Writer’s block. The scourge of writers everywhere, one of the greatest banes of our existence. If you’re not familiar with the concept, Writer’s Block is…well, exactly what the name implies. When you cannot get the words to come out, when you have no idea what to do next. You’re stuck, and you cannot make the story move forwards. You might even know what needs to happen, but you cannot figure out how to make it happen. You feel frustrated, annoyed, angry. You maybe even begin to question if you’re a “real writer”, a concept I might talk about in its own post at a later date. It’s the mental equivalent of having a stopped up nose, and when you try to blow that nose you just give yourself a headache and now you feel even worse and wonder if you should call in sick except then you’ll have nothing else to do but lay around and feel miserable.
At some point, I should also write about torturing metaphors.
You’ve encountered it before, I’m sure. You sit down at the keyboard, or you sit down with the pen, all full of energy and ready to make writing happen and…it doesn’t. No words come, nothing gets created.
If you’re reading this, you probably have struggled with writer’s block at some point. Or will be struggling with it in the future. Maybe it’s happening to you right now, and that’s why you’re here. So many writers have written on this topic, and there’s a ton of great advice out there, but here I’m going to focus on three I rarely see mentioned.
(Incidentally, if you want a great list of what not to do, I’d check out Terrible Writing Advice’s video on the subject here. Even if you don’t struggle with writer’s block, the video is hilarious.)
1) Write an opening line.
This can work whether you’re actually at the beginning of a story, in the middle, or near the end. See, a big part of Writer’s Block is “blank page paralysis”, where the effort of overcoming those initial steps is the hardest part. You have this vast, white expanse, waiting to be filled with words, and when you’re staring at it it’s just too much. You could fill it with tons of words, any words. How do you fill it?
Write an opener for the scene you want to draft. It doesn’t need to be clever; it doesn’t even need to be good. “Once upon a time” works, or “It was a rainy Tuesday when” or something similar. Don’t worry about what that opening line is because you’re probably going to go back and delete it later, so just use one of the ones I mentioned, or come up with your own that you use every time you’re stuck. Just make sure it isn’t a complete sentence, because when you get to that last word, you should keep your fingers moving. Finish the thought. You’ve already conquered the blank page, so now you can keep the words coming. Then just loop back around and delete the opening words, which don’t really serve a purpose anymore.
If you’re in the middle of the story, it still works, because the opening words don’t matter. They’re just there to make the blank page no longer blank. It’s not a white, featureless void waiting for you to to fill it; it has been marred with words, and therefore it’s no longer terrifying.
One of my favorite tricks is this format: “[Main Character] [emote] as he/she [current action.]” That probably doesn’t make much sense, but see how it works in practice: “Ryan grunted as he felt the boot connect with his stomach.” Now we have a start. My original notes for this scene said “Ryan gets his ass kicked,” and I started with that line to set the stage for said ass kicking. Everything flows from there, and then I go back up and edit that first line to make it more dynamic and make sure it flows with the rest of the scene.
Once you’ve conquered the blank page, you’re in good shape to keep things moving.
2) Use a different format.
Know what needs to go in this part but not sure how to write it in a prose format? Do it as an outline instead. Or write it like it’s a scene from a screenplay, or an actual play script, or a comic book page. Sometimes what’s holding us back is the nitty gritty narrative details that seem overwhelming, or the long descriptions that can be painful to write, and bypassing that by breaking out of your current format allows you to move forward.
My personal favorite trick for this method is to write a sarcastic outline. Here’s a sample one I wrote not long ago when I was dealing with writer’s block:
- They go to the tower
- They try to be sneaky
- Sneaky sneak, sneak
- OH SHIT THEY GOT SPOTTED
- OH NOOOOO!
- Alarms get sounded.
- Most of the group has to hold a doorway or something!
- FIIIGHT SCENE!
- Then something needs to go wrong.
It’s not a great outline. It doesn’t give much detail. But having that out there and being able to laugh at myself for writing it helped break the tension and get me moving again. Because that’s what this step is about. Breaking tension. It’s a way to get yourself over that first hump. The self-focused snark is a good way to bring some humor to the process, because laughter is a good way to beat tension, and it starts the flow of words. Also, even though the outline is a little ridiculous, it actually is an outline, and helps me organize my thoughts.
If an outline isn’t your thing, try writing about the events of the story but the perspective of a news reporter covering those events. It might help give you some interesting ideas for what happens next, and it will definitely get you writing again. And maybe you can work that into your story later! The news broadcast you wrote could now become a bit of background detail, or could even get worked into the story. In Weird Theology, the character of Gail – who became pivotal to a couple moments in the plot – was born entirely out of this kind of exercise, and that scene solved the problem of “How am I going to get the heroes and villains to fight again?”
Even if I hadn’t ended up using it, however, it would have been a great exercise because it got me back up and writing when I wasn’t sure I’d be able to do so.
3) Write About Something You Saw
Also known as journaling, this is one of the most common steps to overcome writer’s block, but it’s common for a reason – it works. Writing about your day is a great way to get the words moving again, and you can take it a step further. Write about something you saw, and fictionalize it.
Allow me to explain.
A few days ago, I had a very odd experience. I had to run to the Walgreens near my house, which shares a parking lot with a Church’s Chicken. While I was in the parking lot, I saw a man standing in the drive through, banging on the window of the Church’s. This was at 8am, long before they opened. Now, I did not approach the man to find out what was going on, because I couldn’t imagine any scenario where that ended well for me. It was just a moment, a thing that happened.
But then couldn’t stop wondering what they heck was going on. I started to fictionalize it by creating a story behind that man, and that moment. The obvious and boring answer – that he worked there and needed to be let in – I immediately discarded because that didn’t go anywhere (for me, anyway-another writer might write something brilliant based on that simple idea). Instead, I started to focus on other, less likely possibilities. This guy’s girlfriend or boyfriend worked there, and he was trying to talk to them, but he’d dropped his phone in a puddle the night before and if he didn’t tell them that he loved them right now their relationship was probably doomed. Or maybe this guy had been there the night before, and his child had been locked in overnight, and after a frantic night of searching he’d finally realized his missing child was still trapped in the fast food restaurant.
Let’s have more fun with it, and take it several steps further out of the realm of plausibility – this guy’s mother was being held hostage by a very, very discount Jigsaw killer. If he didn’t get two hundred chicken legs by ten am and then dump them from the top of the Saint Louis Arch his mother was doomed. Clearly this sloppy Jigsaw killer was trying to make a point about…consumerism or something? Nah, he’s not a Jigsaw type, he’s a Joker type, and he’s doing it for the evil laughs.
I could go on, but you see the point. Pick the oddest or most interesting thing you have seen, heard, or experienced in the last month, and start figuring out why it happened, Grow it, expand it, write about it. Get the words moving. Maybe this will give you something for your current project. If it doesn’t, at least you wrote something you can set aside and put in a short story collection later. Or burn because it doesn’t matter what you do with it; it matters that you wrote something.
Those are my favorite ways to overcome writer’s block. What works for you? Anything that I missed? Let me know in the comments below!