All writers, whether brand new or seasoned veterans, get stuck sometimes. Even those of us who outline extensively before we begin sometimes realize the plot is simply not working and a new approach is needed. But getting stuck can be paralyzing, especially for those of us who struggle with our inner critic’s assurance that we’re about to crash and burn at any moment. So having some solid strategies for how to handle those sticky spots will certainly come in handy. With that in mind, here are five tips for pulling yourself out of the rut when you’re stuck.
Out of the Box
Sometimes getting unstuck means thinking outside the box. For instance, when you totally don’t know what should happen next, Pixar studio artist Emma Coates suggests making a list of all the things that couldn’t possibly happen next. When creating such a list, don’t be afraid to be completely silly and outrageous as you add more and more and more things that couldn’t possibly happen next. With each item you add, think about why that thing won’t work. This kind of thought makes you look in directions you’ve never considered and really forces you to examine any expectations that are keeping you stuck. Sometimes we’re stuck just because we’re mentally considering something impossible when it’s really exactly the right away to go.
A Little Help
Sometimes getting unstuck means getting some help from a few of your imaginary friends. Consider interviewing your characters about the things they’ve experienced so far in the plot and why they’ve done the things they’ve done. What would each character like to see happen next? By knowing what your characters want and really digging into their motivation, you can better choose a course that moves the plot along while building conflict through denying the characters what they want (at least for now). In fiction, more times than not, getting stuck is just a way of forcing the writer to get to know the characters better. We get stuck because we’re still treating some (if not all) of our characters like game pieces instead of people. People have complex motivations for everything they do. And the more complexity we recognize in our characters, the more likely they are to point us in the right direction for getting out of our rut.
Take a Leap
Sometimes getting unstuck means you stop trying to pull yourself out. Consider jumping over the problem instead. Sometimes we get stuck at a specific spot, but we know where we need to end up, we just aren’t yet sure how to get there. One of the problems with spending a lot of time feeling stuck is that it can spiral into a total collapse of our confidence in the story and our ability to write it. So to keep a temporary sticky spot from growing into serious writer’s block, it can be good to keep writing those scenes you’re sure of so that you keep your hand in and don’t allow the problem to grow or to undermine your self-confidence. Also, many times our minds can best work out a problem by not staring it in the face. When we jump over it and write into the “future” of the story, we allow our subconscious to keep working on the past problem. I’ve had the solution then pop into my head unbidden while I’m working on some future scene.
Take a Break
Sometimes getting unstuck requires a completely new activity. When I’m stuck and frustrated and feeling that impending doom that comes from not knowing what to do next, I’ll often take a break and read. Reading will let me look at how other authors handle conflict or adventure or mystery or whatever element of my story is dragging me down. A finished book always makes it look easy, but it also makes us look at the reality that there are lot of ways to accomplish the same thing. Take a very full genre like mysteries. With the vast number of mysteries that have been written, we might be tempted to suggest no one could ever do anything new. And yet, each story is new in its own way as it takes a new group of people through the process of dealing with themselves, with other characters, and with the complexities of problem solving that lie at the center of a mystery. The same is true with any kind of story. The more you read, the more infinite possibilities of story open up to you and the more you fuel your brain’s own problem-solving abilities. Plus, sometimes it’s just nice to take a break.
Find a Sounding Board
Sometimes you simply cannot get unstuck on your own. This is when it can be good to talk about the problem with someone you trust. For me, this often involves talking with my daughter about the plot of the story. As I explain what I’ve done so far and why, she often has questions about the book. In answering those, I may be pulled into a whole different area I haven’t considered. My daughter rarely gives me an answer. Instead, she provides a sounding board (and a frequently critical one at that) and that makes me think more deeply. Though having someone tear apart a story I have in mind isn’t always easy on my ego, it virtually always results in a possibility I can try.
The real key to pulling yourself out of a sticky plot situation is not to panic. Remember, we’ve all been there. Virtually every book you’ve ever held in your hand hit that spot where the author suspected he or she was creating complete rubbish that would never work. And yet, the successful author knows those feelings are both good and bad. They keep us from accepting the mediocre, so that’s good, but they can also paralyze if we give them too much credence. There’s always hope. And you can do it!
With over 100 books in publication, Jan Fields writes both chapter books for children and mystery novels for adults. She’s also known for a variety of experiences teaching writing, from one session SCBWI events to lengthier Highlights Foundation workshops to these blog posts for the Institute of Children’s Literature. As a former ICL instructor, Jan enjoys equipping writers for success in whatever way she can.