Storyville: Writer’s Block—Where It Comes From, and How to Break Through

We’ve all been there—you stall on the fourth page, or can’t finish the story with any impact, or maybe the novel just lost your interest. Where does writer’s block come from, and how can you break through? Here are some ideas. Hope they help.

WHERE DOES YOUR BLOCK COME FROM?

CONFLICT

One reason you may have stopped writing is that you forgot, or lost, your conflict (or conflicts) and have gone off on tangents, losing your threads, your motivation. Take a moment to look at your protagonist and consider two things—internal and external conflict. What is going on in the world that is blocking your protagonist, what’s getting in the way—are we talking about a literal wall around the city, is the time machine broken, or is there a horde of trolls bearing down on them? Second, look at what is going on inside the mind, heart and soul of your hero (or anti-hero) and sit with that for a moment—is it a need to be seen and not ignored, the desire to exact vengeance, or perhaps to finally express love for somebody significant in their life? A lot of the time, if you look at these two things, you can figure out where you lost your way.

Gods die, and even a blind squirrel finds a nut now and then.

TANGENTS

Speaking of tangents, are you on one? In thinking about your conflicts, as well as your plot, did you take a left turn someplace, and are you now down a rabbit hole that just doesn’t make any sense? Back it up to the point where you believe in the story, and it feels right. Keep these scenes, maybe cut and paste them elsewhere, or save this as a new version, but try heading in a different direction, something that better serves to reveal character and advance the plot, while chasing down the conflicts, seeking resolution. I can remember writing The Breaker, my second novel in the Windy City Dark Mystery Series (Random House Alibi), and I’d often lie in bed at night staring at the ceiling unable to sleep. I’d chase plot lines in various directions, seeing what I ran into, what felt right, what made sense. In the morning, whatever stuck, or even better, whatever motivated me to get up out of bed and take notes, I’d write that down. It usually worked.

OUT OF CHARACTER

Take a moment to consider what’s been going on with your main character (or characters) and figure out if you’ve been making bad choices. If your protagonist has a short temper, and is a dysfunctional youth, maybe that sweet conversation with the waitress is out of character. Maybe it’s just not how he would react in the real world. Not that you can’t go against type, or have your character change, but especially early on, you need to develop this person, really help your audience see what they’re all about, so stick with behavior, scenes, and dialogue that really fit who they are. You need to establish a base, before you can change. I had a scene in Disintegration that I knew was going to be a rape scene, and I dreaded it. I just felt it coming, and thought it was going to be where my unnamed protagonist hit bottom, or where he drew the line. I didn’t know what would happen, and I knew if I wrote that scene, it would alienate some readers, and could possibly define the book; it might be all that anyone talked about, and not in a good way. When that moment came, you know what happened? He didn’t rape the girl. It got close, but it wasn’t in his character, he couldn’t do it. Later, I’d dial that scene back even more, and in the end, working with my editor at Alibi, I changed that scene entirely, into his first step back into the light, not hitting rock bottom, so that when we got to the end of the book it all felt right, made more sense—much more fulfilling.

NEEDLESSLY COMPLICATED

Another thing we tend to do is make the story way more complicated than it has to be, and in the process, we lose our audience, and sometimes even ourselves, as we write it. Do you really need five brothers when three will do? How much of that science and technology do you really need—is it slowing down, are we getting bored, does it even matter? In fact, how many POVs do we need in this story, or especially, this novel? Should it be a single perspective, or a dual, or are we really going to develop three or more story lines, and give them each the attention they deserve? With The Breaker, I wanted to focus mostly on my protagonist, Raymond, but there is also a neighbor girl, Natalie. I didn’t want to give her even time on the page, 50/50, so I kept him first-person, and then every five chapters did a shift to third-person, a little window to peek inside her life, in order to get details that Ray never had, saw, heard, or should know. It allowed more depth, and an important POV from the girl, without spending too much time with her. Don’t forget the rule of three—a writing principle that suggests that things that come in threes are more satisfying (omne trium perfectum meaning “everything in threes is perfect”).

HOW TO FIX IT

THE NEXT LOGICAL STEP

One easy way to fix your story or novel if you are stuck is to just take the next logical step. If your protagonist has been talking about driving to Los Angeles from New York City to track down a lost girl, then put the asshole in the car and get it moving already. If your teenage boy has been dying to ask that cute girl down the street out on a date—ask her out! If your new serial killer is dying to make that first cut, then figure out how to do it, set him loose and see what happens. Keep in mind all that we’ve talked about already (conflict, tangents, character, and simplicity) and just take the next step in that journey. Follow your instincts, and chase it down.

If your protagonist has been talking about driving to Los Angeles from New York City to track down a lost girl, then put the asshole in the car and get it moving already...Or, if you think the next logical step is too obvious, do the exact opposite.

FLIP IT

Or, if you think the next logical step is too obvious, do the exact opposite. If your hero has been hired to find that lost girl, and he blows it off, consider why he would do that, what’s more important, what’s causing him to pause, or stop? What could happen to change the mind of the teenage boy, so that he no longer likes the girl, or at least, decides to not ask her out—what’s different, what has he seen, or found out? If you delay the serial killer, it better be important—is it the internal or external conflict that’s getting in the way?

WHAT SCENE IS BEGGING TO BE WRITTEN?

I know, you’re blocked—nothing is begging to be written, right? Or, maybe you’re just committed to the next scene and are afraid to write out of order. It’s okay, write the scene that is demanding your attention, and you can figure out where it goes later. Why do this? You’ll learn about your character, and you’ll figure out why that scene is important once you’ve written it—did you discover something about your conflicts, about the protagonist, is there a secret that’s finally revealed, did something unexpected come up that surprised you? You never know what you might find in that moment, in that scene. You could unlock the key to the end of your story or novel, or it might not even make it into the final story—but at least you’re writing.

SUCCEED OR FAIL

If you aren’t sure what to do next, either have your protagonist fail miserably at something that’s important (think internal or external conflict) or succeed at this task, finally. Or hell, write both scenes and see which one you like best. The best thing you can do is try it out, see what feels right, and uncover more character, advance your plot, and maybe that’ll give you the kick in the pants you need. Also, consider what just happened—did he succeed or fail? Do the opposite now. Nobody always wins, and really, nobody always loses, either. I mean, there are exceptions—but gods die, and even a blind squirrel finds a nut now and then.

PUT IT ASIDE

Set the story down, and get outside, ride a bike, go see a movie, have sex, travel, go eat some exciting food, play a sport—just get yourself out of your head for a bit, stop thinking about the story so much, and see what pops up when you’re least expecting it. Ideas come to us when we’re in the shower, sitting on the toilet, falling asleep—all of that. See what the world offers up to you, and pay attention. Sometimes when I’m struggling to start a new story or novel, I just make a mental note to pay attention to the world around me, see what answers I may find on the radio, on television, while at a party, or just when I’m alone, biking or jogging or resting.

RE-READ WHAT YOU HAVE

This may sound like an obvious suggestion, but go back and re-read everything you’ve written. What do you pick up on as far as theme and mood? Are you sensing a pattern of behavior or emotion, and can you continue it, or flip it, and do the opposite? Think about what your character wants. What is it Vonnegut says? “Every character should want something, even if it’s just a glass of water.” Consider that, the internal and external conflict, and see what needs to happen next.

GIVE US A BREAK

Even in horror stories or films there are quiet moments where there is no tension, so we can breathe. Think about how relentless you’ve been so far. If it’s been all sunshine and daydreams, then we need to raise the stakes, and have something challenging happen, a bit of darkness, because nobody wants to read about a father getting up and going to work, coming home to kiss the wife and kids. Who cares? We need conflict and tension at some point. And, if you’ve been nothing but darkness, all tense and violent, find a way to show us what’s left of the humanity in your monster, give us a breather, so we can see the lighter side, the compassion in your beast, the depth of their character.

CONSIDER THAT IT MAY BE BROKEN

And then there is the thought that maybe this story, or God forbid, your novel, just doesn't work. Is the plot full of holes? Do we never really care about any of your characters? Is there no real conflict, or if there is, do you never resolve it? Does nothing change? Sometimes we just have to kill a story, I’ve done it plenty of times. Sometimes it just doesn’t work. Set it aside, maybe you can figure it out later, maybe you can grab that one lines that DOES work, and start something new, or maybe down the road a bit it’ll trigger something else. I do tend to hold onto fragments, even if they’re weak, because I may find a scrap in there that works for another story, or scene. My first novel, Remembering, is terrible, it will never see the light of day, it’s just preachy and full of telling, such a stupid, worthless, and empty book. There is nothing to save there, seriously. But I did learn a lot, and was proud that I even wrote it, and that’s worth something, I think.

IN CONCLUSION

When we spend time with our characters, and really sit in their emotions, their conflicts, their struggles, it’s easy to get caught up in the drama and lose our way. Take a moment to try and figure out what’s not working, and then fix it. You can do it. It’s probably something simple, and once you get that right, the tap will start flowing again, and the story will just come out in a great deluge. Just because you stumble, or lose your way, doesn’t mean that it’s over and done with. Most of the time it can be saved. And if it’s terminal, beyond rescue, let it go. You can always write more.

Richard Thomas

Column by Richard Thomas

Richard Thomas is the award-winning author of seven books: three novels—Disintegration and Breaker (Random House Alibi), and Transubstantiate (Otherworld Publications); three short story collections—Staring Into the Abyss (Kraken Press), Herniated Roots (Snubnose Press), and Tribulations (Cemetery Dance); as well as one novella in The Soul Standard (Dzanc Books). With over 100 stories published, his credits include Cemetery Dance, PANK, storySouth, Gargoyle, Weird Fiction Review, Midwestern Gothic, Arcadia, Qualia Nous, Chiral Mad 2 & 3, and Shivers VI (with Stephen King and Peter Straub). He has won contests at ChiZine and One Buck Horror, and has received five Pushcart Prize nominations to date. He is also the editor of four anthologies: The New Black and Exigencies (Dark House Press), The Lineup: 20 Provocative Women Writers (Black Lawrence Press) and Burnt Tongues (Medallion Press) with Chuck Palahniuk. He has been nominated for the Bram Stoker, Shirley Jackson, and Thriller awards. In his spare time he is a columnist at LitReactor and Editor-in-Chief at Gamut Magazine. His agent is Paula Munier at Talcott Notch. For more information visit www.whatdoesnotkillme.com.

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Comments

L.W. Flouisa's picture
L.W. Flouisa from Tennessee is reading More Murakami June 24, 2015 - 4:59pm

I'll need to print out a copu of this to relook later. I tend to suffer from the to much conflict in the beginning, where it fizzles out around 1,300 words. And so the rest of the story makes me feel like whether the rest really happened.:P

Actually fun fact, me doing 900-1,000 words chapters as a story collection at first solved a lot of that problem.

voodoo_em's picture
voodoo_em from England is reading Zombie Bake Off by Stephen Graham Jones June 25, 2015 - 1:53am

Great article, Richard. Very helpful :)

jeffn516's picture
jeffn516 from San Diego is reading Some Will Not Sleep June 25, 2015 - 12:29pm

Excellent advice. 

Whether you're in the camp that accepts writer's block or in denial and are calling it something else, I think there are some great strategies here to keep the ink (or bits) moving.

Richard's picture
Richard from St. Louis is reading various anthologies June 25, 2015 - 3:41pm

thanks, guys. i don't really believe in writer's block, i think it's just something has gone wrong (as noted above) and there are ways to fix it, to get it back on track. 

SarahElizabeth's picture
SarahElizabeth from Pennsylvania is reading All the Light We Cannot See; Monster July 27, 2015 - 11:05am

The thing that unstuck me recently was thinking in "try-fail" cycles and making sure all my characters had independent goals. Once I did that, my story took on a much more concrete shape. 

It's quite possible that's pretty elementary, but since I've never taken a formal writing course, that was a HUGE aha moment for me.

Gilbert's picture
Gilbert November 15, 2016 - 10:48pm

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