Overcoming Writer’s Block
originally published August 3, 2015 in Prose
We’ve all had it, that moment when nothing comes to mind. Our words stare back at us, asking to be fleshed out, continued, fulfilled, and we can do nothing to help them. Our protagonist has gotten herself stuck firmly this time, and is going nowhere fast.
The most important thing about keeping momentum in writing is staying flexible.
Sometimes you have to change what happens and add something to the plot you hadn’t foreseen.
Let’s say you introduce a new, secondary character. Who is he, and how does he know your protagonist? Now, as the author, you’ve embarked on a whole new decision tree, if you will, exploring each branch to see which might bear fruit. How exciting! Of course, a new character means the necessary work of fleshing him out, giving him a viable and plausible life and place in your story. The point is that his new character has opened a door and given you a way forward, if you choose to take it.
Maybe it’s not a new person that your story needs, but a new place. Your protagonist takes a trip. Is it for business, or pleasure? Has she been there before? What happens to her understanding of her situation while she’s away? Something about the ocean breeze stirs a memory, a family vacation when she was still quite young. Her parents are unhappy with each other, she can tell because her father goes into the water and her mother refuses to join him. Again, here’s another avenue to explore that can keep you going.
Your protagonist may decide to look for a new job. What field is she in? Why did she choose it? And what about her current position isn’t to her liking? Her boss could be overbearing, or behave inappropriately, or ask her to do far more than her share of work. Or there’s something romantic at stake. Her boss is a married man, and the spare them both an awful temptation, she decides it’s time to move on. Any of these possibilities can be explored and expanded.
One of my favorite plot enhancements, if you will, is a character who plays a musical instrument, perhaps because the piano featured so prominently in my early life. Your heroine can return to the keyboard in times of stress, or even happiness. And people who are close to her know exactly what it means that she’s taken up playing again. Of course, there’s a backstory for you to devise and make relevant to the narrative’s core, since you never want anything to feel as though it’s dropped down on the reader out of the blue.
Animals are another favorite accessory. I wrote a story once about a woman who adopts a talking dog. Naturally, she wonders if she’s gone off her rocker, but the dog assures her she hasn’t. Other of my fictional dogs don’t actually talk, but they add a level of good-natured chaos that my human characters react to, and not altogether well. One digs up a neighbor’s garden, then terrorized her cat. Closer to home I had one destroy a redecorated room minutes before his owners were due to host a fancy party.
The last example I’ll offer of how to overcome writer’s block by introducing a new plot element has to do one my favorite pastimes – shopping!
Your protagonist sees something in a store window during her lunch break. What is it? How about a pair of shoes. They’re blue satin, high-heeled, and don’t go with anything else in her closet but she just has to have them. What’s behind this sudden yen? Maybe she feels dowdy, as if fun and good times have passed her buy. The shoes might usher in a new phase of excitement and confidence. Or, they might be really uncomfortable and confirm for her that she’s not the glamorous, go-out-in-the-evening type.
Overcoming writer’s block is a matter of asking questions you hadn’t thought to ask before. Remember that you can go in more than one direction with each issue you raise. You can underscore the central theme of the story, or you can set it in contrast, as long as whatever you choose contributes to the overall whole.
The goal is to keep moving forward and complete that essential first draft. In my experience, everything every after that is pretty much like coasting downhill.