This post is inspired by a question one of my students, who asked about being stuck while writing her short stories. She wrote:
I’m working on a few stories right now; all are in the stage where I’ve done the free writing (having had an idea for a story and freewriting with intention), and I have a good sense of where the story might go and what it might all mean. I’ve got pages and pages of nuggets, scenes, lines, and passages, most of which I know needs to go into the first draft. Somehow. This is where I’m stuck…I feel like I’ve gotten a glimpse of something…but I’ve paid so much attention to the details I [can’t] draw the [story] as a whole.
On the same day, I received an email from one of my best friends, who’s also a member of the writing group I’m part of. She said:
I’ve been transcribing my handwritten freewriting sessions into Scrivener and thought I was ready to start organizing these random bits into something coherent. Oh man, was I wrong. The second I started to organize myself and think in terms of structure, voice, POV, etc… I felt jammed up. Instead of feeling natural like all the freewriting has (or most of it, anyway), it felt totally forced. I wrote a little bit, but ended up quitting because it felt so awkward. What the heck!
Because everyone’s writing process is different, I’m going to offer various methods of how to break through the blocks you might have while trying to piece together your story.
You may be in the same situation as the two above, or you may be writing but not have much of an idea where your story is going. That’s normal and totally okay. One often doesn’t know where a story is going until one’s written it.
Here are some ways to break through writer’s block.
Do more character work
I find that if I’m stuck it’s usually because I don’t know my characters well enough, even though I start with one or two in mind. It’s also possible that you’re not sure whose story it is you’re writing if you have several different perspectives working in your story.
Doing character work will help with deciding this, as well as paying attention to whom you’re most drawn and what you think you want your story to be about.
Character sheets are a great way to do this work. Think of an actor when he wants to really understand the character he is portraying. Actors often visit the kind of place their character lives or works. They don the costumes their characters wear, style their hair and makeup the way their character does. This helps them better understand the motivation behind how their character behaves, talks, and even thinks.
So go deeper.
- What hairstyles do your characters prefer?
- What do their clothes and shoes/boots look like?
- Do they wear jewellery, have tattooes, piercings, wear lots of makeup, go to church (which church?), self-harm, get in trouble with the law?
- How old are they? Do they appear younger or older than their age? If so, why?
- Do they have bad habits, and if so, what are they? Do they have good habits?
- Are they family-oriented? Do they have family? Who are/were their parents?
- Who are their friends, if they have any?
- Where did they grow up?
- What do they believe?
- What do they do for a living, or are they unemployed?
- What was their childhood like?
- What are their emotional traits?
- How do your characters feel about what’s happening around them?
- What’s their financial situation?
- Heck, what is their sign?
You can even write dialogue between you and your person to get to know them better.
When you answer these questions and more, you’ll have a better idea of how your characters would act and speak—how they want or don’t want to act and speak.
Authors often talk about how characters dictate their dialogue and story for them. This is because they really know who their people are.
When you feel like you’re forcing, there are likely several reasons. But it may be that you’re not paying enough attention to your people or that you’re trying to go against how they would naturally behave.
When writing a novel [or a short story!] a writer should create living people; people, not characters. A character is a caricature.
Do writing prompts
Writing prompts aren’t just for when you’re looking for ideas to start a story. They can also help you create scenes.
Again, this is about asking the right questions. Why is my character doing what she’s doing? What is my character looking for? What is his relationship to the other people in the story? What are the lose ends in this story right now that I might need to tie up?
If you have an idea of where your story is going, or of the end, look at the themes you want to include or the thing(s) you want your story to be about. Examine the process of how events may lead to your end. What led you to that ending while you were planning or writing it?
You can also look at existing writing prompts. There are tons of books out there for this, and many writers who offer writing prompts on their site, like Sarah Selecky. A seemingly random prompt may inspire you to include a new direction in your story.
Take prompts as well from your observations of people and animals. For example, today I had an emotional encounter with a very sick squirrel. I watched it for a while, not knowing what to do. It had been in either a very strategic and nasty fight or it was diseased. I’m inclined to think the latter, as it was quite grotesque.
But my heart went out to this blind animal trying to navigate the yard, and I’m still thinking of it. As I drank my tea and recovered after it found its way out through the fence, it occurred to me that this squirrel could work in my story to facilitate compassion for my protagonist, and thus I became unstuck. Yay!
Or run or swim or rollerblade or bike—whatever you prefer to do. Physical activity often gets the creative juices flowing. Alternatively, stepping away from the computer for a short nap also sometimes helps ideas percolate.Whatever you do, it’s best not to resort to the internet. Trust me on this.
Reading for influence is one of my biggest musts. I get ideas from others’ stories, and I also find myself motivated when I read good writing.
People often ask if this is okay, to lift inspiration from others’ writing. The answer is a resounding yes. Artists the world over copy each other or take ideas from others’ work. It’s okay. It’s expected. The only rule is not to plagiarize, of course.
What we write about is meant to reflect what it means to be human. There’s not much original about it, but you, with your unique voice, can write a variation on a theme without even trying be original. Just ask your own what ifs, take from your own experience or curiosity. I don’t know a single writer who hasn’t mentioned their influences, and they’re talking about not only style but also content.
Take the pressure off
It’s not uncommon for us to get writer’s block because we’ve put undue pressure on ourselves. When we’re freewriting and having fun getting out ideas, there’s little pressure.
But when things are going well, we also get excited and start to think about the finished product and getting published. Then we summarize, or labour for hours over a paragraph, or get stuck.
Writing is a process, which is necessary for growth, both for you and your story. I like to call this process plerking: play + work.
When I started writing again, my first draft had to be perfect and therefore also my final draft. It took a while for my coach to get me to understand that process is not a bad word. For me, what works is remembering what matters to me most: a really good story.
Try to remove your focus from finishing by a certain time or getting published or making the writing perfect when you’re writing a first or even second draft. Instead, focus on getting better, on writing good stories that reflect truth and that people will connect with.
Accept that there may be several drafts and that it takes as long as it takes for you to craft a well-rounded story.
Remember what you want: to be good. Being successful may be about talent and luck, but don’t quit if your luck isn’t panning out. The better you and your stories get, the better chance you have of your luck turning.
John Cleese said:
Nothing will stop you from being creative so effectively as the fear of making a mistake.
Pressure on yourself feels heavy because it is. I know it’s easier said than done to get out of your own way. But remember why you really write: because you love it. Then let the anxiety go.
Cut it all to pieces
Sometimes it’s hard to move past a certain point in your story because you can’t see it any other way than how it is on the page. It could be that something is not working, but you’re not sure what that is.
One of the best things I ever did for my draft to pull it together was to print it out as it was on the screen and then cut it up by scenes. I spread out all the pieces of paper on the floor. Then I began to sift through the pieces. At first I was overwhelmed, and I had a difficult time thinking of the story other than in the order it was on-screen. So I picked up the ending and worked backwards, taping scenes to each other, approaching it like a puzzle.
I kept telling myself, the order isn’t set in stone. It doesn’t matter if I tape something that doesn’t work out. I can always untape and retape.
What I found when I finished was that I had pieces left over that I could toss, and I had an order to the things I’d freewritten that made the story stronger. The middle was now the beginning. The perspective was sorted out. I saw the holes that needed to be filled.
It was a truly amazing experience. Plus, the scissors and tape and pieces of paper made me feel like I was playing.
I hope one or more of these tips help you move past your block. These are just a few things you can do. There are countless others: I’ve got tons of ideas!
The most important thing in all of this is not to get discouraged. Process is never smooth sailing. That’s why we and our stories grow and get better with it. Being stuck isn’t permanent. So don’t quit.
Go with what my coach told me:
Real writers aren’t people who don’t struggle. Real writers are the ones who feel the struggle and do it anyway.