We’ve been examining how this applies to writers who think that they’ve run out of road with their novels: There’s always a way to keep moving.
More writing detours you can take include:
- Proofread and revise what you’ve already written.
- Do more research, and review prior research notes.
- Design the cover of your book.
- Draw maps of terrain, floor plans of buildings, and elevations of rooms in your setting.
- Compose calendars of your characters’ activities, to check for continuity, and add variables like the weather.
- Write brief summaries of scenes for which you don’t yet know sufficient detail.
- Write some expository passages.
- Write dialogue without the other scene details.
- Comb through your current work-in-progress for material that belongs in a different manuscript (such as a prelude novel or a sequel), and remove that writing to another folder of notes.
- Work on writing something other than your current novel.
Your detour can be to take a holiday from writing, but be sure that your daily routine still includes an equivalent block of time dedicated to the creative use of words: meaning, read other authors’ fiction, especially old favorites. Also, engage in some other form of creative endeavor: performing music, creating art, making a craft, sewing, cooking, rearranging furniture or redecorating, gardening.
If, even after a vacation from the keyboard, you are at your wits’ end, don’t despair! The impasse may indicate a fundamental flaw in your story’s structure. This is by no means a fatal error, and by answering a few tough questions, you’ll find the solution to your dilemma. Here are three possibilities:
- Are you using the wrong point-of-view character? Some characters have a better POV than others who are in the same scene. Determine who has the most at stake, and write for that person.
- Are you trying to be inappropriately omniscient? You are if you have too many point-of-view characters in a 3rd-person narrative, or you feel compelled to indiscriminately “head hop” in a 1st-person narrative. In a 3rd-person limited story, cut down your POV characters to only two-to-four (including the anonymous narrator), and in a 1st-person story, there should be only one (although in special circumstances you can have more), but you cannot have an additional anonymous narrator. To see how the 3rd-person limited approach worked for me, read Irish Firebrands; to find out one way to fix a 1st-person problem, read Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson, and another is Laura, by Vera Caspary.
- Have you set the wrong goal for this particular piece of work? In other words, you may have a collection of short stories instead of a novel. If each of your chapters seems to be too self-contained to lead to the next chapter or follow an overall dramatic arc, this could be the case. Read all of the Mowgli stories in the first and second Jungle Book, by Rudyard Kipling, to see how you can fashion your tales into unified stand-alone segments of a whole.
Above all, remember:
As long as you’re creating something, you’re not blocked!
The same thing applies to writers who think that they’ve run out of road with their novels: There’s always a way to keep moving.
It’s important to understand the psychology of writing fiction. Your brain has to create the fictional details you need by assembling bits and pieces of things you learned from past experience or from research. This takes place in your subconscious mind, and it can take time. If, when you’re drawing a blank, you try to rush the process, the results you get may come across as forced, false, and not feasible.
This is why it’s okay to write any part of a chapter or a scene that occurs to you at the moment: beginning, middle or end. When you run out of things to say about that situation, let it go and write something else. Eventually the missing parts will materialize and you’ll be able to return and finish that segment of the story.
You’ve got to be willing to take a detour. This may feel frightening, like traveling on an unknown road, but if you’re already frightened because your idea well seems to have run dry, what have you got to lose? As you progress in the new direction, there will always be more detour signs to reassure you that you’re on the right path.
One of those detour signs is found in the behavior of your characters. If they’ve been getting “rebellious” on you, it may be because instead of detouring, you’ve gone straight ahead, round the barricade, behind which a bridge is out due to flooding, and your characters are refusing to swim the torrent.
The reason why this happens is because “novel” signifies “new,” which means that your main characters need to change and become new people because of what happens in the story. This change happens in their personalities or their motivation (or both). The most heroic character is the one who ends up changing the most. Characters who do not change cannot be main characters; their purpose is to be someone with whom main characters collide, making them carom in unexpected ways.
You may think that swimming the raging river beyond the washed-out bridge provides a great opportunity for character-developing change, but in reality, some disasters are just too big for mortal beings to challenge with their bare hands. Forcing your characters to ford the impassable river will not bring about the desired novel changes: either your characters will be swept away into irrelevant streams of plot, or else they will be killed off. Moreover, to get your characters safely to the other side, you may be tempted to trot out the deus ex machina, a feeble plot ploy that promptly destroys your reader’s suspension of disbelief by solving your characters’ problems for them. Either way, your story is ruined for your reader.
Rather than frittering away your fans by following the route of an implausible plot element, take your characters’ word for it that the river is not the right way for them to go: Return to the barricade and take the detour that your characters suggest. You will have to make some modifications to things you wrote before, and may have to abandon some of your ideas for the future, but your characters will settle into their adventures again if you give them their heads and let them choose their direction. The words will then flow easily again.
Stay tuned for the conclusion of this essay, and remember:
As long as you’re creating something, you’re not blocked!