MyFive: Ways to Break a Creative Block

by Jeff Abbott on February 7, 2011

Writer's Block II

I don’t experience writer’s block often (and some writers claim to never have it) but I think there are times when every creative person needs a jolt of inspiration. Here are five very simple approaches I take if my brain seems mired or needs some fuel (some apply to the initial idea stage, some to when you’re already writing but then get stuck):

1. Take a walk. I know this sounds way too simple to be true, but getting up out of the chair, away from the computer or the notebook, and walking in silence is a consistent and reliable way to jar loose an idea from the mud of your brain or sort out a story tangle. Get yourself some fresh air, get your blood moving. In my experience this is the best method of these five. Quiet+exercise+change of scenery+thinking about your problem=goodness.

2. Read what you’ve already written. Sit down, preferably with a printout of your work, and read through it. And rather than tearing it apart because you’re feeling blocked, look at what’s working in it. Where are its strengths? Can you build on those strong passages or ideas? Who are the characters who are working? What more can you do with them? Look at the foundation that you’ve built; if it’s strong, you’ll find inspiration in what you’re doing right. If it’s wrong, then work on fixing the weaknesses. If one of your scenes seems tired or uninteresting, then rewrite it. Just doing a bit of rewriting can spark new ideas for future scenes. The main point here is to get writing again.

3. Look at your characters. I can only speak for myself, but I find when there is a block in a story, it often goes back to characters. I either have them being too passive, or I’m trying to force them to take actions not true to them, or I don’t understand their motivations. Characters drive stories. Get to know them better when you’re blocked. Do something horrible to your hero or heroine. Imagine the worst. Up the stakes for them. Write that scene. It may not come next in the book, but write it and think how you can work toward it. If you’re dry for any idea for a character, ask yourself: who fascinates you? Who else would you want to be for a day? Write about that person. Just write a page. The genesis of a character may start.

4. Break it down. Sometimes the problem is one of structure. Write out your summations of your scenes on index cards, or in an outline. Arrange the scenes in the best order for the story. If you look at your story through the lens of a traditional three-act structure (you can get a good description of this in Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey), what would be the next step in your story? Even if that’s not the scene you want to write–write it. It may open up your mind to new possibilities. Imagine the same story told from your antagonist’s point of view; how would it be different? Write a scene from that perspective. You may never use it, but it can show you new angles to explore. If just looking at your story from “on high” this way doesn’t help, then shuffle and rearrange the scenes. Does that spur some new ideas for new scenes, or new drama for your characters?

If you’re not writing, but rather trying to come up with an idea, just start scribbling down ideas on the cards. Every stupid, random idea allowed. Scribble anything that comes into your mind and do this for twenty minutes. When you’re done, group the best ideas together on the table. How can these ideas be connected or combined in an interesting way? If you want to throw these ideas away, ask yourself why before you dump them in the trash can. Is there any variant or inversion on this idea that might interest you?

Another way to break it down is to sit with a piece of paper and ask yourself: why am I blocked? Why is this story not working? Inside, we often know but we don’t want to say, because the answer will involve work. Be honest. Have a dialogue with yourself. You may have to kill dysfunctional scenes or unworkable subplots or ill-concieved characters that you love, but that are just not contributing to this story. Write out the question and write out possible answers. The answer that breaks your block, expressed in this unexpected way, often appears quickly.

5.  Take a break. I have never gotten a great idea from trying to force one to come. And let’s be honest: there’s pressure. My ideas are how I feed my family and keep a roof over our heads. But If I sit there and try to think of an idea, it won’t work. Don’t prod your subconscious. Step away from the desk, and let your mind alone. The previous suggestion for a walk is best when you have a problem to disentangle, but if you need a new idea, let your brain be. Go pull weeds. Stroll through an art museum and look at pictures. Watch a favorite film. Doodle. Scrub a floor. Go take a shower (I came up with the idea of Panic in the shower.) Trick your brain into not thinking about your problem, and you’d be surprised how quickly it will go back to work, unbidden.

Photo credit, Drew Coffman

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