What to do when you’re stuck: Three tips to get you writing again
It all started with an idea. A shiny, brand-spanking new idea. You let this idea roll around in your brain for a while, marinating in its own juices, until finally you couldn’t stand it a second longer. You had to start writing. And once you started you couldn’t stop. The words poured out of you. You could hardly keep up with the velocity at which the words were bursting forth like water from a dam. The story was practically writing itself.
Until it wasn’t.
The words dried up and pretty soon that burst pipe looked more like a leaky faucet.
At first you were patient with yourself. I just need a break. I’ll come back to this tomorrow.
But the words still didn’t flow. Each time you sat down, eyes fixed on your screen, fingers hovering over the keyboard, eager to write something amazing, you couldn’t make it work. It was like someone had gone into your brain and filled it with cotton candy instead of functioning cells.
You tried to force it. But the scene wasn’t working. The words wouldn’t flow. The sentences were clunky. The dialogue was awkward.
Then you got frustrated and impatient. You were ready to write. So how come nothing you wrote was any good?
And you realized the cold truth of the matter. You were stuck.
How To Get Un-stuck?
Being stuck is real. No, it’s not just a figment of your imagination, or a mental state–it’s a natural and inevitable part of the writing process.
Being stuck is the state of not knowing how to proceed forward. And that’s okay.
Fortunately being stuck can help us identify problems in our stories and course correct.
Being stuck is sort of like the gas light coming on in your car, it’s a signal that something isn’t working and that you ought to stop and figure it out before continuing on. Sure you can force it, but this is likely to end up coming back to bite you later when you realize that somewhere along the way there was a pivotal error and you ignored it instead of solving it.
The key to getting unstuck is to figure out where you went wrong and to course correct.
So how can we do that?
- For every action there must be a reaction
If you find yourself stuck, or unsure how to proceed in your story, this might be the result of not continuing the action/reaction cycle. Every story essentially operates within a cycle of actions and reactions. For example, something happens, then the character reacts to that action, then something else happens as a consequence of the character’s reaction, and the character must then react to that. If your story feels stuck it may because you have fallen out of sync with the cycle. Actions and reactions are what propel the narrative forward and keep the audience engaged.
2. Go back to the beginning
This is my favorite strategy. Whenever I feel stuck, or like something just isn’t right, I will go back to chapter one and start reading. Chances are I will pick up on something earlier on that can help me get un-stuck. Perhaps I am reminded of a loose end I need to tie up, or an important conversation that was never fully fleshed out, or maybe I realize a mistake I made. This is a great way to catch things you might have missed while drafting earlier chapters and course correct.
Another perk of this strategy is it helps you learn about your characters. When I first start a draft I know nothing about my characters except maybe a few shallow data points or a vague idea of who I think they are, but the truth is I don’t really know them. I have to discover them along the way.
Going back to the beginning can help you learn more about your character as you pick up on things you might not have noticed before, or didn’t have a chance to meditate on when you first started writing. By reading, the character will begin to reveal more and more of themselves to you.
One thing I’ve learned is that often times my word count will surpass my understanding of the character in a first and second draft, meaning I’m writing act 2, but my understanding of this character is still stuck back in act1. This generally means that I haven’t spent enough time learning about them and fleshing them out. As a result I may be unsure how to proceed forward because I don’t yet know how the character will respond to the events of act 2 or what their motivation will be. A great way to remedy this is to read from the beginning up until the point you are stuck at as many times as is necessary to help elevate your understanding of the story and the characters. You may pick up on things you never even noticed about your character.
3. Read a book!
Sometimes you just need to get the old creative juices churning, and what better way to do this than by reading. I love to borrow inspiration from other writers and a great way to do this is to pick up a book in the genre you are writing and get immersed in someone else’s story. Pay attention to what you like and what you think is well done in their story and start applying it to your own. This is a wonderful way to jog fresh inspiration and gain perspective. Once I start reading it’s like pouring Drano down the sluggish pipes in my brain.
Some people might be concerned about shifting their narrative voice or stealing too many ideas if they read someone else’s work while drafting, however I think it’s healthy to borrow inspo wherever you can, especially if it gets you out of an idea drout. Don’t worry about your narrative voice just yet, you have plenty more drafts to nail that down, so for right now don’t be afraid to experiment with a few different voices.
So there you have it! Have you tried any of these strategies before, and if so let me know in the comment’s section if they worked or not! And if you feel so inclined please clap for this piece if you found it helpful