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Friday, April 13

Living on the Wall: Not Knowing What Happens Next in Your Story

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Before we dive into today's topic, you can get twice as much writing advice today! I'm over at Writers in the Storm discussing description, so pop on over when you're done here. 

At some point, all of us will hit a wall in our writing. We get stuck, we don't know what happens next, maybe we know where we need to go, but not sure how to get there.

Hitting a wall can feel a lot like writer's block. It can freak you out and make you panic. But most of the time, it's your subconscious telling you you're missing something you need to move forward.

Try taking a step back and diagnosing what the problem might be:

1. Re-Examine Goals and Motivations
The plot says do X, but there's no way the protagonist would do that and your subconscious knows it. Try looking at your character's motivation. What do they want? What's at stake if they fail? Maybe they've lost sight of what they're trying to accomplish and that's making it hard to go forward.

2. Examine Your Backstory
I know, sounds crazy, but sometimes you can't move forward because you haven't laid the right foundation for it. You might need to add more information to provide the drive needed to move your protagonist to the next step.

3. Look Where You're Going
Your plot says you have to go to X, but maybe that's no longer the right move for the story. Maybe you need to adjust a plot point or change a set piece.

4. Look Where You've Been
Is there something in the story so far that contradicts what you want to do next? Are you duplicating something? You subconscious might be spotting a problem with repetition without realizing it.

5. Look Around
Maybe the setting is wrong, or the location. Would the next scene work better if you moved it? Either the place in the story or the place in the book itself?

6. Talk to Your Bad Guy
Have you been spending so much time on your protagonist that your antagonist's goals and motives are now weak and unbelievable? Maybe you need to shore up the villain's plan to get back on track.

7. Sum Up
Try sitting down with a blank page and just write out what you feel is supposed to happen. Describe it like you were telling a friend--no pressure, just casual. Sometimes writing it down before you "write" it down helps jar the sticky points loose. At the very least, it gives you the freedom to brainstorm and see how you can fix it.

8. Just Do It
When all else fails, just grit your teeth and write, knowing that it's more than likely going to suck. You have to get through it, and sometimes the only way is to just dive in. Take heart in the fact that it probably won't be as bad as you expect it to be, and you'll be able to revise once it's down.

Of course, these are the writing ways. There are also some non-writing things you can do to get past the wall:

1. Take a Break
Sometimes you need to walk away from your writing for a bit and let your brain recharge. You've probably been struggling to plot or write and your frustration level is high. Go do something fun.

2. Read
Reading great books is a terrific way to free your mind and get back into the writing groove.

3. Take a Shower
There's something about hot water, washing my hair, and rubbing the brain that always seems to help. I can't tell you how many times I've figured out what to do while in the shower.

Hitting a wall is perfectly normal, so don't let it worry you. Just step back, take a breath, and find the way to climb over.

What do you do when you hit a wall?


  1. I love this post!!! This is exactly what I needed! I have recently been running into a block and I think this information will be a huge help!!! Thank you so much for writing it today!

  2. Most welcome! Another commenter mentioned being stuck, so it seemed like a good post to do :)

  3. This is a great post. I find riding buses works almost as well as taking showers, but it's a bit more hit and miss - the method doesn't work if you read or listen to music and get too absorbed!

  4. Anonymous9:34 AM EST

    These are all great suggestions. I usually go for a run to free up my mind. But the writing related questions that you are asking are pure gold. When we get stuck sometimes it's like being in a hole. Your suggestions remind us to climb out of the hole and look around instead of just staring at our feet.

  5. Carradee1:27 PM EST

    If you're in the middle of the scene, writing out everyone in the scene (or nearby) and what they're doing and could do can help. That helped me find an obvious character action that I was missing.

    If you're having to start a scene anew or go in another direction with a scene, it can help to write out everyone in the scene, then mark out the ones who could be cut and/or who could replace them. (Like, instead of the insane guy who wants to kill her, it could be the lunatic's boss--or even the landlord who's sold her out to them.)

  6. I do a lot of my best thinking in the shower. It's a great place to brainstorm!

  7. I get this happening to me. Typically the moment I sit down to write. Whereas if I'm not writing, I know exactly what should happen next.

    Stupid brain.

  8. Heather RQ12:04 PM EDT

    Ha! The shower works for me, too. I keep a journal close by so I can write notes as soon as I'm out. The treadmill and elliptical machines work well, too. Mindless, repetitive action.

  9. Thanks for this post! I was just sitting down to work on a short story that I need to finish for school but was hitting a block and this post really helped. Every time I have a problem with writing I seem to find all the answers I need on your blog. Thanks!

  10. Shower's great for those big walls, but for the little ones I take my dog to play frisbee. He gets some exercise, and I can talk out loud to myself with no one listening.

  11. I'm also a shower thinker! We were just discussing this a couple nights ago on Twitter at #yalitchat and someone suggested I get a waterproof shower notepad- I just might! :)

  12. Fantastic post!! Usually breaks work for me because I know I'm puzzling out something in the story.

  13. Thanks for this timely post. I've hit a wall about 50,000 words in. I've already taken a long break. I think now I'm just going with 8. Just do it. Accept the suck and go on. Usually something shakes through, especially if you don't think and worry it too much.

  14. I especially like the advice to grit and write. It may suck, then again, it may not. Wonderful things can happen accidentally.

  15. Super helpful. I'm currently stuck and agonizing. Have been using the plow through it method but asking more of these questions will help. Thanks!

  16. Thanks for being with us on WITS, Janice. This is my Waterloo. If I can calm myself long enough to get on my bicycle, there's something about the attentive inattention of riding that losens the knots in my brain. Really, it's a miracle!

    Great post!

  17. I’ve hit many walls in my efforts to write, some of which have taken me years to get over! Looking back, I can see that my problems were always caused by not knowing where the story was heading. Now I take the time to create a detailed outline before I jump into the first draft, which I find works much better for me.

  18. I can't tell you how often "take a shower" is my advice to people (including to myself). It's amazing how ideas come about when you're shampooing your hair. Great post!

  19. Lately I've become a huge fan of the "Sum it up" technique. It doesn't always work, but when it does, I'm always glad I did it. And it "feels like writing" so I don't have those little bits of guilt about not having my butt in the chair and fingers on the pen (or in my case, body flumped on bed, pen to paper).

    Great post, thanks for the other suggestions.

  20. It is just too bad our subconscious can't be more conscious. It so often recognizes something I am missing. Most of my scenes are written in the shower or in my big bathtub. My Eliptical sometimes does the trick while I am running with the music up. Water is better though. Great advice - thanks.

  21. Ellen, that would work, too. Anything that lets your mind wander.

    Paul Greci, that exactly why I prefer to say I'm stuck vs blocked. Stuck means you only have to find a way to break free. Blocked means you can't get past.

    Carradee, good tips. I do something similar with looking at it from the antag's POV.

    Xan, it really is :)

    Paul, hate when that happens. You might try writing out a quick summary of what the scene is about. That helps me shake loose the cobwebs.

    Heather, exactly. I'm no longer surprised how many writers use thew shower trick. :) I hear it all the time.

    Sarah, oh good! Best of luck on that assignment.

    Kendra, ooo nice. Talking through a scene does help. Never thought about doing it with a pet!

    Amy, or those soap crayons you can write on the tile with.

    Traci, breaks are awesome. That's one reason I'm not an everyday writer. I need time away from the keyboard.

    EP, been there, and yep, it does work. Good luck with you manuscript, and let me know how it goes!

    Angela, they do indeed. It's also good practice for when you're on deadline and HAVE to work no matter what.

    Stephsco, good luck! Taking a break might work. Take the pressure off yourself :)

    Laura, thanks for having me! Bikes are nice. I don't get out on mine nearly enough since we moved to GA. Too many hills!

    Wendy, I'm an outliner so I get that. The goal thing is almost always what gets me stuck.

    Anna, isn't it? I always thought I was weird until I mentioned it. Now I see how many do the same thing.

    Eden, saved my butt on more than one occasion. I also like making notes on things to come back to later.

    Glacier, I wish I could let it run the show sometimes :) I'd get so much more done.

  22. Anonymous8:40 PM EDT

    One of my most useful writing tasks is to go for a walk. But not just any walk: it needs to be along a familiar route that I know and won't be distracted by. My normal journey from home to the second-closest railway station is a good example.

  23. Staticsan, I like that, a familiar walk. Makes sense :) Helps you get unstuck and it's good for you to boot! Win/win

  24. Or you're a pantser, in which case not knowing may be a continual state.

  25. I hit a wall today for these very reasons. The plot no longer fit my characters. I took a step away and did some brainstorming, which really helped. Thanks for the great suggestions here!