I always hated math. Locking two numbers together in Gladiator-style mortal combat made no sense to me. Who cares about the victor of that bloody conflict, when there are so many cool things that could be happening in outer space, and slightly less cool things (but just as bloody as number Hunger Games) that have already happened on this world? Other subjects were far more interesting to me.

But the one small bit of math that I did enjoy happened to be applied mathematics. You know, making numbers do things that matter in the real world. Two trains leaving different stations and careening toward one another at a breakneck speed was fun, get your popcorn ready type stuff waiting to happen. Will they crash? What’s on board? Can a superhero swoop in and save the day? Of course, the really cool scenarios that my brain produced never actually occurred, but at least that type of problem solving was one that made sense to me as a kid that loved comic books, Saturday morning cartoons and creating epic conflicts between my action figures.

The funny thing is, sometimes I still feel like I’m that same kid, only instead of action figures I’m using word processors and keyboards. And the more I write, the more I find myself realizing that problem solving happens to be one of the biggest assets in a writer’s utility belt. Not because we’re re-routing trains from Cincinnati and Chicago on a regular basis, but because sometimes our plots and characters are traveling crosscountry at one another through pages. But rather than diverting them away from one another, we need collisions. We need fire, blood, screaming, the whole nine yards, whatever it takes to make our stories nice, juicy and dripping with tension.

Sometimes our job as writers is to smash some trains together. Sometimes our job is for two trains to narrowly miss one another. And often that means solving some major problems. I’ve had to deal with this myself the last few weeks with my current work in progress, The Jimmy Project, where I’ve had to examine plot points and had to tackle some of my most challenging problem solving tests to date.

Here are some tips for when you’re feeling like the solution is just out of reach.

Forget your outline.

I know, I know. You really need plot point A and brooding antagonist B to cross paths somewhere east of the Unexpected Twist River by Chapter 19, but brooding antagonist B is a force to be reckoned with and has charted a new path straight for your main character’s weaknesses. A really crazy idea? Maybe let it happen. See what this renegade train wants to do and let it go where momentum takes it. Sometimes the best writing happens when you quit trying to stop something bigger and stronger than you and instead lay down some new tracks to better accommodate it. Always keep your ear to the ground. Figure out where the tracks are too prohibitive.

Embrace logic.

There’s nothing worse in a story than hitting a plot point that just doesn’t make sense. I don’t mean that it’s too confusing for my dumb brain to grasp hold of, but that a character just seems to defy all of their own traits and tendencies in order to make a decision to steer the story in a completely set direction. What do your characters want to do? Where do they want to go? What makes the most sense for them in a particular moment? But more interestingly — how do those things align with other characters, even the bad guys? How do they butt heads? And what points of interest do all of your characters with differing goals share?

Be more efficient.

More birds, fewer stones. The biggest factor of problem solving in storytelling is learn how to accomplish multiple things at the same time, with the same plot point, in the same chapter. That character building moment? Could it also foreshadow and worldbuild? Teach us something good and bad about the main character in just one sentence, with one simple action. To keep up with the train analogy, maybe it makes sense for two trains to change courses and ride alongside one another all the way to Louisville — until they learn there’s only room for one of them in the final stretch. Ask yourself if your plot points are doing the heavy lifting required to belong in your story in the first place. They should all be freight trains, heaving several things at once — without being overloaded.

Remember the purpose of the journey.

Your train has to get from point A to point B for a reason. That reason might be why you started writing the story in the first place, what you hoped to say with your characters and what you hope they learn by the time it hits the station. That is the reason for your journey, and it’s the same reason that should propel your main character through every major obstacle and every detour. When you’re trying to plot your story and all else fails, sometimes the best thing you can do is think of the reason for the journey — and what’s most critical for your character at this junction — before you find your way again.

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