It’s pretty easy for most writers to get about four chapters into something based on an interesting idea/situation/character/plotpoint and a bunch of mysterious happenings. But somewhere around Chapter 4, one hits what has been variously termed “the wall,” “the first veil,” or “the first event horizon.” Sometimes it’s as early as Chapter 2; sometimes it’s as late as Chapter 7 — but basically, it is the point at which the author has to really understand what is going on: how the character got into this situation, what all these mysterious interesting hints the author’s been dropping for the past four chapters actually mean and how they tie together eventually, who is behind the scenes pulling strings, where the story is going and how.
Most of the writers I know of use one of three basic methods to get past this point: 1) Power on through; 2) Composting; 3) Plot Noodling.
Powering on Through works best for those writers who like to sit down with a blank sheet of paper and just make it up as they go along, and for those who actually do know “what happens next” but who for some reason just don’t want to be bothered writing it down. (For me, it’s usually because the sticky bit that comes next is going to be an explanation of something or a transition scene, and I purely hate writing explanations and transitions. Other writers have different stuff on their hate lists.) Powering on through is just what it sounds like: you sit down and write something, anything, to get past the sticky bit.
The trouble with powering on through is that if you aren’t the sort of writer who makes it up as they go, or don’t know what happens next, it may not get you anywhere useful. You can end up with two or three chapters that are totally wrong, and have to go back and pitch them, which is painful. It’s a particularly bad idea if what the story actually needs is more development, which is what the other two methods do.
Composting is my term for letting the story sit in one’s backbrain until it’s ready to grow things. This is the one where you stick the story in a drawer or file somewhere and work on other stuff. Periodically — every couple of months, say, or if you’re really busy, maybe once a year — you pull it out and look at it and see if it’s ready to be a story yet. You do this in order to gently remind your backbrain that it is supposed to be working on this story. This one works well for people who have so many possible stories to do that they don’t have to develop any one in particular because they’ve got plenty of other ones to work on in the meantime, for people who get bored easily by working only on one project, and for people who like to maximize production time by rotating from one story to another while they’re waiting.
The trouble with composting is that there’s a tendency to end up with a whole heap of WIPs or UFOs (UnFinished Objects)…and no finished projects. This problem seems to be particularly common for relatively new writers, but it can strike anyone. It helps to go back over everything in the compost pile once every month or two, like stirring a real compost pile to keep it cooking. It also helps to be really determined about working on things, and perhaps to try the next method from time to time.
Plot Noodling basically involves taking the idea you have and the chapters you have written and looking at them very carefully, poking at them and turning them over and looking for loose threads and rough edges and incomplete background and generally trying to figure out what it is you need to know in order to move on. “What it is you need to know” is, quite often, backstory: How did this character get into this mess? What have all the other characters, especially the villains/antagonists, been doing? What is the goal each of the main characters is trying to head for (and it may be “I want to get home and not be bothered with swords in stones and saving the country!”)? What are the possible things that can interfere with each of these goals (especially the main character’s)?
Sometimes, one also needs to clearly define what constitutes “winning” the situation for the Hero — or, to put it another way, what sort of ending you’re heading for. Is the ultimate resolution going to be the wedding, or the defeat/death of the dragon, or the main character wrestling with temptation (again) and winning at last? Some writers need a goal to aim for; others are better off with a general sense of direction.
Plot Noodling often works best if you can find someone who is good at asking you the sorts of questions you haven’t thought about asking yourself, but you can learn to do it all on your own (and in my experience, at least, there aren’t a whole lot of people who are good at asking the right sorts of questions without considerable training, so you may be best off planning to do it yourself). It can often be profitably combined with Composting — you poke at the story and make some notes and think about the obelisk or the missing sword or the international political situation (the one in the story, not the real-life one), and then put the manuscript away for a couple of days or weeks. When you bring it out, you poke at it some more, have a brilliant idea about a useful minor character and a possible plot twist, make more notes, and set it back to compost some more.
Eventually, it reaches the point where when you pull it out, you realize that all the pieces are there and it’s ready to grow roses. (One of my friends refers to this stage as “the story reaching critical mass,” but that works for nuclear bombs, not compost…) And then you sit down and write it, until you hit the next wall or the next veil and the process starts all over again.