Posted: 2007-03-24

Resolving Writer's Block

by Ken Randall


Is there anything more frustrating than writer's block? You want to write, you have to write, your readers, editors, publishers are waiting on you, but you can't, and you have no idea why. You stare at the blank page, fingers ready at the keyboard, you're humming with energy, but your mind is as blank as the page. What do you do?

Well there are two types of writer's block, but they're pretty much the same problem. There's the kind where you have no idea where to even begin. You haven't even started sketching an outline, never mind writing the first sentence. Your brain is on vacation. Then there's the other kind, the kind where you're midway through the thing, you're going along at a good pace and then you hit a snag. Suddenly you don't know what to do next. Your characters are standing around scratching their heads and looking blankly at you, wondering what to do next, and you don't know what to tell them.

This writer's guide will look at some simple solutions for both types of writer's block. Whether you've just got an itch to write but don't know where to begin, or if you've come hundreds of pages in and are now stumped as to what to do next, I hope the ideas here will help you get the snowball rolling again. If one doesn't help, move on to the next and see if that throws some gas on the ole fire. If one does work, move onto the next and see if you can add to what you've come up with. Here we go.

1. The Active Writer

There are two aspects of activity that can help you resolve writer's block. First: activity for you, the writer. The brain is most active when you're doing something. If you're feeling like your brain is locked, get up, go out, and do something. Mow your lawn, wash the dishes, go for a walk, paint your porch, repair your bicycle. Do something that allows you to be alone with your thoughts. Let your mind wander free while your body is active. Playing football with your buddies doesn't count because you won't have time to let your thoughts roam freely. You need the quiet time for your brain to wander. As you're lost in this mindless pastime, let your thoughts roam freely. This is where some of your best ideas will come from. Simply sitting in a chair at your computer trying to force an idea usually doesn't work. A watched pot never boils they say, and it is never truer than with creativity.

Some people recommend reading to get the ideas flowing. I won't argue that point here. I've gotten plenty of ideas from reading, watching movies, listening to music, watching TV shows, or playing a cool computer game. The trouble with these things though, is that the ideas you get are usually just a rehash of whatever it is you've just been absorbed in. You read a good mystery story and suddenly you want to write a mystery of your own. You're inspired! But when you sit down to write, it quickly occurs to you that you don't even really have anything new to put down on paper. Your brain just wants to run down the same trail you've been on and explore it some more. What a let down when you realize this. I love movies, music, great reading, and cool PC games, but when it comes to brainstorming for story ideas, I like to detach myself from all of these things and do something that forces my brain to think for itself. I've come up with some of my best ideas, just standing there doing the dishes while listening to cool instrumental music.

2. The Active Character

Second: activity for your character, or characters. Try to think of some activity your characters might be doing. Only this time, it probably shouldn't be mundane. It should be interesting and unusual, something that would stop and make a passerby say "What the fuck is up with this guy?" A good character should always be introduced in the process of doing something, some activity, whether it's digging through the wall of a dungeon, or planting flowers in the school's greenhouse. Maybe he's stalking a wild horse across hostile Indian country, trying to capture and tame the ultimate prize. Whatever you choose, selecting a simple yet unusual activity will springboard your imagination into action. Start with the simple action your character is zoned in on, and see where the story goes from there. Stop and visualize your character going through the steps of this activity. Make your mind really see it. Ideas will flow as soon as your characters are moving. Characters invested in some activity usually want something, and that's how all great stories begin. Characters who want something, if they want it badly enough, will write their own stories, and writer's block won't be a problem at all.

3. There's a Time and a Place for Everything

Sit back for a moment and simply think up a cool setting. Don't even worry about what's gonna happen there. Just let your mind wander for a while and think about where a story could take place. You have the whole wide universe as your canvas. If you're into sci-fi, go deep into outer space, or far into the future. If you're into fantasy, travel back into the past, or into another realm. If you just want to write a regular story, let your mind wander through out the whole world. Imagine a ship. What could take place there? Imagine a desert. Imagine a mountain. Picture an old attic of an ancient house, or the cellar of an abandoned warehouse. What about a forest maybe, or a cave behind a waterfall. What about a supply closet in a classroom? What about a supply closet of a classroom at 3 o'clock in the morning? What about the supply closet of a classroom during a hurricane or earth quake, or three days after a nuclear attack?

Now, whatever you come up with, don't just stop at a simple place and time. You gotta actually shut your eyes for a few minutes and go there. Look around the place and see what there is to see. Look at the dust. Look at the debris and clutter? What's there? How is the place lit? What does it smell like? What sounds do you hear? Is it close and quiet, or large and echoey?

Now here's the next step. Take that little place you've created in your mind, and mix up some of the details. Scramble them up and make something new and really weird, even if it seems silly at first. What if the supply closet smelled differently than it should? What if it smelled like a woman's perfume, or a wet dog? What if the cave wasn't echoey like it should be? What if it was quiet as a tomb? What if the cave is a tomb? These are just examples of course. The point is to take your ideas and scramble them up. Throw a twist into the setting and then figure out a good reason why that twist came about. I'm not gonna make any suggestions here. That's your job. Now close your eyes and fly away to some weird place. When you get there, fuck around with it a bit and see what stories your changes tell.

4. Motivation

Speaking of wanting something, another great way to get a story up and running is to simply create two random characters and bestow upon them a burning desire for opposite goals. Perhaps character A wants something that character B has, and Character B will do everything in their power to keep it. Perhaps character A wants to do something and will stop at nothing to achieve it, and character B will risk everything, even his or her own life to stop them. Maybe character A wants to protect something that Character B is out to destroy. Maybe both characters A and B both want to be the first to do something, and will stop at nothing to make sure the other one doesn't achieve it before they do. Perhaps character A is doing something that's damaging character B in some way, and character B is mighty pissed off about it. These are some of the great archetypes of story telling, and there are perhaps dozens more. The main point is that the two characters, or two groups of characters, want different things, and must come into conflict with each other to achieve their goals.

Why do they want it? Do they want it badly enough to the point where they'll do absolutely anything for it? Pick an archetype, think up an interesting goal, and then put a character into action to achieve it, some simple little thing like digging through a wall, or hunting a rabbit, fetching flowers to seduce a woman. As always you're only limited by your imagination. But if your imagination is blocked, starting with an archetypal story idea will get the log jam moving once again.

Be careful that your characters are moving toward their goals because they really want something. Your believability will suffer if you have two characters fighting just because they can't stand each other. They should want something more than simply destroying one another just to "win". What's the root of it, the central issue? Usually, the root issue is that the opponent represents everything that the character is dead set against. Heroes don't hate villains just because they're generally evil and oughta be stopped by golly, just because they're bad. They hate them because they represent unwanted change, loss, the destruction of cherished values, or the perpetuation of an unacceptable status quo. Even if it's a simple story, like two girls fighting over a boy, consider the root of their desires. What does this boy represent? What does it mean to girl B if girl A wins him and she doesn't? I'm not talking about getting off on a long philosophical tangent or anything. It's probably better if you don't. As long as you, the writer, knows exactly why girl B is ready to do anything, up to and including murdering girl A, in order to keep her mitts off boy C, then your story will be awesome and it will probably write itself.

For more details on this, see my other writer's guides, Creating Characters and Elements of Erotic Fiction.

5. Murphey's Law

Murphey's Law sucks when it comes into effect in your daily life: if anything can go wrong, it will, and usually at the worst possible moment. But as a writer, Murphey's Law is your best friend. After all, you're God in your story's universe. You've created some pretty cool characters, they're in a situation, doing their cool little activity, dead set on their cool little goal. What could possibly go wrong?

What could possibly go wrong? That's the best question you could ask when you're blocked about where to go with a story. Stop and think for a moment. Whether you're starting out on the first sentence of a story, or simply stuck in a dull part and you don't know where to go next. Stop and think about what could go wrong. Maybe your hero has seduced the object of their affections. They're nestling down into bed for a nice passionate romp. What could go wrong? Throw something at them, Oh Lord of the story universe. Make it interesting. Rock their little boat. Upset their happy little world. Be a shit disturber. It's kind of a sadistic and mean thing to do to a nice little character or two, but it'll make for a great read, especially if it's completely believable and a total surprise. "Whoa! Where the hell did that come from!?" Suddenly the reader sits forward and pays attention. If you've already established the happy little character as doing something interesting, and then suddenly rock the boat, boom! Your reader is hooked. Make it believable and surprising. Those are the only rules.

6. Plan ahead to avoid dead ends

Now as you're coming up with your setting, your activities, your characters who want different things, stop before you begin and plan ahead. I know, it sucks having to do all that work when you just wanna get busy writing, but sometimes planning ahead can save you from running your story up a dead end down the line.

There are two types of dead ends you can go down. There's the kind where you've just baracaded the characters in too tight and you don't know how to get them out of the situation, and there's the kind where everything's just too loose and wide open—too many options instead of not enough—and the characters are just standing there confused. You're blocked either way. Aren't you sorry you didn't take twenty minutes to figure out what happens next? Before you begin, or when you get a new flash of inspiration half way, stop for twenty minutes and think through all the possible scenarios if you go down that particular road? Are the ideas cool enough to keep your interest? Are things gonna get too tough and you don't know how they could possibly escape? If so, back up a bit and look down another road. Keep doing this until you've gotten your characters out into a clear and definite path, and you know where they're going and have a pretty good idea how they're gonna get there.

Open notepad and type some point form notes for yourself. First: this happens. That causes this. And because of that, this happens. This makes so n' so flip out and do this. Point... point... point... all the way to the end when your heroes are hovered over a ticking time bomb, working to save the world from imminent doom... er, or whatever. Save this little txt file in the story folder and refer back to it every time you start a new scene in the story. "Where am I? What happens next? How does it happen?" Go back to your settings, your activities, your conflicting characters. Frame up the event in a cool way and the blocks will crumble away. Once your character is doing something, because he wants something, and is working toward something, nothing can stop him, not even writer's block.

7. Courage!

A big part of the writer's block many writers have is that they simply lack courage to try something daring, dramatic, different. They doubt themselves and their ability so they paint themselves into corners with the same old plots, characters, and situations, afraid, or simply doubtful of trying anything new, or making the same old thing even better.

Courage though, will open up infinite potential to you. Step out from the box you've put yourself in and try something new and completely unusual for you. Start with a few paragraphs. Type something out that you've never even thought you could pull off before. Be brave. You're essentially creating universes, right? Why put yourself in a box while doing it? Forget about what people might say. Forget about what so n' so might think if they ever got a hold of it and read it. Just write because you wanna. Take your strengths and twist 'em a bit, use them for something totally different in your next piece. Surprise people. Surprise yourself.

If you're a brand new beginner who's never even attempted a single creative sentence, but have always wanted to, be brave, be bold, come up with a simple little concept and build on it. Your first effort won't be a masterpiece, but it'll be a finished piece. Then you do another one and make it a bit better. Shrug off the jerks who cut your writing down; just do it cause you wanna. And keep sharing it with those who are interested. Admit you suck, in the areas you're weak, and work on them. No one ever became good at anything by not doing it in order to avoid making mistakes and being ridiculed. You become good by correcting your mistakes. You become great by correcting more of your mistakes than anyone else.

Mostly though, tell a great story. Style and flash and flare will always take a backseat to a good old fashioned story with cool twists and turns. Stories are everywhere though, everywhere you go, everywhere you look, there's 1001 stories over there. The challenging part is having the courage to be heard telling one of them. Write like your life depends on it, like Scheherazade.


These are just a few quick pointers that I hope will help you get things flowing when the juices seem to have run dry. Ultimately, as I said, your goal is a search for a great story. Focus on that and let the hows, and whys, and wherefores worry about themselves as you go.