When writers get stuck

Someone on Twitter said she was stuck on her current project and asked for suggestions for getting unstuck. I started to reply, then realized it would turn into a huge thread.  So, here I am.  Note: as I understand it, stuck on current project is not the same phenomenon as “writer’s block.”   The former is, “I don’t know what the next sentence is,” the latter is, “I can’t write and I don’t know why.” So far, I’ve never had writer’s block, so I cannot pretend to give advice on how to deal with it.

There are many tricks for getting the next sentence on the page.  None of them work for everyone, and none of them work all the time for anyone.  The most I can say is that if you collect enough of them, there is a good chance one of them will help in any given situation.

Here are some of the methods that have worked for me:

1. Write a long, tedious passage about your protagonist not knowing what to do, at the end of which he or she might figure it out, at which point you delete the long, tedious passage.

2. Fallback scenes.  Raymond Chandler famously said that if he didn’t know what would happen next, he had someone come through the door with a gun. In my case, when in doubt, have a meal. In any case, this scene, also, can be deleted once it gets you unstuck.

3. Look for tropes or motifs in the earlier chapters. You very likely have them even if you aren’t aware of it.  For example, suppose in chapter 1 someone is looking through a window, and then in chapter 3 someone else is looking through a window.  Now that you’re aware of it, you can play with it, and, have someone look through a window, tell us what’s there, and possibly generate something interesting.  Another thing about this method is that some critic might notice it and decide it’s Art.  I once did that with a series of puns based on lines from Hamlet; when I didn’t know what would happen, I’d pick another pun and write toward it, and by the time I’d get there I had a good feel for where to go afterwards.  In that case, no one thought it was art.

4. Switch points of view.  Write a scene from your antagonist’s point of view, or that of a side character; what are those people up to right now?  And (as always) if it works to get you unstuck, feel free to delete it.

5. Consider your structure.  This is similar to 3, but instead of motifs, see if you have a pattern in the types of scenes you’ve been writing.  For example, conversation followed by a fight followed by a chase.  If you see a pattern like that, you can continue it, or consciously break it; either might help get the words moving again.

6. Reread what you have so far while asking yourself, “What does the reader think is going on?” and then figure out a way to mess with the reader’s head. Messing with the reader’s head is always a good thing. It causes them pain and they will thank you for it.

I might expand this as I think of other methods I’ve used.  Meanwhile, writers: What are some of your methods?

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11 thoughts on “When writers get stuck”

  1. Nope. Too drawn-out and technical. Short solution: I recently told a friend, who was making a dress and was stuck as to how to put the finishing touch on the top, to go back and put pockets in all of her outfits without pockets until she was either distracted on to a new project, or had an epiphany. Either way, she was doing something useful, and chicks deserve to have pockets, too.

  2. I sometimes read a passage by another author, imagine how I’d write it and then go back to mine and that sometimes that jolts me.

  3. 3. I don’t think we’d call that art even if we (I think I speak for most of your readers here) knew what all of them were. I did enjoy finding a couple, though.

    A question that interests me about more “artistic” thematic repetitions is whether they give the reader more enjoyment to readers who notice them (as Nabokov seems to have thought) or to readers who don’t. I’ve thought that would be a good subject for a psychology experiment, but now that next year’s best-seller may be written by software, I think it might be OK that we don’t know.

    On the kind of getting stuck you’re talking about, I have very little experience, but do writers who know what’s going to happen in a novel deal with getting stuck by writing a different scene?

  4. John: Interesting. For a writer serious about his or her craft, and dealing with how to solve a particular problem, I had not considered that “too technical” might exist.

  5. When I got stuck once I sent my main character on a road trip, just to have her do something, and the next part of the story turned out to be waiting for her when she got there. I had no idea until she walked into it.

  6. I think about what the problem is the point of view character is dealing with – whether it’s the main plot or a life-problem. What are they doing now to try and deal with it, or avoid it, or prove they don’t care or… The character needs to do something. I just need to figure out what they would do given where their head is.

  7. I have been known to pull my characters out of the story, open a completely separate text file, and sit them down for an interview. Just a quick back and forth with me in a one on one conversation about what their opinions are about their fellow characters and what they’re looking to achieve. It’s not anything that will ever go into the story itself, but it can point the direction for what needs to get shown to the reader about what the character is thinking and what drives them.

  8. John Moufet: so it sounds like your idea is, if you get stuck, go do something else until you either stop caring or the stuckness spontaneously resolves by itself.

    That comes across more like a dismission than a solution.

  9. @juanitaweb I think something can be gleaned from John’s suggestion, glib though it was. If you start writing something else, you’re at least maintaining the habit of writing. If your subconscious does hand you a solution, you can go back to the first piece with minimal disruption, and if nothing comes up, you’ve at least got a substantial start on a new thing.

    You obviously can’t do this every time, though; otherwise, you’ll end up with Chapter 1 of 63 different books.

  10. At least when writing fictions, visit TV Tropes and get inspired. I think every possible trope has to be there, and it can be fun to schlep through them.

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