Writer's Block: Over, Around, and Through

Raise your hand if you’ve ever felt stuck. Whether you were halfway through your novel or just beginning, you hit a wall and your mind, once racing, was suddenly blank.

Writer’s block is among the most frustrating obstacles writers face. Even more frustrating, however, is the advice we can find online to push through it. It’s all about taking walks, finding a new environment, getting some exercise, or calling old friends. Basically, distracting yourself and hoping lightning will strike when you least expect it.

When I hit an obstacle—in writing or otherwise—I’m more interested in identifying actionable steps I can take to overcome it. My methods aren’t always successful but, in my experience, they’re more successful (and less infuriating) than passively waiting until the problem solves itself.

The trick, for me, is approaching a project from a new vantage point.

Here are three steps I take to actively push through writer’s block.  

1. Get Organized

There’s plenty of advice out there on decluttering your workspace to spark the creative process. And, sure, organizing your desk is a worthwhile endeavor, but organizing your story is an active step away from writer’s block.

If you’re just starting, maybe you have a hodgepodge of scenes and characters in your head, but you’re struggling to keep them straight—much less corral them into a cohesive narrative. Try starting with a list. Write down the key moments or actions in each scene, or the names and primary traits of each character. You’ll find the simple action of writing those things down makes them feel a little more concrete, and now that you can see them more clearly, it’ll be easier to start turning them into a story. (Or, if you’re really stuck, just start writing any list—a list of things you’re interested in, a list of blue things, a list of the shoes in your closet. You never know where your brain might take it.)

Once you’re a little farther along—say you have a general idea of the plot’s trajectory, but you’re stuck somewhere between point A and point Z—an outline might be your best next step. Now, I know, the very thought of working from an outline makes many writers claustrophobic. But, at the same time, freestylin' it can start to feel chaotic. The good news is that there’s a happy medium. You don’t need to sketch out every action and every thought to be organized, but by identifying the primary objectives and actions in each scene, you’ll make it much easier to identify your characters’ next moves.

Here’s a free template that might help.

2. Ask Questions

Too often when I hit a wall in my writing, it’s because I’m looking too hard for the answers. I’m desperately trying to work out what happens next or what a character wants or how she feels or why she did what she just did. But in writing—like in life—we just won’t always have the answers.

When I catch myself trying too hard to know it all, I make myself step back and ask questions, instead.

Give it a try. Start writing out all the questions you want to answer in your story—or just this scene, or even just this page. You can start general, with questions like, “What happens next?” but see if you can get more specific, too: “Why did they choose this restaurant tonight?” "What does she want him to say about the fight last week?" And don’t be afraid to get silly, either: “Will she manage to finish her plate of spaghetti without getting red sauce all over her dress?”

Write down every question, and pay attention to where your brain takes you. What are you most curious about? Which points do you keep coming back to? By focusing on the questions, you might just trick your brain into showing you the answers.

3. Paint it Out

You’ve been spinning your wheels on a problem for hours (or days or weeks), and getting nowhere. But the second you bring it up with a friend or colleague, they’ve got the answer for you.

Sound familiar? All you needed was a different perspective. We tend to look at situations through just one lens, and when that lens doesn’t give us the view we need, we’re not so good at finding a new one. Instead, we just get stuck taking the same picture over and over, never capturing what we so desperately want to capture.

And the same is true in writing. When we get stuck in a half-finished scene, it may be that we just need some new perspective. And one way to get that perspective is to explore the scene through a different medium. You can pick a related medium like poetry, or something completely different, like painting, sketching, or even play-doh. But start building your scene with this new medium, and see what you discover.

By the way, it’s okay to choose painting if you’re a terrible painter, or poetry if you’re definitely not a poet—it may even be better that way. If you’re not holding yourself to high quality standards, you’ll feel freer to make a mess and open yourself up to more discoveries.

There are countless ways to keep a story moving forward when you start to feel stuck. If my top three don’t resonate, that’s okay. I recommend reading Deb Norton’s Part Wild for more ideas. She teaches readers how to leverage their own unique strengths to get over, under, around, or through that wall.

Check out the book here, and be sure to comment below to share your tried and true strategies for defeating writer’s block.

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