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Slap some handcuffs on ’em

April 3, 2012 by Kiersi

I’ve written about this before–the “lull” of Act Two in the process of writing a novel–and it never fails to demoralize me. However, I’m learning some techniques that I thought I’d pass on to others stuck in the sag of the development process. This commentary was partially inspired by rebeccaoftomorrow‘s recent post about characters who take control of a story; fictional people who do things without we, the authors, telling them to do anything. They just act of their own volition, like spirits–or worse, like real people.

I’ve encountered this ridiculous phenomenon before in the writing of my paranormal YA trilogy, The Devil’s Throne. I found my heroine Sophie running away with me far more often than I liked, changing the loose outline I’d developed at will, sometimes even drastically altering the story arc. But it’s never quite shaped the ebb and flow of a novel quite the way it has in my new YA fantasy, The Aeronauts–where not only do the characters act in highly unanticipated ways, but the story itself tends to twist and turn without my prior approval.

Maria, the fierce, Mexican-American heroine of The Aeronauts, and the rest of the crew of The Rebel Heart have arrived in the city of Lunmai looking to recruit the country’s support for the rebellion. I get to digress from the story in order to explore the colorful African/Polynesian-inspired marketplace, and to build on the personalities of some minor (but still important) characters. But when the time comes to approach the governor of Lunmai and formally ask for military aid, I couldn’t help but feel the sag of Act Two.

The crew simply waltzing into the governor’s house and asking for help was too… unexciting. The Aeronauts has been my most non-stop, action-packed novel to date, and I wasn’t about to let it stop at Lunmai.

It went something like this:

Inspiration for the Lunmai governor's house

The governor’s house was even more astounding up close. The orange border of the windows—which she had thought was just paint—was some kind of metallic leaf. The horns were ivory-white and striped with iridescent yellow. It was fierce and beautiful at the same time.

Then she spotted two familiar shapes edging their way up the narrow stairs.

“Joshua!” The shout came out before Maria could stop it. The captain and first mate stopped and turned, scanning the crowded street for the source of her voice. How it had carried that far she could only guess—probably the same way she’d always been able to hear her mother calling her in a busy grocery store.

Joshua and Allasten were accompanied above and behind them by four of the white-robed monks, almost like guards leading a prisoner. And that was when she saw the shackles around their wrists and ankles.

Bam. Just like that. I didn’t even know they’d be handcuffed until there it was, written on the computer screen, and it was just. So. Perfect. Suddenly I knew exactly what happened next.

Moments of crisis are a great way to break out of a writer’s block. Why? Because we know that as soon as those guards see Maria, hear her shouting from the street corner, they are going to go after her. They’re going to chase her across the city until they capture her, if they capture her. And they’re probably going to kick her a bit, put her in handcuffs, and drag her back to the governor’s house.

Then Joshua and Maria get to ask for reinforcements in shackles–and dramatic shifts in power dynamics are always more interesting.

Next time you find yourself in that all-too-familiar lull and you’re needing some juice to keep your reader interested, try kicking it up a notch. Throw a wrench into the machinery. See what happens.

You won’t regret it.


  1. Yep, I needed this – got me some full on writer’s block right now…head fuzz….I need something like this to happen asap.

  2. Great advice. I’m planning a new WIP right now and I’m not quite sure where I want the story to go, but I think this might help me figure things out. 🙂

    • Kiersi says:

      Good luck! When you reach that halfway point and you get lost, just remember kicking up the tension will help. Excited to see your new WIP on down the road, Kelly.

  3. Brenda says:

    Great thoughts. I am working on a second WIP now and see the end of the journey but the middle is where the challenges await me.

  4. Jim Snell says:

    I think I’m almost exactly in the middle of mine right now. But… you never know…

    The fun thing is that even when I know what’s going to happen next, I don’t know what’s going to happen next. Like seeing them in cuffs. That’s great!

    I might have to slap some cuffs on my characters, just to see what happens. Sounds like fun.

    But, then again, I think I already know what happens next…

  5. Fi Phillips says:

    Great post and some excellent advice. Thanks for sharing.

  6. abi says:

    Love it! 🙂

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