From time to time it seems writers of fiction or non-fiction get stuck or stalled. Some people might even say blocked. There are pressures that may contribute to a mental attitude that screams, “I can’t,” but I’m not addressing those factors today.
Rather, I want to look at specific things a writer can do when the next scene or non-fiction article point doesn’t take shape in his head, when “what comes next” doesn’t have an answer.
Consider first that you might not know enough. You love to garden, perhaps, and have been to the nursery more times than you can count, so certainly you know enough about plants to make your protagonist a landscaper, right? Maybe you do, but maybe not.
Aine Greaney, in her Writer’s Digest article “How to Resurrect a Stalled Manuscript” says
if your main character is a landscaper, it may be time to consult your Yellow Pages to set up some informational interviews or job-shadowing. Writing a family memoir? Check out the hours at the local museum or the archives at your public library to deepen the historical context of your family story. Ask family members you have already interviewed who else you should talk to: Is there someone in the extended family who can enrich the story?
Ramping up the research can unearth some fascinating details, or it can help you to understand your characters — fictional or real — in a whole new way.
“Research” might simply mean, taking time to think through who your character is on a deeper level. Do you know what she fears? and why? Is she socially inept or particularly kind or fascinated with philosophy, and if so, what contributed to her becoming who she is? Was there a traumatic event she experienced as a child, an ongoing situation she lived with, a person who modeled a lifestyle or pointed her in a direction?
Knowing our characters well, especially knowing what he or she wants, can open up many possibilities for our stories to move forward.
A second step to take to get unstuck is to ramp up the conflict, even in non-fiction. Again from Ms. Greaney:
Fact or fiction, short story or novel, every story is about conflict. The conflict is the fulcrum on which the story tips, rises and finds its balance. Some conflicts are big and loud and bloody (Braveheart). Others are quiet and small and introspective (Mrs. Dalloway).
Large or small, true or made up, your story’s narrative tension derives from the fact that two people, two sets of sensibilities or two life situations are at odds with each other.
A good question to ask is, “What does my character want in this scene?” A corollary might be, “What is making it difficult for him to be successful?” And finally, “Why does it matter?”
Conflict, of course, can be inner conflict and not just a clash with another person or with external circumstances. One place to look to create more conflict, then, is inside your character.
Does he have warring values that you can bring into play? Perhaps he loves his job as a professional baseball coach, but he loves his family who he must leave every time his team takes to the road. Two values, both good, but at war with one another.
Your character might also have fears that war with her desires. She wants to spend time with Mr. Perfect, but his hobby is to rock climb. In fact he’s invited her to go on the next trip, which she desperately wants to do — except she is deathly afraid of heights. What’s she going to do?
If you aren’t at the stalled stage yet, read over your manuscript and see if you’ve introduced your character’s fear early in your story. If so, it can serve as a tool to ratchet up the conflict when you need it most.
Stalled may not feel like blocked, but it is nonetheless a detriment to our writing. Thankfully there are practical steps to take which should soon have the ideas flowing and our fingers once again flying over the computer keys.