The NaNoWriMo forums are rife with suggestions on what to do when the word count runs dry and a scene grinds to a halt. I readily admit that I am somewhat of a snob — even on a day when I delete more than I add, I would refuse to take out all contractions in my story and count that as progress, or give a character three names, or throw in a dream sequence or sex scene just to make the daily minimum.
These are all valid tricks, I suppose (other than the contractions thing, which really just irritates me) but I have one that works infinitely better — it makes for longer scenes, meaning more words, and unlike a dream sequence, actually moves the plot forward so that when the scene ends, I’m not stuck back where I was when I started. If you’ve read the title you know what this is, but I’ll drum up unnecessary suspense anyway. Are you ready?
Conflict is the single most effective way of increasing word count and moving along a story that I have ever found. The best part is, conflict does not necessarily negate those other tips and tricks — you could have a dream sequence or sex scene fraught with conflict that will actually add to the value of your story, rather than just the number at the bottom of the screen. (It’s at the bottom of the screen because you’re all using Scrivener. You’re all using Scrivener, right?)
If a scene is going nowhere, or the story is lacking lustre, or I can’t figure out what I’m doing with a character, it’s probably because I’ve forgotten about conflict. I tend to write good characters who try to do the right thing — albeit often failing, but their intentions are honourable — and the problem with this is, after a while, without external problems, they sort of dry up. I start to get frustrated, and my writing suffers for it. At this point, either I remember (or some kind soul reminds me) that I haven’t had any conflict happen for some time.
Make your characters get in a fight with a loved one (or a rival! or colleague! or stranger! anything will do). Make them doubt themselves. Give them the right decision for the wrong reason, or the reverse. It doesn’t have to be huge and plot-altering, but you’ll be surprised at what happens when you allow a character to get angry, or give them a reason to lose their temper, and I’m not just talking about word count.
Because exactly how in real life, fights that start about not replacing the toilet paper when the old roll runs out end up in screaming matches about how the other person’s mother is trying to sabotage the relationship, in fiction, conflict can bring to light things about your story and characters that you had no idea where hiding anywhere. Your character in a happy relationship might actually be harbouring thoughts about that steak knife and which parts of their partner might be most satisfying to stick it in. Another character who seems confident and happy might be hiding a secret that threatens to tear them to pieces.
You’ll never know if you let them ride through it. Chances are, if a scene or character is stalled, this is why — and the answer is not to put in 500 words of them dreaming about doughnuts. Conflict. Try it today!