Sunday, May 31, 2009

Writing problem: what to do if you get stuck?

This happens often as you write your script or novel. You come to a point where you think you’ve written yourself into a corner. A plot point requires something and you just can’t get there. Wait a minute, he can’t swim to safety; he’s in a wheelchair. Exactly how is she going to get to the Pope to sell him Girl Scout cookies?

This is one of the benefits of a being in a partnership – sometimes he can solve it.

But when working alone, here are four handy tips:

First, don’t be afraid to go back. Yes, you spent an hour on the last page and there’s a great joke about renal failure but if it drops you off at a dead end replace it with something that works. Once you have it you’ll probably be able to make up for lost time and more.

So now that you’ve freed yourself, let your mind wander. Come at the problem from different angles. What if he doesn’t get drunk? What if she gets drunk instead? What if he kills the cable repairman tomorrow and not today (right away that makes more sense because the cable repairman is always a day late)? Way too often we get stuck thinking there’s only one way to solve a problem. There’s not. On LOST once there was some crisis and the solution was to “move the island”. Now that’s not the first thing you normally think of. Look for other options. They’re out there.

Second, go past it if you can. If it’s a joke you just can’t find, stick a pin in it and move on. Do the heavy lifting first and then come. It’s a lot easier to tackle the problem when you know it’s the final thing you need to do. But I say “if you can” because if the issue is a major plot point or character definition it’s usually better to solve it now. You don’t want to have to go back and rewrite six pages before the problem and then sixty pages after the problem once you’ve solved it. Or that could just be me. However, long speeches, specific jokes, finding the perfect paragraph to describe a setting – save that crap for later.

Third. Don’t panic. You’ll get it. It might not be in five minutes but you will. My partner and I always joke when we come to a bump that “that’s it. A thirty year career comes to end because we can’t figure how to get Daphne out of the room.” Yes, it’s frustrating but you’re a writer. You welcome pain.

And finally, just walk away. Take a break. Do anything else but write. For some this is hard. They don’t like to stop until they’ve finished a scene or a certain number of pages or ZACK & CODY comes on. But it’s okay to stop in the middle of a scene, the middle of a speech, the middle of a word. Clear your head. Go for a walk. Go see a movie. Go to bed. Let your subconscious mull over the dilemma. It will, trust me. Many times I’ll go to sleep with a pad and pen by my bed. In the morning the solution is somehow there. I also do a lot of problem solving in the shower. It’s hard to read back later because the pad is wet, but letting your mind drift while you’re in a relaxed state often unlocks the lock.

Let me show you an example. I don’t really know how to end this post. So for now I’m ju


Sam said...

I saw the LOST writers speak a little while ago and they described writing themselves into a corner as something they enjoy. They said it forced them to figure out how to walk on walls.

Anonymous said...

Cell phones are the go-to deus ex machina for plot unstuckage. On the few television procedurals left, as soon as they hit the 40 minute mark and somethings got to give or twist, a phone rings. Conversely, I've noticed a lot of effort put into eliminating the phone as resolver of problems, i.e., preventing viewers from thinking "why didn't/doesn't he/she just call the other character/the police/the doctor/her girlfriend..." The bulk of shows are poorly-written enough that you can see the way the writers are piecing together the plot and working-through their stumbling blocks.

Duffy said...

Thanks, this post should help a lot of people. My problem, however, is STARTING the damn thing. I have some kind of self-concious problem with the beginnings of stories (once I get past it, I can get on a roll). I keep on thinking what I wrote was crap. Then again, I wonder how many times JRR Tolkien wrote beginnings before coming up with The Lord of the Rings, or JK Rowling with Harry Potter, or Moses with the Torah.

Also, Ken, a little question that has always bothered me: How do producers (or whoevers behind it) decide which characters will be guest stars, which will be co-stars, and which will be headliners? I noticed particularly in "The Office" that one character who had been in virtually every episode (Creed Bratton) was listed sporadically as a guest star, which another who was missing over large chunks of the season (particularly season 5) was still one of the main people in the opening (BJ Novak).

Razor Rob said...

I write every day. I always try to do the Hemingway trick and leave a few sentences pointing the way to tomorrow's start. That stops me from getting stuck at the gate tomorrow.

When I seriously don't know what the next complication to ensue is, I literally sleep on it. For this (or frankly, any problem) I ask myself at bedtime, what happens tomorrow? I expect an answer. That plants the seed and when I wake up, I wake into the hypnagogic state, a highly creative state of mind between sleep and full wakefulness, and immediately write down what comes to me on waking. Invariably, it's an incredible headstart on the day's work.

Sure, it sounds weird, but it's a time-tested science-based way to make your consciousness work for you instead of being something that may or may not happen to you.

That's how I beat writer's block. I found it worked better for me than Augusten Burrough's suggestion: You got writer's block? Fine. Write about that. (Love him otherwise.)

Christina said...

Best advice for stuckness I've every received:

"If you're stuck in a scene, the problem is probably in the scene before it."

I'm sure this is common knowledge, but I didn't hear it until last summer. Going back a scene solves like 78% of my stuckness.

Steph said...

For me, it's never where the story's going.My issue has always been having the drive to continue what I've started. Like making myself believe that what I'm writing is worthwhile even if NO ONE reads it.

Your tips are extremely helpful about how to push on though. I will definitely give'em a try.

Anonymous said...

I still think the best piece of advice I ever got for writing came from the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode 'The Muse' - Just write, editing comes later.

Well, there was more than that, but that's the gist.

Rays profile said...

Is the last paragraph an explanation of the final episode of The Sopranos?

Nat G said...

"So for now I'm ju"?

Of corse u r ju. With a name like Levine, you thot we thot you wuz muzlim?

Yes, let your subconcious work on the problem. Half the time, I find the problem is fixed not by adding a new wrinkle, but actually by simplifying what came before.

The other half, I find that I simply don't see the problem any more -- that what I perceived as a problem was just confusion or tiredness and that what I have works.

Joe said...

Yes, it’s frustrating but you’re a writer. You welcome pain.Oh, @#$%. So THAT's where I've been going wrong.

PS Funny, you don't look juish.

SharoneRosen said...

this was all very helpful, comments included...

so, is waiting two years to get back to writing my book enough to clear my head?

WV: moode- either the guy who played Faigin in Oliver,

or what happens to women every four or so weeks.. not sure.. AND DON'T ASK ME AGAIN

took too long
WV: broca- okay this is a real word, it's the area of your brain that controls speech. don't you feel better for knowing that?

Mary Stella said...

When I'm stuck for a word, a line of dialogue or an ending to a scene or chapter, I blahblahblah it. I've also been known to write, "and then something else terrific happens." The trick is to highlight those parts in yellow (Thank you, MS Word.) So I don't forget to fix them later.

Nora Roberts always says that the only page she can't fix is the blank one, so keep writing no matter what. Given her output and phenomenal success, she must be on to something.

Tom Quigley said...

I was going to offer my own piece of advice, but unfortunately, I'm stuck -- I just can't come up with anything....

Alan Coil said...

Sam (first post) noted that the Lost writers enjoyed writing themselves into a corner. It is rather obvious they are in a corner.

Anonymous (second post) noted:

"The bulk of shows are poorly-written enough that you can see the way the writers are piecing together the plot and working-through their stumbling blocks."

Precisely why I watch little television these days. I wait for critical acclaim, then start watching dvds until I am current. Then I follow the show weekly.

Cap'n Bob said...

Raymonds Chandler said to have a guy with a gun come in the room.

Jeff Tompkins said...

The part about sleeping (and keeping a pad and pen close by) is so true. I tend to wake up a lot during the middle of the night and I can't tell you how many times I have had a good idea when that happens. It's almost like your head is clearer, despite the "fog" of sleep.

I've had ideas for entire columns and plot points (for my novel) in the middle of the night.

And it's pretty cool to wake up in the morning and have that idea ready to go, even if it's written in semi-legible scrawl.

trevoir said...

love the advice posts. wish they were more frequent.

ChrisPUT said...

Alan Coil said...
"... I wait for critical acclaim, then start watching dvds until I am current. Then I follow the show weekly."

How very safe of you. The problem with this method is, some of the best shows get canceled because not enough people took the chance or the time to try them on when they were new. (Some things just need a little tailoring or they are like your big boy pants, YOU need to grow into them.)
Heaven forbid you like something that the critics don't.

Anonymous said...

I don't think you can wait for critical acclaim, it usually never comes. Sometimes brilliance gets overlooked because it isn't obviously "transcendent" or whatever in the way that appeals to critics.

The reason I watch most stuff on DVD or iTunes is scheduling: who knows when the next episode of something or another is going to be on, so why let Jeff Zucker decide what I'm going to watch at 10pm?

deepstructure said...

"Do the heavy lifting first and then come."

are we talking about writing?

Anonymous said...

Thats how we write software too. If the answer to a problem doesn't come in the shower, or on the drive home, then go for a walk or do something totally different. Bingo, your subconscious, which has been beavering away on the problem while the rest of you was having fun, has just popped the answer to your forebrain.
Can never understand how people think they just need to stare at a problem for long enough.

typicallydia said...

what great advice! i think the absolute best one was in regards to a problem with a scene likely being the scene before it. how true.

often, in the middle of a scene, i break out into point form when my brain won't just walk my way through what i want my character to do/say/think. it helps, whether i use it or not, even if it is severely disjointed.

LisaJan said...

This is great, because I am currently at a stuck place with my story.

Anonymous said...

Noooooo! I've been stuck on this one scene for days! I'm never going to get it. I'm pulling my hair out here!

Anonymous said...

What if you are in an English lesson and you have to write it, and being 'stuck' doesn't mean you can just 'walk away'?! Also it's information text, not a book. (I'd MUCH rather be writing a book right now... :S)