A cure for writer’s block

Away over on Figment people ask quite a lot about Writer’s Block. There are lots of solutions — write something different, read something you don’t usually read, watch a film, write from a different character’s perspective, and so on. All these are fine — provided that the problem is with the emotional state of the writer, not with the story itself. The ‘staring at a blank piece of paper’ is, of course, a classic, but my feeling is that this principally affects people who want to write something, rather than people who are writing something. The problem of the plot getting stuck, though, is a different one, and needs a different solution.

Raymond Chandler famously suggested that the thing to do if the plot was stuck was to have a man come into the room with a gun. You can see the evidence of this in The Big Sleep and The Lady in the Lake. Certainly I love Chandler’s writing, and I never get tired of the perpetual twists and turns (by sharp contrast with J Fennimore Cooper’s twists and turns, which I just find irritating). But the man with the gun solution isn’t going to work for everyone: Jane Austen would have got nothing from it, and the plot of Cranford would not really have been helped.

So here is a new solution to the injecting life back into a plot that has lost the author’s interest. It builds a little on Chandler’s dictum, and also goes back to Aristotle’s statement that a likely impossible is better than an unlikely possible.

First, begin by drawing out a square with four boxes, as are so often seen in management books. This one needs ‘can happen’ ‘can’t happen’ at the top, and ‘must not happen’ ‘must happen’ at the side.



Can-can't-must-mustn't grid


Things that ‘can’ happen are things which are plausible and possible in the story. Things that ‘can’t’ are things which are either implausible, impossible, or which either the characters or the reader just can’t believe could happen. ‘Must’ is about the things that you, the reader and the characters believe have to happen for the plot to be satisfying, and ‘must not’ is the things none of you want to have happen.

Now write in the boxes the bits you already have planned for the rest of the story.

• If you’re in writer’s block, chances are that most of these things are in the ‘can happen, must happen‘ box — and therefore it all seems a bit mechanical.

• You could begin by putting some things into the ‘can happen, must not happen‘ box — these are the threats which the characters are trying to avert. You may already have some of these.

• Now, try putting a couple of things in the ‘can’t happen, must not happen’ box — these are your characters’ irrational fears, which you can use to motivate otherwise uncharacteristic behaviour.

• Finally — this is the big one — put just one thing in the ‘must happen, can’t happen‘ box. You really can’t have much more than one thing here, because this is the ‘big surprise’, the plot twist that throws everything into a new light. Of course, you now need to write a path from where the story is now, through the other elements, which takes them to something which seems impossible where the story is now, but inevitable once it’s happened. On the way there, you can even go via a ‘can’t happen, must not happen’ threat.


Can happen can't happen matrix


Adding a ‘can happen, must not happen’ is similar to a man coming into the room with a gun in a Chandler novel. It’s the sort of thing that’s happening all the time, but it’s exactly not what the main character wants to happen. Interestingly, in Pride and Prejudice, Austen really does introduce a ‘can’t happen – must not happen’ with the elopement. Up until then, the story has been a refined one where people talk, but they don’t do. This has been in no sense an action novel, not even the kind of action which is someone making a swift, decisive move. Suddenly all that changes. Of course, what she introduces is something that can happen in the world she describes, but doesn’t seem as though it can happen in the novel we seem to be reading. If it were Wuthering Heights, we would not be at all surprised to see someone eloping, or getting into a fight, or even committing murder.

There is still — of course — a limit of what can happen. Despite some 21st century rewrites, zombies would never have worked as a plot device in the original Pride and Prejudice. A novel about the antics of incompetent civil servants in Whitehall probably won’t be improved by the arrival of Darth Vader to ‘put the project back on track’.

Equally, the Big Surprise is often better done with something which seems impossible in terms of characters rather than something which would be magical or a science innovation. A Deus ex Machina, as Aristotle points out, is rarely a good solution. To go back to Star Wars for a moment, the Big Surprise at the end is not when Luke Skywalker uses the Force to drop his bomb with pinpoint accuracy onto the exhaust of the Death Star. The whole story has been building up to this, and, if that were all that happened, it would seem a bit mechanical and obvious. The turning point is when, against everything which we appear to have learned about him so far, Han Solo brings the Millennium Falcon back into the fight. This big surprise forces us to reinterpret Solo’s character, whereas a techno or paranormal surprise would perhaps leave us thinking ‘why didn’t Darth Vader see that coming’?


Finally, it’s worth remembering that fear is almost always more plausible than hope, at least in novels. If you want to set up something brilliant and wonderful for the end, and don’t want it to sound just like wish-fulfilment, you can do it easily by introducing the negative version of it as either a fear or a shock development. If you want your main character who otherwise seems mild and unsurprising to do something decisive and heroic to save the day, this will work more easily if one of the other characters tells her friend that she sees ‘something dark in his eyes — he seems mild, but I think he’s really, you know, dangerous. I wouldn’t want to be alone with him…’. Likewise, if you want to introduce Definit-kil Laser Pistols to sort out the plot at the end, then give them to the bad guys earlier on as something frightening and dangerous. Introducing the flip-side of the ‘Can’t happen — Must happen’ first as ‘Can’t happen — Must not happen’ will help to overcome the sense of things being too easy at the end.

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