Sunday, July 15, 2012

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


jcs said...

Friday question:
According to several articles I read Louis C.K. is getting paid very little for producing "Louie" on FX. In exchange he seems to enjoy a lot more creative control than other showrunners.
Do you think that we will see similar deals in the near future?

Dana King said...

Definitely the shower. I solve many of life's problems, writing and otherwise, while in the shower, often while not consciously thinking about it. The answer just pop into my head.

Ane said...

Got a good advise om how to just get rid of characters for a while? That's always my problem when writing, "those to can't ble here to witness what's going om with x and y! "

Anonymous said...

An article in the July 3 New Yorker about the University of Chicago's annual scavenger hunt--bring back a training bra, your own appendix in a jar, creat a phone recharger using only items available in the 16th century--made me wonder what a Ken Levine-run scavenger hunt would be like? You've done a "My Day in LA" column. Why not a scavenger hunt? Bring back what...a 17 year-old virgin from Beverly Hills, a G-rated Lisa Lampinelli joke, dirt from under Kim Kardashian's fingernails? Check out the article and favor us with your version.

VSaia said...

Can't wait to read your ending. Running also helps.

Madame Duchery said...

Sometimes when I've written a scene I love, but it's just not working for the larger piece, I excise it and put it in a file designated for outtakes. Maybe I'll find a use for it later. But if I end up not using it, I somehow don't feel so bad about it being banished to the outtakes, and this process gives me a little extra perspective that I wouldn't have if I just deleted it.

I do all my plotting while driving (PWD™). I put music on repeat and drive (I have to drive a lot of miles for work). Sometimes I use my digital voice recorder or the equivalent app to take a few notes, but mainly I'm running logic tests, on whether it's reasonable for my characters to act the way they're acting.

Lately I use the app Lisgo on my iPhone to read aloud my latest oeuvre*, and I find myself catching many more typos and mistakes that way. So when I'm working in the garden, cleaning the laundry room, or painting the shed, I'm actually "writing".

*(To use Lisgo, you have to also use the app "Pocket" and you must post your writing to a publicly available blogging site--but I find the text-to-speech algorithm to be way better than many of the other options, including Kindle's, which can be used in the same way with pdf's of your writing.)

Mister Charlie said...

I have applied that to songwriting, only to end up with scraps of paper filled with all manner of brilliance and crapulence in stacks and envelopes all over the house, decades of them. heh Can't face winnowing them down to getting maybe 5 decent songs. (There's writing then there's editing!)

Phillip B said...

Mark Twain on starting to write a magazine story - The Extraordinary Twins - and writing a novel, Puddinhead Wilson, instead:

Eric said...

I have a easy solution to the "How to get Daphne out of the room?" question. Don't have Daphne get out of the room in the first place! Sorry, Daphne is my favorite character ever, and that was my biggest pet peeve about Frasier, especially when she left the room and never returned for the rest of the episode. She always did leave with a good line, however.

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