Who’s afraid of writer’s block?
Writer’s block can be very frustrating. You feel lost when it happens.
But there are ways to overcome it, and the story itself will save you.
How many stories are you writing at the moment? Meaning: how many stories are sitting in your drawer waiting to be finished?
I have two.
While they’re both sitting in my drawer, they are very different, and while I do intend to finish both, one is further on the way than the other.
The first story, The Frozen Maze, is complete.
Act I is finished and published on my blog.
Act II is being revised and mostly rewritten.
Act III stands in first draft form and must be rewritten completely.
I have no doubt I’ll finish and publish this story. Yes, there’s much rewriting to do, but all the major plot points are resolved. I know exactly where I’m going. I know exactly what journey all of my characters are on. I also have a clear idea of the theme and the resolution.
You may say, yes, but you still have to rewrite two-thirds of it. What if you get stuck somewhere on the way?
Well, you know, I won’t get stuck because all the essential elements of the story are there and work fine, and I have a clear vision of the theme.
Does this mean I won’t find any difficulties in the rewrite? No. I will still have to solve a lot of twists, new ideas will present themselves, and I will have to weave them in. Characters may act in unexpected ways – as they so often do. But none of this will be a problem because I know the way to the end of the story, and these minor inconveniences will eventually fit into that journey.
Now, Bones of the Titans. That’s a different beast.
I attempted to write the first draft during NaNoWriMo some five years ago. Halfway through the challenge, I had to drop out.
Writing had become extremely difficult. You know why? Because I didn’t really know where I was going.
I worked out a basic story structure. I created character arcs for all of my main players. It’s essential work for me. I never start writing a story unless I work out these components first.
It still didn’t work. Why?
- I needed a lot more research for the setting before I felt comfortable there (this is a historical novel). It was, in fact, what convinced me to drop off.
- While I had worked out each of the three subplots, the overall story arc was shaky. Add to this that the mystery thread was too weak.
- A few of the characters’ motivations were blurry at best and didn’t work together satisfactorily.
All of this created uncertainty about the story’s shape and direction and ultimately stuck it.
Do I feel as if I’m living with writer’s block?
I’m still sure I will finish both stories, but I know the second needs much work and problem-solving.
Because here’s the thing: what we call writer’s block is often a lack of clarity. It’s a blurry vision of the story that doesn’t allow us to see the way to the end.
The good news is that finding clarity is a lot easier than combating that dark, obscure malady that we call writer’s block, which we often are not even able to define.
Shall we have a look at what we can do?
Luck or intention?
Bones of the Titans suffers from a pretty common problem: lack of clarity. This is what makes it so different from The Frozen Maze, and it’s what could potentially kill it.
With The Frozen Maze, I simply have to turn my story structure into a visually and emotionally compelling narrative. I need to turn ideas into action and dialogues, a more visual and empathic experience for the readers that will allow them to connect with the story theme.
With Bones of the Titan, I still have to pin down a clear story structure.
I know chunks of the story and my characters well enough, yet I can’t connect the dots. This makes the story choppy and disconnected.
It creates holes in the plot, and this is what will ultimately build roadblocks – which is what happened to my story.
So, what to do about it?
I’ll tell you first what I won’t do:
- I won’t just push on. I tried it during NaNoWriMo, and it miserably failed. Pushing on may sometimes work, but that’s up to our luck – and we can’t rely on luck to assist us when we need it. What we need is a plan. This means ‘direction’. A plan may be as simple as three plot points.
- I won’t look for inspiration in prompts. Again, this may work, and again, this relies on luck, not intention. The solution to my story’s problem will be inside, not outside the story. The story knows how she wants to be told. Much of our problems come from not listening to her.
- I won’t compile huge character sheets. Though I will probably do something similar and yet different: I will work on character arcs. This will give me insight into what is in the story, not add to what might be lacking.
As I mentioned, these methods may work if you’re lucky. But relying on luck isn’t the best of plans. It’s actually the main reason why so many stories never get finished.
A better plan is intentionally going after our story’s heart.
Every story has a heart, a reason why it’s worth telling it. If we find that heart, we’ll find direction, and if we have direction, no roadblock will stop us from finishing that story.
What causes a story to lock?
There are a few reasons why a story gets stuck, and if we are honest, it really boils down to just one.
But let’s have a look at the main reasons:
Lack of an overall idea of the story arc.
It’s very common to start writing a story knowing how it begins but not how it ends. Sure, we can try to discover it, but here’s what I’ve learned about discovery writing: it only works when the end is implicit in the beginning.
We tell ourselves: I don’t know where I’m going, I will discover it as I write – but the beginning carries the seeds of the end.
For example, your protagonist wants to enter a very expensive college and works herself out in two or three jobs to get the money. You start the story showing her taking this action, and even if you don’t know whether she will succeed or not yet, the story can really only end in two ways: she gets the money and achieves her dream, or she doesn’t get the money and has to renounce her dreams. The end will come down to this because this is what the reader cares about.
You know what I mean? You may not know how the story will end when you start, but the direction is clear and whether it will finish in one way or the other doesn’t depend on luck or chance but on your intentional decisions about the story’s theme.
The idea we start with is a premise, not a story
This is part of the problem above, but I put it here separately because it’s very common.
Basically, you have the idea for a character or a situation. This is fine. Most stories start this way. They don’t usually finish this way.
Stories are all about movement and transformation. A character starts as one person and ends as another. Or they start in one situation and end in another. But the situation will only change if something happens. There needs to be movement, action.
The problem with premises is that, more often than not, they don’t include action.
Say that you have this idea of a character that can see ghosts. This ability first manifests when the character loses her brother in an accident.
You might think this is enough to start writing a story. You may describe this character’s life, the accident where she loses her brother, the first manifestation of her gift, the emotions she gets through. Then what?
Then, your story will hit a roadblock.
The problem with premises is that when you have described everything there is to describe, nothing is left. Unless you find a way to transformation. Unless you turn your premise into a story arc. Into action.
Lack of conflict
This is also part of point 1 and is very common, so it gets its own point.
For a story to happen, a character needs to want something that they can’t have immediately. There will be obstacles on their way to getting what they want. To overcome those obstacles (it may be a situation, but most often, it will be a person, an antagonist), they need to go through a transformation.
When these obstacles are not serious enough, the conflict will be weak, and this will weaken the story.
There may be many reasons why a conflict is not strong enough. These are the most common:
- The protagonist’s desire is weak. No impelling reason spurs the protagonist to achieve that particular desire. Their life will be fine whether they get that desire or not.
- The antagonist’s reasons for opposing the protagonist aren’t strong enough or are unrealistic, so their reasons appear to be just excuses for the story to happen.
- The desire itself is not believable. For example, the desire could be achieved quite easily, but we manufacture unprobably obstacles. Or the antagonist’s actions are not aligned with the protagonist’s desire.
Whatever the cause of the lack of conflict (and there may be a lot more), the result will be the same:
- The conflict won’t be serious enough.
- The stakes won’t be high enough.
- The story will end up being uncompelling or unrealistic.
The main difference between this point (lack of conflict) and the other two (lack of story arc or premise/not story) is that you can actually finish a story with a weak conflict. It just won’t be a compelling story.
I believe that my problem with Bones of the Titans is point 1 and part of point 3.
While I do have quite clear ideas about the conflict in all the characters’ arcs and, therefore, in their subplots, it’s not very clear how all of them connect to the overarching story. Therefore, the main plot is shaky. And because the overall plot is shaky, my vision for the entire story is blurry. I don’t see a clear direction to take.
If I don’t have a clear direction, I don’t know where I’m going.
If I don’t know where I’m going, I won’t go anywhere.
How to solve the problem
We call it writer’s block when we feel it, but we can’t define it.
But actually, writer’s block is an umbrella term that may indicate different problems when working on a story. Most of the time, if we have a hard look at the story and the possible holes in her, we will see what we should do to help her and unlock the situation.
Structural problems are not the only problems that may cause what we call writer’s block, but they are very common. They are, in fact, more common than writers generally think.
They are also easier to solve than other, more intimate situations.
So what do we do when we realise that our writer’s block is actually a lack of clarity with the structure of the story?
You’ll have guessed it by now, I bet. The way to unlock your story is to find direction. Connecting the beginning to the end in a logical and emotional way.
The way to do this is to work out the story structure.
If you build the story structure convincingly, you’ll have direction, you’ll know how the situation and the characters will transform, and you’ll have a clear idea of the conflict.
It may be tricky sometimes. I did work on the story structure of Bones of the Titans, I just didn’t solve all of the plot points – because I thought, ‘They will solve themselves out as I write’. And see? It didn’t work.
My next step for that story is working out the overall story structure, one that will gather all the subplots logically while strengthening the story’s theme.
What about your story?
Does anything here resonate with you? Can you identify why your story hit a roadblock and how you may get around it?
Tell me in the comments. Maybe I can help you.
If you are struggling with creating the story structure, download my FREE Story Builder. It’s a quick guide to starting to lay down your story structure and find direction and purpose in your storytelling.