Let’s be honest.
There is no such thing as Writer’s Block.
This is a phrase that we use to describe the frustrating experience of wishing to write without being able to.
But there’s no such thing.
We say that we have this thing called “writer’s block” and it’s the reason why we’ll never achieve our dreams. As if it’s a contracted disease.
But it doesn’t exist.
What we are experiencing is the self-inflicted phenomenon of writers making choices that frequently lead to failure.
And knowing that writer’s block is a myth is exactly what you need to beat it.
There are two times when writers tend to get stuck:
- The Start of a Story
- The Middle of a Story
In order words, you’re most likely to experience a “block” either 1) when you have the inspiration to write a story, but can’t figure out where to start, or 2) when you’re knee-deep in a story but can’t figure out how to get your characters from the middle to the end.
The solution is to recognize that these different points in the story-telling journey (The Start and The Middle) require entirely different strategies to get unstuck and move forward.
Stuck at the Start
All stories begin with the very seedling of creativity: Inspiration.
It’s essential to understand that Inspiration is usually just a single element of a story. Here are some examples:
- Meeting a single mother who works 3 jobs: This is ONLY a character with a goal and motivation, but not a Story.
- Visiting the glistening beaches of Hawaii: This is ONLY a setting where a Story can take place.
Stories require goal-driven characters, settings that push back against the pursuit of those goals, and character choices with increasing stakes.
Inspiration can’t deliver all of that.
So when you are inspired by a situation, an observation, an overheard conversation, remember: This is not a Story.
It is just Inspiration.
And Inspiration—on its own—tends to get a writer blocked.
Unblocking the Start
Remember: There’s no such thing as “writer’s block.”
It’s the self-inflicted phenomenon of writers making choices that frequently lead to failure.
So what choices don’t lead to failure?
A good place to start is in the management of your Inspiration.
Track it. Keep a journal. Take notes of the emotions you feel in particular situations or around different people.
And then, when you do sit down to begin a story, go into it knowing that the Inspiration alone isn’t enough.
If you’ve been inspired by a setting, realize that you’re going to need characters and conflict. If you meet a person with a larger-than-life personality, plan on giving him some goals that he can’t achieve yet.
Writing isn’t a purely imaginative activity. It’s highly strategic from the start to the end.
Stuck in the Middle
“The Middle” of a project is an incredibly broad concept.
But we all know what it is. It’s the part that is well beyond the beginning where your characters are established, and it’s long before the ending that you’ve got cooking in your mind.
Now remember, Middles aren’t hard in and of themselves.
Middles are hard because we make them hard.
Since “writer’s block” is the self-inflicted phenomenon of writers making choices that frequently lead to failure, we need to make the successful choice:
To plan and follow through.
Unblocking the Middle
The Middle of a story is essential for escalating the conflict. It’s where the characters do the most growing.
The Middle is a long sequence of agonizing choices with many consequences and rewards.
I know Endings are more fun. I truly do.
But you can’t earn an ending without a well-planned and maniacally rewritten Middle.
Pixar gets this. In Toy Story, Woody spends Act 1 wanting to get rid of Buzz Lightyear. And he does.
And that’s when the movie really begins. Choices. Pain. Suffering. Fighting.
So what do we do when we’re “stuck” in The Middle?
Here are 3 steps you need to take every single time you experience that “thing” known as “writer’s block” in the Middle of a project:
- Save a copy of the draft.
- Reflect on the choices you made.
- Make new, deliberate, unpredictable, and risky choices.
When you get “blocked” (and you will), stop and save a copy of the draft with a new title. I use a sequencing system: “TITLE 1.0,” “TITLE 1.1,” “TITLE 1.2,” and so on.
Then, as you experiment, keep a novel journal to reflect on character motivations, flaws, choices, actions, and the like, and then make new choices that won’t lead you into the same narrative dead-end.
Also, create a “TITLE_EXTRAS” document to store all the chapters, scenes, and sentences that you choose to change, but can’t quite bring yourself to part with. I did, and it’s 60,000 words long.
I cut or changed 60,000 words from my novel, The Bean of Life.
And why did I keep all of it?
Because I don’t let my emotions carry me away when I get “stuck.” I make a plan and stick to it.
Because I believe that my dream of telling stories is worth it.
Will You Get Unblocked?
Is your dream worth a few strategic steps?
I believe it is.
So if “writer’s block” is the self-inflicted phenomenon of writers making choices that frequently lead to failure, remember: The choices are yours.
Time to make new ones.
I don’t believe in writer’s block.
I do believe in Writer’s Quit.
Because that’s all it is. We run into obstacles of our own making and blame it on the narrative boogey-man.
But you’re better than that.
Do you want to be a story-teller who never quits?
Where do you get stuck? How do you get unstuck? Let me know in the comments.
Time to tackle the places where you're stuck. For the next fifteen minutes, do one of the following exercises:
If you're stuck at the beginning of a new story, write out your inspiration. What was that original nugget of an idea that made you want to start writing in the first place? Spend fifteen minutes brainstorming, fleshing it out from just a setting or just a character into an idea for a full story.
If you're stuck in the middle of your work-in-progress, experiment with a new narrative choice. Take a risk and point your story in an unexpected direction. For fifteen minutes, explore this choice, its consequences, and the ways your characters react to it.
When you're done, post your practice in the comments. Then, leave feedback for other writers. Can you think of any more unexpected twists and turns to help them get unblocked?