It happens to everybody. Even bestselling authors.
You’re writing along, stringing words into sentences, paragraphs, pages, and chapters when it happens. Like a deer bounding across the road in front of your car. Some problem arises that threatens forward progress. Even if you don’t hit the deer—or the problem—it slows everything down.
But it may bring you to a rubber-squealing halt, black tire marks and all.
That happened to me in February, pretty much right in the middle of my personal writing challenge.
I slammed headlong in the all important need for a story question. I reached a point beyond which I couldn’t go without knowing what my lead character’s quest was.
I did not want to give up on the challenge. That was important in my writing rehabilitation.
Nor did I want to give up on the story. Though I’d left the open the option of working on more than one story as part of the challenge, that just wasn’t the right decision.
I couldn’t continue writing the story.
I couldn’t give up on the story.
What was the solution?
First, let me assure you that the activities I’m about to describe are by no means the only way to get over, under, around, or through a road block.
But they were helpful to me and may also be helpful for you.
4 Tips for Dealing with Writer’s Road Block
1. Examine the Road Block
The first thing I did was write a narrative summary of the section of the story where I encountered the road block. In this case, the first act. In fifteen minutes, I summarized the first act to best of my ability. It wasn’t a comprehensive summary and it wasn’t even complete. Basically it only hit the highlights, but it was a step in the right direction.
Then I expanded the summary into a chapter outline with free writing. Most of it was narrative summary, but I wrote dialogue and other scenes as they came to mind.
I also wanted to explore possible alternate plots. But it’s a known fact that such explorations often lead to total derailment. So rather than go into great detail about possible alternatives, I wrote opening lines for fifteen minutes. I ended up with 49 opening lines and was satisfied I already had the best plot for this particular story.
Reviewing chapter arrangement was also important. Although not many chapters are written, I have a general idea how the first act should unfold.
Persistent difficulties writing it led me to wonder if there was a better way.
How many of the chapters I think I need to write are actually necessary?
How much of the information I planned for the first act could be sprinkled throughout the rest of the story instead of being presented in real-time?
It was easy to see that the problem with the first act might be that most of what I’d planned was either not necessary or not in the right part of the story. Most of it was both.
A stunning thought, but one that opened the door to other possibilities.
Most of the work on the first act involved nothing more complicated than pondering. Simply letting it percolate through my subconscious long enough for the solution to arrive.
But I wanted to keep writing and I didn’t want to work on another story while this one percolated.
So I found other things to do.
2. Work On Another Part of the Story
I’d already written a scene sequence that I think could be the moment of grace for the lead character. But after spending a few days on it, I’d set it aside to get back to work on the beginning of the story.
Now, with the beginning causing problems, I went back to this sequence. I spent a couple of days reviewing what had already been written, revising it, expanding it, editing, and generally doing whatever came to mind.
I wrote the next chapter and introduced a new problem. I began to explore how the lead character reacted to his moment of grace and how he resisted it.
Then I asked myself what happened immediately before the moment of grace. What led up to the sequence I’d written? Who was involved? How did they respond?
I continued pushing the sequence in both directions for a few days, through several chapters in the heart of the story.
I did the same thing with a sequence that comes later in the book; possibly the third major turning point or the lead character’s dark moment.
I also worked on a possible denouement.
The beauty of working these sequences in tandem is that discoveries in one sequence often leads to discoveries in the others. It’s true. Figuring out how the story ends often leads to knowing how the story begins.
3. Brainstorm Missions and Quests
I spent a couple of days listing possible missions for the lead character. Or quests if you like that word better. Beginning with “Simon must take the One Ring to Mount Doom and destroy it”—Hey! I needed a place to start—I listed everything I could think of. The list contained silly things. It contained trivial things. It contained very serious, global-consequences things. It may even contain the Right Thing.
The primary interest was in getting as many ideas on paper as possible. The time will come to analyze and sort them later.
4. Review Other Stories to See What Quests I’d Given Other Characters
This activity didn’t advance word count since it was all reading, but it did help me see how I’d assigned missions or quests to other characters. Some of them almost accidentally.
Seeing how that had happened pointed me in the right direction with Simon.
These are just four of the tools and techniques I use to navigate road blocks when I encounter them. They don’t all work all the time or for every situation, but they work often enough to be the go-to tools for breaking through a road block.
They might be just what you’re looking for right now.
What do you do when you encounter a road block with your work in progress?