Sunday, June 25, 2017

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 NCIS 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


VP81955 said...

As a writer of romantic comedies, I can vouch that Ken's tips are good ones. Every time you sit down to write, you enter with a new perspective. If it doesn't provide the right solution for your specific problem, challenge a different problem and return to it later. What you come up with may lead to you solving it later, in the form of character development, a new joke or...something.

LinGin said...

Taking a break worked for Richard Wagner. The Ring Cycle - after writing the music for Act II of the third opera, "Siegfried," he found himself at an impasse and put the pen down. He returned to it twelve years later.

And Wagner wrote the text in reverse chronological order. He felt "Gotterdammerung" needed a prologue opera to it so he then wrote "Siegfried" but wasn't satisfied with how the story was coming together so he wrote "Die Valkyrie," to give Brunhilde a back story. But then he also felt that he needed another story to explain the gods, the dwarfs, the giants and, of course, the gold, so "Das Rheingold" was written.

And that is your useless information of the day.

Barry in Portland said...

These tips, of course, work perfectly for software development, too.

An intractable technical design problem is frequently solved upon waking up the next morning.

I totally agree that developing the sense for what roadblocks can be deferred while you work on other parts, and which demand an immediate nap on the couch, is what makes you a professional.

ELS said...

So here's your tag line to end the post.

"And then the murders started."

If that's not a new jump off point, I've never been a writer.

Which I never have... :)

J Lee said...

Ken, I'd been interested to see any video examples of shows where you remember you and David having writer's block on a particular scene that made it into a show, and how that scene eventually was filmed with the bridging elements over the rough spot.

(I find if I'm stuck writing that the 'go past it if you can' option works the best for me. Just try to keep getting something down on paper or video screen to keep from obsession on that sticking point, and you may come up with some sort of hook to bridge the problem part of the story.)

Johnny Walker said...

Vince Gilligan and his staff wrote themselves into an almost inescapable corner on BREAKING BAD. I think it got so bad they had to halt production. They still couldn't think of a solution and at one point considered re-filming parts of episodes that were already in the can. You can imagine how stressed they must have been! "Sorry, I really fucked up. Can I have more money to fix the episodes we've already filmed?"

Eventually they managed to solve it. They must have wanted to have a party that day!

(If you're interested: The unsolvable problem was when Walter and Jesse were cornered in their campervan by Hank. They wrote to that point without knowing how they were going to escape! Quite an ingenious solution they found, too.)

VincentS said...

Running helps me when I get stuck. My mind is at ease and it's guilt-free daydreaming because I'm also exercising!

bruce said...

45 years ago, Michael O'Donoghue wrote an article in National Lampoon advising writers that, when stuck, they should simply write "And then they were all run over by a truck". Googling shows it was called "How to write good", and here is a probably unauthorized link:

Andy Rose said...

@Johnny Walker: Vince Gilligan (with the exception of the second season runner about the plane crash) made it a point to not think any further ahead in Breaking Bad than was absolutely necessary to get the production done on time. They started the final season with a flash-forward scene showing Walter White with a completely different appearance and no wedding ring, eating alone in a Denny's. When it was filmed, they had no idea how they were going to pay it off at the end of the series.
On the prequel, Better Call Saul, they've been slowly building up to the beginning of the Breaking Bad storyline, one element at a time. But they admit they still have no idea what they're going to do to explain away Kim Wexler, a critical character on BCS who is never seen or mentioned in Breaking Bad.

D. McEwan said...

Your final option, just walk away and think about something else for now, is my invariable approach to a block.

VP81955 said...

Ken, after you and your WGA cohorts reached a settlement, you might not have anyone to write for. SAG-AFTRA has called for a strike vote over "outrageous rollbacks" by studios:

Andrew said...

@Andy Rose: The answer to that conundrum was leaked. Gus kills Kim in the desert.

John Hammes said...

The conclusion to "Bela Lugosi Meets A Brooklyn Gorilla" (1952) continues to provide writers - and viewers - a classic example on how to escape writer's block. Well, at least, an example.

Diane D. said...

How interesting, Johnny Walker! I remember that scene so well, and I remember thinking, "There's no way they can get out of this!" Their solution was indeed brilliant. However, I remember thinking they had made a mistake of some kind involving Walter or Jesse's car. I don't remember what it was, but on watching it a second time I saw I was wrong.
Do you mind telling me where you read that (if you're still checking this thread)?

Mike Bloodworth said...

The main problem I have is getting an idea in the first place. Once I start writing I'm usually O.K.