Cheating Writers’ Block: Getting the Story Un-Stuck by Seeing Outside the Box

Looking from inside the character or story and trying to see what’s next can be difficult. Trying to visualize what is going to happen or what needs to happen based on tensions and history and theme is a lot like method acting except that the author has no script to follow. And yet as a pantser this is what I try to do to forage ahead in a story.

(this is a continuation from the previous post where I recently experimented with listing bad plot ideas to help me find a way forward with my stories)

This is the box I sometimes get trapped in.

It is difficult to foretell the characters’ future and the story’s future. The author needs to have one foot inside the character (or characters) and another inside the story (as if the story is another character). From inside, it can be hard to foresee destiny. To see around the corner, to solve what’s going to happen is not always easy in life, nor when writing fiction.

As individuals we can try to guess who might be at the party Friday night or whether we will get the job we interviewed for. As readers and movie watchers we can try to predict what’s going to happen: will the officer wearing the red uniform in Star Trek be killed, will the heroine face challenges but end up with her soul-mate? But some of the most satisfying stories do not allow us to predict the outcome so easily but when we get there it feels inevitable.

It makes sense, then, if it’s hard to see one’s own future and if unpredictable outcomes are desirable, an author should also struggle to get there.

This is why making a list of bad plot ideas is useful. Not ‘bad’ as in negative outcomes such as being embarrassed at a party but bad as in outlandish, or random, or cliché.

Because I’m looking for ideas to throw away, these bad ideas have no expected value and carry less judgement and less attachment and the range of results is open much wider. I am flung outside the box and into the realm of the useless, the ridiculous, the boring, the politically incorrect, the racist/homophobic/misanthropic or fantasy/SF/horror/porn/thriller or other outside-the-given-genre based outcomes.

This tactic has similarities to mind-mapping or brainstorming because I’m foraging for ideas but the difference is that I’m intentionally trying to find bad ideas, ones that are silly or barely connected or so far out there they don’t make much sense. I’m trying to stretch as far away from my material (and the writer’s block) as I can.

After I have 12 or 15 bad ideas I work through why each alternative won’t work. Why exactly does it not fit the existing characters or situation or genre or theme? Doing so gives me a clearer definition of what it is that I am looking for, but more importantly, I find that some of the ideas—sometimes with some tweaking or in combination with others—are not impossible. The benefit of now building the plot from modified ‘bad ideas’ is that they may be surprising to the reader. They were, after all, outside the range of what the author had been able to conceive from inside the box.


Alternatively, Emma Coats of Pixar tweeted a list of writing advice. Number 9 is: “When you’re stuck, make a list of what WOULDN’T happen next. Lots of times the material to get you unstuck will show up.”

If that works for you, use it. I read that advice years ago and it didn’t work for me. Maybe what was meant by “wouldn’t happen next” is the same as my list of bad ideas but I interpreted “wouldn’t happen” as a negative, in other words, something that moves the story backward or blocks it. Nemo gets caught in a net and end of story, for example, or Buzz Lightyear becomes inanimate and unable to speak or move. Things that, as the writer, I wouldn’t have happen next.

Those certainly are bad ideas but they are also story killer ideas. Maybe you could work off those and eventually end up with Nemo being put in an aquarium or Buzz and Woody being taken by another child but that’s a long ways to go.

I prefer to take the skeleton of my existing plot and try to connect to it from other genres or from clichés or from random events. That’s been enough to help me find my way to useful combinations of modified bad ideas and to find a way forward with some story fragments that were stuck.

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