The Mysteries of Writer’s Block

Put a bunch of writers in a room together and the subject of writer’s block will inevitably come up. Who gets it? How can you beat it? Does it even really exist?

Some people will argue that the concept of writer’s block is merely a crutch, an excuse a writer waves when they’re running late on a deadline. After all, you don’t hear other professionals claiming an inability to work due to a mysterious impediment. Plumber’s block? Dentist’s block? Not likely. But others swear it’s a true affliction that can paralyze a writer and bring the creative process to a grinding halt, and they will do virtually anything to escape its clutches.

At the end of the day, however, writers don’t really care whether writer’s block is an actual thing or not. What writers care about is the ability to write, to move forward on their projects, and to be satisfied with the results. So the important thing, when feeling a little stuck, is to figure out how to get the writing flowing once more.

Diagnose the problem. When writing feels impossible, it’s important to determine what sort of problem you’re up against. Are you facing a blank page? Not sure what happens in your next chapter? Unable to bring yourself to sit at your desk? Figure out what kind of challenge you’re facing, because only then can you unravel the situation to see what might be causing it.

Getting started. Facing a blank page is always a challenge, and it can be difficult to sit down and start from scratch. So many decisions to make. So many ways things could go. And that first sentence is so important, must capture the reader’s attention and draw them into the story. The very freedom of that empty screen or sheet of paper, and the pressure of making a strong start, overwhelm many writers. Because they can write anything, the process seems daunting, and it becomes impossible to write at all.

The thing to remember here is that first drafts are meant to be terrible and are destined to be rewritten. It is far easier to revise a shoddy piece of writing or to revamp a boring opening than it is to write a beautiful first paragraph on the very first try. So write anything that comes to mind. Jot notes, character ideas, bits of dialogue. Start in the middle, start at the end, start with a scene that might never be included in your final version. Get your fingers moving and words flowing and don’t worry if it feels like gibberish. Put down what you need to so the page in no longer blank. Eventually your ideas will start to pump again and something useful will appear.

Lost in the middle. You’ve been writing along for days or weeks and your story or novel is taking shape. Then suddenly one morning all progress screeches to a stop. You have no idea what happens next. Perhaps you’ve written your protagonist into a sticky situation and you don’t know how they’ll solve it. Or someone new has shown up and you haven’t planned for them in the action to come. Or maybe you just feel like the story has gotten boring and you’re losing interest in it yourself.

When you’re stuck in the middle of your story, you generally have two choices: go forward, or go back. If you want to keep moving forward, your best bet is to skip ahead to the next point in the story where you have an idea of what’s going to be happening, or throw something exciting and unplanned into the mix, and write that section next. Ask yourself “What if…?” and go from there. You can go back and tackle your stuck storyline later. Of course, the risk with this approach is that when you return to the earlier point in the story, the fix might upend everything you’ve written later on, but if the result is a better story it will be worth all the work.

Your other option, going back, means backtracking from your problem point to see where you might have taken your story in the wrong direction. Did you add a twist that has caused the issue? Your protagonist make a move that was out of character? Or do you need to insert some more clues leading into that problematic section to make it possible to move ahead?

Things to keep in mind, whether you move forward or backward in your story: Are the character motivations consistent? Does each scene serve the protagonist’s goal? Have you allowed another character to hijack the plot? Is this still the same story you intended to tell?

Reluctance to write. Some days, just the idea of writing might feel too difficult, and when this happens you need to take a close look at your feelings. Are you just a bit burnt out and needing a day off away from your keyboard? Go to the movies, visit a museum, hang out with friends and let your brain clear out a bit. Are you feeling overwhelmed and/or anxious in other areas of your life beyond your writing? You might need to talk to someone about potential depression or anxiety, especially if you’ve been feeling this way for a while. Creativity dries up pretty quickly when a person is extremely stressed or suffering from depression, so be kind to yourself and seek the assistance you require.

Writing is not an easy endeavor. Regardless of your level of skill and/or experience, you will face days when the words flow even less easily than usual. Try poking at your project from another angle, write a different scene or determine if you need to backtrack, and give yourself permission to write something bad. Other ways to tap into your inspiration include working on another project entirely for a few days, doing warm up exercises such as writing prompts, or brainstorming ideas for future stories. It can also help to step away from your desk and do something completely unrelated to writing. Take a walk or a bubble bath, garden or hit the gym. Be sure you’re eating and sleeping properly; your brain will work better when you take care of yourself. And accept the fact that, no matter the writer, some days the writing must be coaxed.