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We all have those moments. You’ve been waiting all week for the chance to write, and now, at 10 AM on a crisp Saturday morning, at your local cafe with a steaming latte to your left and notebook to your right, nothing is coming. You’re blocked, stumped, and the eagerness to write that you held all week is evaporating, just like the steam cascading up from your coffee.
Writer’s block can be a good thing. It offers us a moment to look back at what we’ve written and evaluate it, and to delve deeper into our characters. This can be a strong moment for character development and understanding, a chance to hammer out details on personalities, settings, and descriptions, without feeling constrained by the framework of your story.
The way to overcome writer’s block is to write through it. Don’t feel tied to your story, or to a minimum word count. Feel tied to your characters and your scenery. Instead of working through plot points and continuing with your story, write out these scenarios and prospects. Get out of your own head and into your character’s with these scenes. And remember…
While you’re working, don’t go back. No erasing or changing. These are not polished stories, they are snippets. Grammatical errors are okay. Incomplete thoughts are okay. You don’t have to be coherent with the rest of your story.
Don’t set a limit to the number of words. When you set out to write a novel, you do not set out to write a “127,842 word novel.” You set out to tell a story. Treat these exercises the same way. You are writing to overcome writer’s block creatively, by gaining insight into the realm of your story.
Don’t feel limited by the current range of your fictional or nonfictional world. Want to write a new character? Do it. Writing is a craft. It’s something improved by practice, just like a musical instrument. Do not feel limited by what you have written so far, by the parameters of reality or fantasy that your story occurs in. Breach out of what you expect from yourself as a writer.
The following scenarios are the perfect writer’s block jumpstarts:
1. Put a character at a bar. What bar do they go to? A swanky hotel or the dive bar halfway down the alley? What are they wearing? Who are they there with? Who do they talk to? What drink do they order? When do they leave? With whom do they leave? Write a conversation they’d have with a stranger. Who approaches them? Do they approach others? Repeat this exercise with a few characters. Blend them. If two of your characters are at a bar together, what happens? Do they ignore each other? The purpose of this exercise is to expose dialogue, morality, and motives.
2. Archetype your characters, or put them into a fairytale. This exercise is somewhat diluted, but very fun. Make your characters pure archetypes. The evil stepmother. The naive debutante. Alter the personality of one character and see how the others interact. What is it about your characters that draw them to each other? Are your characters archetypes? How are your characters unique? Put your characters into a fairytale. Choose a well-known tale that you’re familiar with. Say, Cinderella. Now choose your story, as an example we’ll use Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Dobby will play Cinderella for our purposes. Dobby’s magic slipper is a sock. Instead of being given by his fairy godmother, it’s given to him by his malicious master, Lucius Malfoy. Harry Potter is the magic prince, Dobby’s love, the one he would die for… the stories are so different, yet broken down into elemental pieces, they connect on levels you would not expect. How does this change the story? What would the outcome of a well-known fairytale be with your characters? This is almost a brainteaser as much as it is a writing exercise. Exploring this type of brain-bending transformation gives new perspective on characters and settings.
3. Change your setting. Drastically. Then write your story as if in this setting. This allows you determine the subtle elements of your story and what they add or detract from the plot. Choose Siberia. The streets of New York. Using our Harry Potter example, does Hogwarts become a yurt in the midst of the tundra? Or FAO Schwarz in the middle of the city? Is the environment of Hogwarts what gives way to such incredible magical learning? If Harry, Hermione and Ron were constantly faced with the New York subway and eight million Muggles, how would their story be different? How do your characters interact with the setting? Is the setting integral to your story, and if not, how can you make your setting unique to your characters and the plot of the story? The harder to transcribe elements of the places in your story to other places, the more deeply ingrained your characters are in their world. This is a good thing, as the setting can often be another character, adding mood and drama to a plot.
4. Choose a few characters and strand them, whether on an island, a volcano, or some completely supernatural scenario where their chance of survival or return to civilization is minimal. How do they cope? Are there sacrifices? Who gives to the cause? Who takes from it? In the vein of Lord of the Flies, scenarios like these can establish character weaknesses and strengths, egos, and senses of validity. In times of crisis, true colors are revealed. Do you know your characters well enough to predict how they would act at the end?
5. Write the ending. If you are on page three of a five-page short story, or page one of what you hope will be the next great American novel, write out the end. It may be predictable, or far-fetched, but it can help you to understand where your characters are going, or where you want them to be. If you have an idea of a novel for a young wizard boy sent to a magical school, how does it end? Think of the incredible range of possibilities and write down a few scenarios? Much like working backwards, this can help you to visualize where your characters are now compared to where you’d like them to be with the final stroke of your pen.
Sometimes, going beyond the realm of your original story plan is the only way to break the monotony of writing. While it may be a shift away from your goal, these prompts are meant to overcome writer’s block while developing characters, setting and storyline, and exposing the links that can be missed when writing purely for plot. Do you have any other suggestions or prompts for ways to overcome writers block?