Some claim writer’s block doesn’t exist. If you go all Zen it doesn’t exist but then neither does the writing.
I am a pantser so I have no outline or plot when I start. I also write mostly short forms and have way too many fragments that have solid potential in voice or character or situation but are stuck because I can’t see where they are going.
When I’m stuck, these are some of the things that I try to help me move forward.
- interview main character(s) or put them on a therapist’s couch and let them ramble
- write vignettes from POV of minor characters (or put them on the couch) that will not be used directly, scenes that can add depth but can also give another perspective and trigger an idea
- write histories of the main characters or of settings or situations outside of the main draft to explore possibilities and/or add depth. These may not even fit the story or character but I’m trying to get close and to trigger ideas
- detail the theme on a conscious level (as opposed to only sensing it) and try to use that to help me grope a direction
- show the incomplete writing to my wife or a writing group and ask for help
- brainstorming/mind mapping: write down any words that come to mind and any words suggested by those new words around the theme or a character or a situation. A variation on this is to export to an .html file and get Edge to read aloud, then note words or phrases that seem to stick out and see if they trigger ideas.
- similarly, make a list of ‘all’ possible plot directions and permeations with sticky notes or on a spreadsheet. Obviously you will never actually list all.
- if it’s a long story try jumping forward and write something in the future. This may give you something to work toward.
- similarly, if I have internal narrative or history or interactions or scenes that are bubbling to the surface, write any fragment that is connected to the story. I have one story where I’m still not sure of the structure or the order or if it’s finished but there are now twenty-two sections saved in two different orders (I use Scrivener so copying and having multiple versions is easy). When I wrote I was in that world and situation and kept writing anything that came to mind without worrying how it was going to fit together or if I was going to use it, it was just all connected.
Many of these ways have similarities to method acting in that they require exploration and fleshing out beyond what’s on the page. If you know the character deeply and truly enough you can improvise or know how they would respond in situations not in the script or novel.
There are other methods that don’t work for me:
- “When in doubt, have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand,” says Raymond Chandler, or use some other object or new character or event (or writing prompt) to shake things up.
- write badly to keep writing and keep the story in motion, the idea being that the bad material can be removed in later drafts
These are widely offered on the internet, but the problem with them is that they could be part of any story, not necessarily the story that attracted me and I find doing these to be fruitless. I don’t mind trying to feel my way forward but I want to be working on the story that I felt was worthy of being finished, exploring potential ideas that are consistent with my existing characters, situation, voice, direction, and prose quality.
I believe that there are viable extensions to my dozen or more quality fragments. The character is so interesting or the setting so vivid or the situation brimming with emotional bristles that I can sense something is there, I just have to find it.
I just need one answer.
One perfect or nearly perfect one.
One that feels close enough that I can flesh it out so that it touches all the key facets of the characters, setting, and situation.
Lately I’ve been pressing on a fragment that I’m fond of but it refuses to tell me what is going to happen. I’ve tried my standard approaches and nothing has surfaced that feels right. I pedaled for some time trying to find more but I was drawing blank.
So instead of writing badly I tried to make a list of bad ideas. I tried to come up with ten bad ones: managed eight on first attempt, came up with three more later. But some of them weren’t awful. Trying to come up with bad ones faded the ‘box’ that I was in (as in ‘think outside the box’) and allowed me to find some that weren’t so awful, and, tangentially, some versions with even more potential. I tried writing one of the more unusual but possible ones but it spun a little to far off the rails.
Then, I went through and explained why each of those were too far off the mark. Too SF/fantasy for this story. Too extreme, turns the story into something much bigger than it feels like it should be. Too random, no reason for something like this to happen and I don’t see how it adds to the story. Doesn’t fit the characters as I see them.
The point of this list of bad ideas and evaluating why they are bad is two fold: to develop an idea of what doesn’t fit and why not which hopefully leads to a better definition of what I am looking for, and to open the box and see if one of these ideas or their variations are worth exploring.