I think all of us as writers have reached that dreaded brick wall. You’re writing your heart out, the story is rolling, everything is going fine, and suddenly you stop. You just can’t move.
What do you do?
Here are some ways I cope with being stumped.
Let’s talk about being stumped within a story. What happens when there’s a boulder in the path? A sandbar in the sea? A locked door in the haunted mansion?
Take a step back. Remember these two things:
1. At any given time, you’re probably only half as clever as you think you are.
What I mean by this is often that plot twist you just have to have might be what’s holding you back. That clever back-and-forth dialogue currently marking the end of your page, the wrong path your character took that suddenly doesn’t seem to lead anywhere, the evil twin from the shadowy past come back to rear his ugly head, sometimes that’s what’s blocking you. If you present a conflict and there’s just no resolution, get rid of that conflict. Focus on what you were writing originally. Chances are, if you introduced some spur-of-the-moment thing and can’t figure out where to go after, that’s why. Your clever little sidetrack might end up derailing your piece overall, and if so, what good is it? Cut it out. Yeah, it hurts, but not as much as not getting anywhere at all. Take a step back, assess what’s really important, cut what isn’t, and you might find your path is a little wider than it looked and you might just find the footing you need to keep going.
2. If you’re stuck, make that a part of your story.
I recall a time I was writing a certain story and I had no idea where to go. My characters had not resolved the main conflict (they hadn’t even discovered it yet) and they were safe and everything was just peachy. Boring, right? I felt like I was at a brick wall. And that was the solution. I literally had my characters reach a brick wall, forcing them to take a different path, one that led right into the main conflict of the story.
If you’re stumped, stump your characters. Just throw a wrench in their gears and see what they do. Sometimes your characters know more about where to go than you do.
This sounds like the opposite of what I said before, and in a way it is. The truth is, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to problems in writing. The trick is to know which will work for you. If you throw your characters a curve and you write five pages and then get stuck, go back and get rid of the curve. Try a different path, make a different decision. Have them reach that brick wall and go right instead of left. Have them find a way to climb over it.
In other words, try different things. Don’t be so attached to your writing that you fear pressing the backspace key. The backspace key can be your best friend and sometimes your story’s savior. If you think so highly of your writing that you can’t delete a word you wrote, you probably shouldn’t be writing anyway.
Sometimes you don’t get stuck until after you’ve finished writing. This is the problem I’m currently having. My friend and I have a manuscript sitting at 230,000 words. It’s just too darn long for unpublished writers. It’s easy for us to sit there and justify it (two writers equals twice the length, right?) but that doesn’t do us any good. Our opinions on it don’t matter; an agent’s opinion does. Arguing about it won’t get the book published.
So we have a dilemma. Like I said, sometimes that road block comes after you’ve finished your manuscript. Maybe your publisher wants you to delete your favorite scene, maybe your agent thinks your book should be in first person when you wrote it in third. There’s a time for standing up for what you think is right, and there’s a time for discussion, but there’s also a time to concede you might be wrong. Again, take a step back, look at the big picture. Of course you love your manuscript the way it is. You wrote it. Yeah, it feels like someone is coming into your house and telling you how to dress your child (or, more accurately, how to re-arrange their limbs). But give it a shot. Sometimes you don’t know how wrong you are until you see how right someone else is.
That’s all well and good for people who have it from the horse’s mouth, but it’s more difficult when this problem is keeping you from getting an agent or a publisher in the first place. We’ve gone through about a dozen rejection letters, all form, except for one agent who helpfully let us know our manuscript was just too long.
It’s devastating to find out, it really is. We decided to cut our story in half. We had seven viewpoint characters, we cut it down to three and a half and tied off the loose ends. We have a good length going now, but a test reader informed us it doesn’t feel like a complete story anymore.
Back to square one.
I don’t have a solution yet, but I’m working on it. So I’d like to mention a few of the things I do to try to look at a situation from different angles. The answer is there, I just have to find it, and you won’t see anything different if you don’t look at it another way.
Often when I’m stumped (in either of the fashions mentioned) I’ll step away from the story. I’ll go for a walk, or perform some remedial task, like doing the dishes or vacuuming or rearranging my underwear drawer. There’s an episode of The Big Bang Theory where Sheldon takes on remedial tasks to occupy his mind while he searches for an answer to a theoretical problem, and it works for him. It works for me too, and it can work for you. Often when I have some impassible problem, I’ll have a solution within ten minutes of doing one of these tasks. If you’re like me and you live with your parents and writing is your job, you’ll probably be helping them out and keeping them from going crazy for another few days in the process.
Take a step back. Take a deep breath. Look at it from any and every point of view. Try something that sounds like it’ll never work. Try something you have a hunch will. There’s a solution, and it won’t always be easy, but it’s there. You might have to do a lot of searching, but it’s there.
Your turn. What do you do when you’re stumped?