The Cheat Sheet:
Maybe it’s time to review that cheat sheet.
1. What does your protagonist want?
2. Why does he want it? (Not clear? Clear it up.)
3. What happens if he fails? (Better make it big.)
4. What is his inner obstacle? (He should have big reasons to hesitate.)
5. What/who is his outer obstacle? (You better have a big villain.)
6. What does the villain want?
7. Why does he want it?
8. What happens if he fails? (Not just the good stuff. What’s going to happen to the villain if he *doesn’t* destroy the world?)
9. Where is the location of the climax? (Can you visualize the place?)
10. What obstacles do you face to get there?
11. What is the deadline for the protagonist to accomplish his objective. (The clock needs to be ticking.)
Your protagonist must have; a weakness, a handicap, an inner pain, and/or a secret.
Your villain must have; a human side, a weakness, a special strength, and/or a secret.
Fill in the cheat sheet. If anything is missing, that just might be the reason that you are stuck.
The Play Acting Trick:
Writers do weird shit. Deal with it.
Play acting is a vital weapon in your arsenal against writer’s block.
When you are stuck, you can act out the scene in the movie in your mind. It is usually awkward doing it with your pal. It rarely goes right when you are doing it with people your own age. But it often works great if you can find a volunteer to work with you who is less than ten years old. (Guys beware. You don’t want to be mistaken for a pedophile.)
It’s amazing how children can understand complex plots. And they are more likely to carry on an imaginary conversation with you with a straight face than an adult. Try telling a child to play a mother while you play a police officer delivering the news that her son died in a robbery. You might see an Academy Award worthy performance. More importantly, they will come up with the most inspiring quotes you can imagine.
Children cannot always help you. One thing they cannot understand is love affairs. You shouldn’t talk to them about dark sex scenes either. Horror is a little iffy. Religion should be off limits unless it’s your own kid. So when you don’t have a child acting partner, what do you do?
You have to act alone, or play two parts. Sometimes you act with a doll or a stuffed animal. Laugh if you will, but how many of you have never acted out a sex scene with a pillow? Honestly.
Little dolls and toy soldiers can help you enact a scene too. Some writers keep a teddy bear handy while writing for this purpose.
Oddly enough, an adult partner who cannot maintain a straight face pretending to be a cop will often times do a great job with imaginary dialog when playing with toy dolls.
Enacting a scene with someone else will help you grasp the scene better and can help you just as much when you are working on your second draft. But it is very useful in breaking through a block in your first draft. If you can’t find a partner at three o’clock in the morning, you will have to do it with the teddy bear. But do it. Don’t be embarrassed. It’s all a part of the process.
The Wall Trick:
Before going on to the Wall Trick, let’s just review the old standby: Talking to friends.
When you are stuck, one way to get a better grasp of the story is to tell it to someone. Whether he likes it or not, the feedback he gives you can provide you with the new perspective that might help you break that block.
The drawback is that it is not easy to find a friend that will give productive feedback. Some people can even discourage you and make the block worse. Thanks to modern technology, however, disparately located writers can connect via online instruments such as Skype. So talking about your story is one way to break the block.
But if you don’t have the ideal person to talk to, or your ideal partner is temporarily unavailable (Murphy’s Law dictates that they will always be unavailable when you need them most) you have the option of talking to the wall.
This is not as pathetic as it sounds. A live talking partner is not always the best listener. If you agree with the principle that the best listener is a silent listener, what better listener than a wall. Writers have been talking to walls for hundreds of years. It should be respectable by now.
There is a trick to talking to walls, however.
It should be obvious.
You are talking to an inanimate object.
It’s not how it responds to you, it’s what you project to it.
To be more specific, you should see one of two things when you talk to a wall: An audience in a theater or the scene of your story. If it is an audience, you are standing on a stage, like a comedian testing out his routine at a small comedy club. The more clearly you see the audience, the more detached you will be from the words on the screen. You are not dictating your book. You are telling a story. Speak like you are talking to an audience. That means you will be saying things like “It went whoosh! And it was like bam!” Not words you would normally type. The objective is to get the picture focused in your mind as you practice your delivery.
The other thing you might see in the wall is the scene of your story. You are literally talking through the forth wall into your story world. Picture Tim Roth in the movie “Reservoir Dogs” in the washroom scene. He was telling the story while standing in it. (If you haven’t seen the movie, see it.)
Start telling your story from a place a little bit before the place where you got stuck. Keep on telling it and telling it until you break through the block. Always speak out loud.
If anybody walks in on you, just tell them honestly that you are composing your book. There is nothing wrong with talking to walls.
The Emoji Trick:
There are many ways to get stuck while you are writing, but one of the most common is that you just cannot find the right word or phrase to describe your thoughts. Sometimes it can take days or longer to get the words right. That effort is admirable, unless you are still on your first draft and you are trying to finish it in a hurry.
One trick to get around the word freeze is to substitute an emoji for the word you cannot find. It will be a place holder until you find the right word or phrase.
Emoji is easy to find, especially if they are in color. Also, they express several emotions so you can record the general feeling you wanted to covey. Software such as Scrivener lets you use emoji. The drawback is that, depending on the software you use, the search function may not recognize it and you will have to scroll through your manuscript manually.
The old tried and true method is to use code words as place holders. For example, if you don’t know what word to use, just type in “pepperoni”. Later on, you can use the search function to look for all the pepperonis. (My personal code word is “fuckit”.) If you need to make your code words stand out, capitalize them. (PEPPERONI or FUCKIT)
The drawback of this method is that it is laugh inducing. Take any segment from the work of Virginia Woolf, replace the words and phrases you could not have thought of yourself with “pepperoni” or “fuckit”, and the result will be hilarious. This is inconvenient because it is usually the most emotionally charged scenes that induce word freeze. It is difficult to get back into the mood when you are rolling on the floor laughing.
Some writers just type “***”.
Emoji or code word, whatever you use the objective is to keep writing. The search for the right word is endless. Some authors spend years to find the right words to a given scene. I wish I knew the emoji trick ages ago.
If you want to get your first draft out quick, don’t get stuck on the search for the right word. Just insert a place holder and move on.
The Cliffhanger Trick:
We owe the words “cliffhanger” and “out on a limb” to Hollywood. Back in the days when movies were serialized like TV programs, movies literally ended with the protagonist hanging from an limb of a tree over a cliff.
Writers are supposed to conjure a cliffhanger at the end of as many chapters as possible. But the reverse is also true. If you cannot finish a chapter, you can just slap on a random cliffhanger.
Say your word count target for the day is two thousand words. You managed to hammer out a thousand but you’ve burned yourself out. It’s late in the day and you are thirsting for a beer. Just put the protagonist in a jam and say: There! Cliffhanger! End of chapter.
Now you can go have your beer with a clear conscience, having finished your day’s work. Tomorrow you can start again refreshed. You didn’t meet your two thousand word quota by about eight hundred words, but you will catch up another day.
A cliffhanger can be anything: A sudden phone call from a boyfriend who wants to break up, a shot out of nowhere that leaves the protagonist wounded with a dead phone and no backup bleeding out and sure to die, a sudden unexpected explosion that throws the protagonist unconscious, a slip of the fingers that makes the protagonist drop his magic wand or energy pod or oxygen tank or love letter into the abyss. You get the idea.
The great thing about cliffhangers is that they tend to come suddenly with no buildup, so it is easy to add them on.
If the chapter ends up being too short, remember this is only the first draft. You can flesh it out later.
A cliffhanger is your get-out-of-jail-free card. If you’ve been writing all day and you feel you have to take a break until tomorrow, just slap on a random cliffhanger. It might end up better than you expect.
The Split Chapter Trick:
This is not really a trick. It’s more like common sense.
When you are stuck in the middle of a chapter because you cannot connect the first half of the chapter to the second half, don’t.
The reason you cannot make the transition from one part of the story to another is because those two sections do not belong together. Put them in different chapters. If the two chapters look a little truncated and short, remember that this is only the first draft. You can agonize about it later.
Say a company executive is plotting a hostile takeover in the first half of the chapter, then talks to his ailing wife in the second half, but you just can’t seem to make the shift from the first half to the second, that is because the two segments of the story do not belong in the same chapter.
Cut the chapter short and start again in a new chapter.
The Casting Trick:
In the late 1980’s, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Menno Meyjes and Philip Kaufman sat down to write the story for the third installment of the Indiana Jones franchise. They had already decided that they were going to introduce Indy’s father into the movie, but then they got stuck. The story got nowhere. Then Kaufman asked, “Who do you want to cast for this father?” This is actually a stupid question to ask in Hollywood, since casting is always vulnerable to the whims and currents of show biz. You approach one actor and he has scheduling conflicts. You approach another actor and he has contract conflicts. After going through a dozen actors you go with what you can get. That is why you never write a movie script tailored for a specific actor. But in this instance, it worked. They agreed that Indy’s father would ideally be played by Sean Connery, who at the time was very much still considered a former James Bond. The moment they got that picture in their heads, the story started flowing. The result was the script of a blockbuster film. And they really got Sean Connery to boot.
If you are writing a book and not a movie script, you are free to cast anyone in the leading role. Just never tell anyone who you had in mind, in case you actually get a movie deal. We don’t want to know that Ian Flemings’s choice for James Bond was David Niven.
Casting your book with a specific actor could help you get the sounds and sights right. (Who is that sub-character played by?) It could help you when you are stuck.
The Fat Guy Trick:
Back more than thirty years ago, I once knew a breathtakingly beautiful and off-the-scale sexy young lady who had preposterously bad luck with a string of handsome boyfriends who all turned out to be jerks of one persuasion or another.
Her girlfriend gave her a piece of advice that stuck in my mind to this day.
“Get yourself a *fat* boyfriend next time.”
If you are badly stuck in your story, let me take a guess: Your protagonist looks like Ryan Gosling, his sidekick looks like Colin Farrell, the mentor looks like Keifer Sutherland, the villain is Christoph Waltz and his henchman is Ron Perlman. Close? Do you realize they are all white and thin? For Christ’s sake throw a fat guy into the mix!
I say this not only because fat people are under-represented in literature, but the damn truth is that fat guys rule.
If you generalize Jews and say “Jews are like this – ” your opinion probably ranges somewhere between mild to vehemently antisemitic. Same deal if you generalize Black, Hispanic, or Asian people. Fat people are typecast too, but in a very different way. Fat people in fiction can be evil like Ernst Stavro Blofeld, or jolly like Friar Tuck, or a representation of benevolent authority like Sir Topham Hatt, or brainy like Nero Wolfe, or greedy like Casper Gutman (a.k.a. the Fat Man). These are all fat guy stereotypes but they cover the whole spectrum of humanity. You might have your idea of what a fat boyfriend is like. But chances are he is probably different from everyone else’s.
But the important thing is, you have a stereotype in your mind. You know what a fat boyfriend is like. He doesn’t look like Ryan Gosling, and he must play a different role.
Is this unfair to fat people? Probably. Writers are unfair to all fictional characters. The bottom line is, throwing a fat guy (or a fat gal) into the mix can solve your stuckness because your preconceptions about fat people, whatever they are, will tell you exactly what to write.
The Blind Date Trick:
You started writing your book with a good idea, say a dystopian future novel. You struggled to stay on course. Now you are sick of your book because it looks just like every other dystopian future novel you ever hated. You are now stuck.
If that is the case, I say throw in Herbie the Lovebug, the Cookie Monster, and Daffy Duck. Seriously.
Here is the thing. You are writing a novel. Nobody but you will ever know what your characters look like or sound like. You can mislead your readers into believing that Daffy Duck is a Caucasian male. It is basically the same thing you do to your profile on an on-line dating site. Nobody will know the truth while you are typing away. The James Bond series was originally written with David Niven in mind. The movie producers (in this case Albert Broccoli and company) didn’t know that, so they cast Sean Connery instead. If the character in your head is Daffy Duck, who is to know? Tom Cruise will play that character in the movie. Maybe not Tom Cruise, but definitely Sam Rockwell.
Daffy Duck does not belong on the set of The Hunger Games or The Maze Runner. But that is just the point. You are sick of the stereotypes of the genre. You want to do something fresh and creative. But you want to type two thousand words a day. What to do?
Here is what to do. Bring in a character you know very well; someone you can put in a situation and predict what he will do and say, like Shaggy from Scoobie Do, or Detective Lennie Briscoe from Law & Order, or Jessie Pinkman from Breaking Bad, or Raphael from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, or Daffy Duck. Put them in your dystopian universe and let them run amok. Don’t tell anybody what they really look like. The story will be original, unexpected, entertaining, and most of all, easy to write.
When push comes to shove and you just cannot come up with something really original at the pace of two thousand words a day, do the Blind Date trick on your first draft. The result will surprise you.
The Hail Mary:
Are you stuck? Really stuck? Have you read all my tips and tried them all? Are you still stuck? Maybe you are ready for the Hail Mary.
This is it.
Type “The End”.
Turn off the computer. Walk away.
Tomorrow morning you have a choice. You can either start writing a new novel, if you can live with it, or you can write an addition to the novel you just finished.
Now go to bed.