Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Breaking Through: Dealing With Writer's Block

Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

I have a different view on writer’s block. I don’t get blocked, I get stuck.

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, and thinking "I'm blocked, I may never write again" is terrifying and makes the situation worse. Thinking "I’m stuck, how the heck am I going to get out of this?" is just frustrating. I can deal with frustrating. There’s a way out of stuck.

This mindset helps me look at solutions to getting un-stuck.

Are You Stuck on What Happens Next?

There's a good chance you got snagged on a plot problem. Not knowing what the protagonist wants (the scene goal) will definitely grind a story to a halt. One of my favorite questions is, “Who does this situation hurt?” Because that person is probably your protagonist, and solving that problem is likely the core conflict.
Try looking at your core conflict, that big problem the whole book revolves around. Have you strayed from this issue? Maybe a subplot has dragged you off into the weeds, or you forgot what the main goal of the story was, or something interesting developed as you wrote that distracted you.

Trace your story back to the last moment when things were moving forward. Pinpoint where you went off track. There's probably a moment there somewhere where your protagonist made a decision or acted in a way that sent the story into a dead end. Try rewriting from that moment and choose a different path.

Are You Stuck on Why it Matters?

This is likely a stakes issue. Not knowing how your protagonist will suffer if they lose can make a story feel pointless. Without consequences for failure, there’s no reason to care about what happens.

Try looking at your stakes for this scene. Have you lost sight of what’s at risk for your protagonist? Is there no consequence for failing? Consequences and ramifications are critical to creating tension and making readers care, and “low or missing stakes” is a common problem in many early-draft scenes.
Go back to a time when it did matter and pinpoint that moment when things stopped being important. 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.

Are You Stuck on Why Your Protagonist Would Do This in the First Place?

This is likely a motivation issue. Not knowing why your protagonist would do what they're doing, and/or not having it matter if the win or lose, can make a story feel pointless and aimless. There’s no reason to care about what happens.

Try looking at the protagonist’s motivation for the scene. Does the protagonist have a good and personal reason to do what they need to do? We often send our characters into a scene with what we want to have happen in our minds, but the character has other ideas. When they clash, the scene stalls. Frequently, the motivation isn’t personal enough to give the scene forward drive.

Think about why this scene matters to them. Why do you want the protagonist to resolve this scene? What do they want for this scene? Do they differ? It’s not uncommon to discover you want the protagonist to do X, but Y is what they’d actually do based on how you’ve been writing them.

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.

Where do you get stuck? What are some ways that have helped you?


  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.