can take. If anyone saw my working drafts they would think I wasn’t fit to be let out.
      @Teresa – I overcomplicate too. It’s a real problem of mine. So much of my revision is about finding the simple point and making it work as hard as possible.

  3. I’m always trying to dig deeper and get at the primary but often elusive emotional truth of a character. I do alot of riff writing where I keep pushing scenes, thoughts, whatever to see if there are any diamonds of realization in all the coal I shovel daily. Great reminder to keep digging. Did you ever wake up with an aha moment where you figured out something crucial? I think staying open and not settling for something is key. They story I’m working on now is challenging me in these very ways because it is a rewrite of an old novel and I’ve got to let go of the old ideas to let the new flow int.

  4. I’ve been there. In fact, I think it is one of the reasons I’m struggling with my NaNo edit. I inherently know there is a fuzzy spot or two that will need some major reworking to unfold properly.

    1. @Paul – I remember reading your piece about riff writing. I’m glad you reminded me about it – and it ties in nicely with Dave’s point about writing pieces that will never get further than the rehearsal room. Yes, I get aha moments but they don’t tend to be on waking. For me they come while reading something else, or watcing a film, or listening to a song – all the kinds of work that will have a simple idea strongly expressed. That will suddenly sing out to me and make me realise.

      It’s exciting to be reworking an old novel. I’m going to be doing that at some point, making a short story I wrote many moons ago into something much longer because it definitely has the legs for it. I think I read a post you did about dusting off an old work – I hope you’ll keep us updated about the process.

      @Cat – good luck with the Nano rewrite, and it’s great that you’re going to be able to take it further. But it is an awful lot more sweat and tears, isn’t it?!

  5. Sometimes too you have to write scenes even if you know they’re going to end up on the cutting room floor, because you need to have been through those moments with your characters to explore who they are. I find this very hard to do because the editor in my head is constantly saying, “You don’t need this scene, waste of time.” But it isn’t wasted time if it leads you to a better understanding of what you’re creating.

  6. I love those aha moments when what you have been waiting to happen happens. I usually get these moments after days of beating myself up for not being able to come up with anything. It seems that sometimes when you stop thinking you think of the perfect solutions. 🙂

  7. this post is very true, although I feel that your personal stream of consciousness is like one massive stream of code that only you can make sense of.

    1. That’s what is so hard – we have to decode it for ourselves before we decode it for readers! I bet Alan Turing never had it this hard 😉

  8. Great post.

    This topic is the reason one of the novels I started, the one that a certain someone really wants me to write, is on the back burner. As I attempted to figure out the beginning chapters I came to realize something. I don’t understand the story yet. The climax is known and obvious, even came from a dream. But the tasks and reasons that lead the character on this quest are unknown to me still. Until I further understand the character, the setting, and the plot, I cannot write it. But as days go by, the answers come to me and I know that one day the book will be written.

    1. Dawn, sometimes you have to just let it settle and work itself out. But as long as the story keeps bugging you somewhere, something will come.

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