So if you’ve ruled out the need to fill the creative well and proved to yourself that you’ve learned to admirably apply your butt to the chair in a disciplined fashion, what is keeping you from putting words on the page?
Whenever that happens to me, it is usually one of two things: I don’t know enough about the story yet to go forward, OR, I am going in a wrong direction and my subconscious is doing everything it can think of to get me to Stop! Now!
And the only solution for either of those is to just poke around and immerse oneself in the story and see what breaks loose or coalesces or [insert your own metaphor here, after all, you’re creating your own process!]
There are a couple of things I do if it turns out I don’t understand enough about the story to know what happens next.
Perhaps the easiest of these is delving deeper into research, especially since I write with a historical bent. Often if I’m stuck, it’s because I can’t truly visualize the setting, or don’t understand the landscape, or am stumbling over what slinking around in a castle would actually entail. Interestingly enough, in addition to finding the answers I knew I was looking for, I often also find answers or plot points I hadn’t been looking for. True serendipity.
Look at Structure
The truth is that by looking at structure, I can often pinpoint what’s wrong with a story (as in what’s missing) or gives me a clue as to what has to happen next structurally (character must makes choices and decisions that make things worse). I know some people are allergic to plot—just saying the word gives them the heebie-jeebies. Maybe if you look at structure as a blank map that you can draw your own journey on, it might help it seem less intimidating or formulaic.
By analyzing the acts and the turning points and the risking action sequences, I can often see where the story is flabby or I have no arc or there is no cause and effect. If I recognize that, then it becomes clear that the events in my story are not working and I have to rethink those. The events in my story are the physical action my characters are engaged in. So that might mean that poor, timid little Nate might be spending too much time watching Aunt Phil doing all the interesting stuff and not getting a chance to do any himself. Or maybe he just needs to try and prove to himself he doesn’t have the skills yet. Or maybe the action can be much more subtle; he just needs to voice his concerns—for a kid who isn’t convinced they have a right to be heard, that can be a very dramatic action—simply stating his objections. But by looking at structure, I can see if my character is actually doing enough, taking enough action to make sure the story is moving forward.
Note: I always talk about plot but am unclear how fully everyone else grasps/understands plot structure. Would it be helpful at all if I posted some of my plotting tools?
Go Deeper into the Characters
But sometimes when I look at the story, I can see that the structure is there, but I still don’t know enough to keep going. In that case, it usually means my character’s motives and internal arc isn’t making it onto the page or into the writing. The emotions are the fuel for the engine of the story. If the emotions aren’t there, the actions will feel flat and lifeless.
This is also where I will usually identify if a story is going in a wrong direction. Usually because I don’t fully understand my protagonist, or because I have some preconceived plot point that seems like it should work, but isn’t ultimately what the character would truly do.
That’s when I pull out my character journals and characterization exercises. Particularly this one. This one also proved helpful on my latest wip.
So maybe I have some great action sequences and maybe my character is actually doing stuff, but is it stuff that changes him, that propels him along that growth continuum of my story arc? Is what he’s doing making things worse in some way? Not only physical peril, but emotional peril? Is he taking two steps toward his new improved self, then pulling back and retreating into his old behavior patterns? How is he really and truly feeling about these events and changes going on in his life? Is he truly feeling them and reacting to them? Or merely a tour guide on the journey, reporting it but not truly experiencing it?
Is he afraid, bored, detached, in denial?
Pick a string of scenes from your book, maybe a day’s worth of activities or the build up to some big incident in the book, then pretend you are your character filling in your diary about the day’s events. What frightened you, scared you, what did you look forward to. What are the characters private secret emotions that they would never articulate to someone else? Once you know those, once you really have an emotional grip on your character, it might be easier to understand what they’d do next, and you might find yourself unblocked.
Also, once you discover those, then find ways to slip those into the narrative, not in an “on the nose” sort of way, but subtlety. Or maybe in subtext.
The truth is, if I do all of these things listed above, I find I am never blocked. Hopefully these tools will work for you, as well!
Wow. And this has turned into yet another epistle. Sorry about that!
(And just in case my agent or editor reads this—I still got 1500 words done on my manuscript today, so I’m not writing here in stead of there!)