Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Writing isn’t always a smooth process. Whether you’re a sprinter like Anthony Burgess, who scribbled out A Clockwork Orange in just three weeks, or more of a marathon runner like Victor Hugo, who spent twelve long years gestating Les Miserables until it was just right (or “très bien”, as Hugo might have said), you’re always susceptible to getting stuck on your writing journey.
Getting stuck on a particular scene or section of your book usually rears its unwelcome head in one of two migraine-inducing forms. One is that you know what you want to happen in the scene, but it’s just not working for some reason. The other – trickier to get past – is that you don’t know what to write next at all. You’ve hit a seemingly immovable roadblock.
First of all: don’t panic. Second: no, really, stop panicking. You’re going to get through this. You’re writing a book, so you’re clearly a creative person. Therefore, what you need are creative solutions. Happily, that’s exactly what waits below, collated from successful writers like Chuck Wendig, Ken Levine, Elizabeth Heffron, and more.
Tips to tackle Problem #1: ‘The scene I’m trying to write just isn’t working.’
This problem isn’t exactly ‘writer’s block’ – it’s more like its annoying cousin, who you try and avoid at family gatherings. Maybe you planned this scene out already, before you started work on your manuscript, and dreaded writing it even then, as you knew it would be tricky. Or maybe you thought it would be an easy one, and it’s turned out to be a stubborn beast giving you endless grief. Maybe you’ve written the whole draft and – upon re-reading – discovered that this scene’s just not working. Why isn’t it working? And what can you do to fix it?
There are two quick – and dare I say, fun – exercises you can try straight away to get yourself unstuck. First is the ‘opposite outcome’ exercise. If your scene follows the classic goal-oriented structure of storytelling, it will end with your character either achieving or failing to do/get something. To put it simply, a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ ending.“What happens next?” can be a difficult question, but you CAN find the answer.Click To Tweet
But what happens if you change that ‘yes’ into a ‘no’? Or vice versa? Does it create a bigger challenge for your character? Does it raise the stakes a bit higher? Does it give your character an opportunity to grow? Does it make the scene more interesting? If it doesn’t, then this exercise won’t really work, but if it does, you could have a quick and easy solution to your problem right then and there.
The second exercise you can try is to write the scene ‘inside out’. Break down every action in the scene and reverse it. How you interpret that reversal is up to you. It could be a character doing the opposite of what you originally intended, or it could be two characters switching roles in the scene. Try some different combinations out and see how many different outcomes you can come up with. In the end, you can cherry pick which changes work best for a more interesting scene when you do the final rewrite.
If you’re still stuck, here are some other quick-fire ideas to inject that little bit of something extra into your sticky scene:
- If you can, switch to a different character’s perspective. Or introduce a new one.
- Create more intrigue. Drop in something unexpected. Give your reader something new to ponder over, or
- Create a midpoint plot twist.
- Kill one of your characters. Ned Stark. Enough said.
- Add something salacious to the mix, like a betrayal, a cover-up, a lie, an exposed secret or an affair/unexpected romantic pairing. As long as it makes sense to the story, of course.
- Up the stakes. Create more danger, more pain, and more conflict. If your character has to walk across hot coals to achieve their goal, make them wear flip-flops. Or better yet – make them go barefoot. Ouch.
“In Shakespeare the way of doing things is: the closer the characters are, the greater the conflict. Think of Hamlet. Who killed Hamlet’s father? Who is marrying Hamlet’s mother? Macbeth. He wants the throne. In order to get the throne he has to kill the King. But the King is his best friend, and the one who is pushing him to kill his best friend is his wife. So when you put things so close, conflict becomes much larger, bigger. So that’s something I use, that’s a trick that I give to you. Think like Shakespeare.”
– Guillermo Arriaga, ‘What Guillermo Arriaga Does When He Is Stuck on a Scene…’ from Mentorless
Tips to tackle Problem #2: “I’m totally stuck, HELP!”
Ah, this time we really are dealing with the infamous ‘writer’s block’. That mustache-twirling, black-hearted enemy of noble scribes everywhere. Here, the tips and tricks range from the tame and simple to, “Why on earth would I ever do that? Are you mad?”
The two that tend to work for me in these situations are ones you’ve probably already come across if you’ve ever sought advice on this kind of thing. The first one is to write an outline of the scene first.
I am an intuitive writer, but only up to a certain point. Once my initial burst of inspiration sizzles out, I have to knuckle down and actually start planning out what I’m going to write. For me, an outline contains a mixture of elements – from a bullet-point timeline working out how to get from A to B to C, etc. to roughly drafted scenes and chapters – all usually within the same document. If all I can do is jot down the events that need to happen in that scene/chapter, I just do that. Similarly, if a fully fleshed-out scene starts to ‘come’ to me, I’ll jot that down. This free-form planning takes the pressure off enough for me to be able to just get the thing written, however rough. And as soon as you have something down – even if it’s just a single sentence – you’ve got something to work with.
This also gives me the chance to make use of my second tip. If I’m stuck on one scene, I can just leave it for a bit and move on to another. Or, if my appetite for writing has completely deserted me, I stop altogether. There’s nothing wrong with letting things ‘sit’. Take a break and don’t return to work until you feel properly refreshed.Sometimes, ignoring your work is essential to finishing it. Click To Tweet
If neither of those tips work, and you’re still scrambling for scene-starters, try some more quick-fire tricks to get your brain cogs grinding again:
- Get to know your characters better – more specifically, their motivations. What do they really want? What are their deepest desires? The more you know about them, the easier it will be to know what their next moves will be and exactly how they’d react to any situation.
- Go back, find a plot hole and plug it up. Are you missing the ‘B’ between ‘A’ and ‘C’? Add it in!
- Add in a flashback. Extra credit if it works as foreshadowing.
- Work out what your ending is. It might be easier to work backwards from something than work towards the unknown.
Remember that big dramatic tip I warned you was coming up? Well, hold onto your socks and garters because this is it:
- Go back and delete the last few thousand words. Then rewrite it all.
Sounds unthinkable, doesn’t it? But it might just be drastic enough to drag yourself kicking and screaming out of that sticky patch. Drastic times and all that.This ‘slash and burn’ tip is extreme, but it might save your story.Click To Tweet
It’s state of mind, man
Are you still panicking? Well, you shouldn’t be when I’ve just given you several choices of paper bag to breathe into. (Sidebar: does that actually work?)
My final piece of soothing advice is something handed on to me – and the eager ears of my classmates – by my creative writing tutor during my final year of college.
Writer’s block doesn’t really exist. You can always write something. You just feel as though you can’t write anything good.
The solution, therefore, is the antithesis of what I suggested earlier. Instead of taking a writing hiatus, force yourself to go on. Put pen to paper or fingertip to keyboard and just write anything. Even nonsense. Eventually, you’ll be surprised to see your unusable ramblings turn into half-decent ideas.
Ironically, I’m genuinely stuck on how to end this article, so I think I’ll just stop right here. You, on the other hand, should keep the conversation going below, with your own tips for overcoming sticky scenes and any questions about the advice above. For more on overcoming writer’s block, check out 8 Steps That Will Help You Start (And Finish) Your Book and How To Fix The Procrastination Problem.