Here are some more little tricks to overcome little blockages you face when you are writing your first draft.
The Evil Writer Trick:
This one is so basic, it should go without saying.
When your story stops coming, make it go wrong.
It is actually one of the first things you should do when you are stuck. Find some way to make things go wrong.
For example the car wouldn’t start, or runs out of gas, or gets pulled over for speeding, or ruptures a tire. The phone runs out of battery, or is out of range, or simply won’t connect. Someone mistakes the wrench in your pocket for a gun and shoots at you. You pick up a gun to defend yourself and it’s not loaded. Somebody takes your words out of context and believes you are antisemitic. Something goes wrong.
It doesn’t matter if you are writing a comedy or an adventure or whatever. The very first thing you should do when your story stops coming is find a way to make things go wrong.
The Expendable Character Trick:
Here’s one we’ve all seen many times.
I’ve given a lot of tips on how to make your story moving again. Let me show you what a block might look like.
The main character, an advertising executive who has never had anything to do with violence or crime, is suddenly mistaken by an unseen antagonist for someone who evidently needs to be killed. The murderous antagonist forces him to drink a bottle of whiskey, puts him in a car and gets ready to push him off a cliff, when he grabs the handle of the car and escapes. (Good setup) He is arrested for driving under influence, tries to tell the police what happened but is treated like a common drunk. He traces his footsteps the night before but all evidence of his attempted murder have been erased.
Here is where the writer suffers a block. You can smell the block. It’s right there.
Now what? Introduce a new character, that’s what. The MC finds the house he was taken to where he was forced to drink whiskey, identifies the owner and goes to meet him.
Now what? Something goes wrong is what. Before the house owner can answer his first question, an unseen assailant stabs him with a knife.
What could go wrong now? In a frenzy the MC grabs the knife and draws it from the wound, but the man dies anyway. His fingerprints are all over the knife.
What could go wrong now? As the murdered man collapses, a witness screams and somebody else yells “Look out! He’s got a knife!”
What could go wrong now? Someone in the crowd takes a picture of him standing with a bloody knife in his hand.
What could go wrong now? Obviously, the police would come to get him. He sees them coming. So the MC drops the knife and runs. His picture with the knife is on the front page and he is now wanted for murder.
Now the story is really moving.
This is Alfred Hitchcocks’s “North by Northwest”.
We’ve all seen movies where an obviously expendable character is introduced only to die a few seconds later, or just walk out the door never to be seen again.
This is a classic writer’s block buster. His function is as a setup for all the other tricks I have explained up to now. You want to ask the question, “What could go wrong now?”
When you are stuck, introduce an expendable character.
The Card Trick:
This idea is very obvious. No, I am not running out of ideas. I just thought this one needed mention even though most people know about it already.
I am so old, I can remember the days when writers wrote their own story prompts on notebooks and leafed through them when they got stuck. These days story prompts are all over the internet, on twitter and tumblr and I don’t know what else.
I am sure it works just as well on tablets and other technological devices, but we of the old school used notebooks and cards.
Cards are convenient because you could rearrange to order and line them up on a story board when you are plotting your story. You could also take a card from a scene you deleted in one story and use it in another story.
Lots of people have advice about how to use cards to prevent writer’s block. But the method is mostly for plotters, who plan out every nook of the story before they start writing.
So what if you were a pantser?
You can still pull a random card from a stack and use it inspire you.
Some people have suggested using Cards Against Humanity (a ready made bunch of cards used in a game) to this effect. Others suggest Dixit cards, which have only pictures and no words.
You could go to the Internet Movie Data Base, go to the “Memorable Quotes” section of movies and copy-paste a lot of movie quotes onto your notebook. I don’t suggest outright plagiarism, but just reading some of Samuel L. Jackson’s lines can give you the inspiration for the next scene. Sometimes you might imagine yourself in that movie. What would you say back to Samuel L. Jackson if you were in that movie? Write that down in the margins of your notebook and keep it until you need it.
Every writer has his or her own method of using notebooks and cards. Some authors have explained their methods on the internet.
If you were already in the thick of NaNoWriMo, you would not have time to make lots of prompt cards from scratch. You might want to buy ready-made card games or commandeer movie quotes available on the internet.
When you are stuck, flipping through a bunch of cards with writing ideas can be a good idea.
The News Trick:
Real old trick here which even Stephen King has admitted to using.
Watch the News.
Suck out the essence of the news story and insert it into your story.
Here is an example that I believe is relatively easy to understand.
There has been a lot of controversy about police violence these days. Lots of video clips of policemen beating up people and shooting people seemingly inappropriately have been making the rounds and each time the usual arguments are passed back and forth. And I was wondering how this could be utilized in novels.
Think of a policeman shooting and killing a small time offender (a jay walker, a kid looking to buy marijuana) who did not deserve to be killed and the shooting itself was borderline inappropriate. There are reasons to be outraged at the incident, and there are reasons to defend the policeman’s actions. I trust you’ve all heard and read both sides of the argument.
A professional at handling violence who is constantly exposed to dangerous situations is suddenly forced to make a quick decision in a high tension moment and pulls the trigger at the wrong time. Maybe his prejudices were at play, maybe not. The result is tragic.
Now take out the words “policeman” and “offender” and toss that situation into a fantasy world, or sci-fi world, or vampire world, or whatever it is that you are writing. What kind of gut wrenching plot twist (not back story) can you add to your story?
Most of our plot bunnies come from news stories. Many great novels, movies and TV series were inspired by news stories. If you find yourself caught in an argument over a video clip, take advantage of it. Weave it into your story.
The Icon Trick:
If you have been writing briskly for a while, the story was proceeding nicely and suddenly the words stopped, and it isn’t moving anymore, take a step back from the words for just a moment.
Picture a scene just a little way ahead of where you are. It could be a page or two ahead or a chapter or two, whatever you feel comfortable with. Focus on one item. If it is an outdoor scene, it might be a landmark (a church tower, a skyscraper, a statue, etc) or a vista (a mountain range, etc). If it is an indoor scene it could be a piece of furniture (a cabinet, etc) or something on the wall (a clock, etc) or an architectural element (a window, etc). That is the icon of your scene. It is not directly related to the plot. It is something that is just there. You don’t even have to describe it in the story. Nobody needs to know about the icon other than you.
Now that you have the icon, visualize it carefully. See the shapes and colors. Don’t use words, just see the picture. Now feel the air around it, the climate or temperature. Smell the smells. Hear the sounds. Take in every detail around it. Sense the light, weak fluorescent light or the sun beating down. Taste the dustiness of the air or the humidity of the impending rain.
Now pull back.
Pull back until you see your characters in the movie frame of your mind.
You can see what they are doing now. The story is now back in motion.
The Punch Trick:
You are stuck. Not a single word is coming out. You want to punch your fist through the screen. If that is the situation, that is exactly what you should do. But make sure that your fist not only penetrates the screen, but also through the fourth wall and hits one of your characters in the face.
This is a close relative of “The Vanilla Trick” in which one of the characters unexpectedly blurts out “Vanilla” (or “Bananas”) oblivious to the context.
The Punch Trick is pretty much the same thing, but instead of saying “Vanilla”, somebody in the story suddenly punches someone else in the story without obvious reason.
If you think your character would not punch someone, how about a slap on the cheek? Or splashing a drink in the face? Or a sudden, unexplained flip off or a verbal “Fuck you!”? The instrument is your choice.
You don’t have to connect it to anything previous in the scene. (That is for the second draft.) Just throw the punch, see how your characters react, and keep writing.
The Sex Trick:
Have you ever had those odd moments when an inappropriate sexual thought just jumps right into your head, like having a sudden sex fantasy attack while talking to your school teacher or finding your eyes glued to the widow’s ass at the funeral?
It happens to fictional characters too, except we don’t always learn about them (hint: editors are prude). We have all read books that had sex scenes that do not flesh out the character or advance the plot. Those things are often called “gratuitous” or “pornographic” sex scenes. But often times they are writer’s block busters that were by chance left in the final draft.
When you are out having a beer with a friend, suddenly your friend falls silent and stops talking to you. You wonder if it was something you said, but he was just admiring the curves of the waitress.
When your fictional characters stop talking to you, they might be doing the same thing. In fact, they must be doing the same thing. I know it is a totally inappropriate scene for this to be happening, but these things happen. Write it down. Don’t be prude. You can edit it out later. This is just the first draft. Oh My God, your main character is having a full blown sex fantasy attack. Somebody stop this! No, don’t stop this. Keep writing. Don’t restrain yourself. Editing is for later. And before you know it you have written two thousand words, some of which just might make it into the final draft, gained insight into your character you did not have before, and most of all, your story is moving again.
This is one of the reasons you should never show your first draft to the wrong people. When stuck, try The Sex Trick. Insert sexual thoughts into your character’s mind. And have fun.
The Dead MC:
Writing by the seat of your pants unconstrained by a predetermined outline is probably the most fun way to write. But if you just let the story take you where it will, you might end up with some confounding results. One of them is that your main character might die beautiful death at the end of chapter three and you get totally stuck. You have twenty seven more chapters to write.
What to do? The conventional advice is to make the character come back to life (Supernatural), come back as a ghost (Sixth Sense), come back as a stronger version of himself (Lord of the Rings), or both ghost AND a stronger version of himself (Star Wars). Or, you can run the clock backwards and have the corpse posthumously narrate the events leading up to his death (Sunset Boulevard).
But these story lines are complicated and best left to plotters (or television writers with an unexpected order to continue the story for another season). As haphazard as these stories may seem, they are all written using meticulous planning and outlining.
If you are a pantser and your main character dies unexpectedly, there is only one truly pantser thing for you to do. You switch main characters. The character’s death was a setup for something bigger. It sets off a chain of events that really starts moving.
The point is, when you follow where the story takes you, and your story inevitably takes you to the main character’s death way too prematurely, don’t try to lawyer the death into something else. Just keep following the story. And see where it takes you.
The Weirding Way
When in doubt, one size larger.
This is the principle to building a classic workboat (tugboat, trawler, lobster boat, etc.) When you are deciding on what fittings and riggings to buy, a workboat always looks better with bigger metalwork.
(Yes, I am one of those people who used to fantasize about building a boat and sailing away to paradise.)
The rule also applies to buying clothes for children, bouquets for wives and beer kegs for parties.
A similar rule for writing is: When in doubt, one notch weirder.
Don’t worry about what your mother, children, friends, church members, psychiatrist or the FBI will think. In writing, you are never too weird, violent, creepy, demented, psychotic, cruel or unusual.
If you ever wonder “Is my story too sick?” don’t tone it down. Tune it up.
The Moral Block
And now I touch on the really controversial part.
What if, as you follow your story, you come to a truly vile scene, a rape scene, or worse, a child rape scene? And what if a very graphic depiction is absolutely vital to the narrative of your story? Do you tone it down? Gloss over?
Some people fall into a writer’s block because they have to face this problem.
This is only my opinion (and a highly criticized one) but I believe that, just as you need to shut down your inner editor when writing your first draft, you also need to shut down your inner moral censor.
At the very least, you have no business censoring your own work while writing your first draft. Censoring is a real problem in some parts of the world for writers. I have personal reasons to hate both censoring and self-censoring. I believe it has no place in fiction writing at all. But if you must self-censor, save it for your second draft. Don’t become you own moral censor from the first draft.
It makes absolutely no sense, in my view, that you should suffer writer’s block just because someone else might be offended by your writing.