Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Breaking Through: Dealing With Writer's Block

Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

I always feel a little guilty when I say I don't get writer's block (and a little like I'm tempting the writing gods) because I know a lot of folks struggle with the words sometimes. But so do I, even if it doesn't make me feel blocked.

Some days the words don't come to me, and that's okay. It might last a few days or even a few weeks, but I've never let it bother me. I know that sometimes I need a break, or I need to figure out a plot point or character or situation. I've found that when I stress over this, it just makes it harder to get past it. So I made a choice not to get writer's block. Instead, I get stuck.

We're word people. Stuck is a temporary situation. Stuck is a delay. Blocked is more permanent. Blocked is being forced to stop. It may sound silly, but words have power. Thinking "I'm blocked, I may never write again" is terrifying. Thinking "I"m stuck, how the heck am I going to get out of this?" is just frustrating. I can deal with frustrating.

Being stuck also points you toward ways to get unstuck. Try thinking about what you're stuck on. Some of the more common areas include:

Stuck on What Happens Next
There's a good chance this is a plot problem. Not knowing what the protagonist wants will definitely grind a story to a halt. Try looking back at your core conflict, that big problem the whole book revolves around. Have you strayed from this issue? Trace your story back to the last moment when things were moving forward. Now look to see where you went off track. There's probably a moment there somewhere where your protagonist decided to do something that sent the story into a dead end. Try rewriting from that moment and choose a different path.

Stuck on Why it Matters
This is likely a stakes issues. Not knowing why your protagonist would do what they're doing, or not having it matter if the win or lose, makes a story feel pointless--and aimless. Try looking at your stakes for this scene. Have you lost sight of why it matters to your protagonist? Is there no consequence for achieving or failing? Go back to a time when it did matter and pinpoint that moment when things stopped being important. Why did they? Did something about the character change? The story? Sometimes we run an idea into the ground and keep chasing a subplot because we were already running in that direction anyway.

Stuck on Why Any of This Would Happen in the First Place
This is often found when planning a novel, though it can happen at any time. It's usually a back story or world building issue. You have a situation, and some cool ideas, but no reason for any of it to occur. Stakes can also play a role here, but these types of issues are frequently systemic. There's a critical piece of the set up that needs fixing so the story can unfold as you want it to. Try looking at your world, whether it's made up or real. Are the right environmental conditions there for this situation to happen? Economic or political conditions? Are the external forces causing your protagonist down the right path? (as opposed to them heading in a direction that no sane person would logically go) You might just need to do a little more world building.

Examine the problem. Determine what the trouble is. Start looking at ways to change that situation. Stuck is all about trying different things until you get unstuck. Some may help you pop out right away, others might not help at all. But everything you try gets you one step closer to freeing yourself.

What kinds of things get you stuck? How do you deal with it?


  1. There are other writing situations than fiction writing. What about ones where "blocked" seems more appropriate due to other person's attitude?

  2. I don't write non-fiction, so I might not be able to help, but I'd suspect there's a similar process to getting unstuck. Figure out what area is holding you back, then find ways to get around it. (and non-fic writers out there who can help with this?)

    I'm not sure what you mean about blocked being due to another person. Could you please explain a little more?

  3. That's a great way to look at it. Being stuck feels so much easier to get out of.

  4. Natalie: Doesn't it? It's funny how often just changing how you think about something changes the difficulty level.

    Hans: I'm not sure if I'm qualified to help you on that one. That's a situation that's outside of the kind of writer's block I was talking about. You might be saying all the right words, but if someone doesn't want to hear something they won't, and there's nothing you can really do about that. I wish I was able to be more helpful.

  5. thank you ... that means "blocked not stuck" - which does happen when other people are involved

  6. That's a good way of thinking about it- stuck instead of blocked. Maybe instead of thinking of my plot as broken I should have been thinking "in need of renovation".

    My husband kept saying things like "there's good writing here but- why?". This post would have been very helpful several months ago as it took quite awhile to figure out what he was asking when he said why. Why does it matter and why is it happening were my two biggest problems. I think I have it figured out now so on with the remodel!

    Thanks for the as always clear advice.

  7. Plot in need of renovation - sounds like Tolkien's way of working.