As a writer, you’re going to run into times when you don’t have a good idea of what’s going to happen next. This isn’t full-on, Type 1, staring-at-a-blank-screen writer’s block, and it isn’t a mild case of Type 3, I-don’t-feel-like-writing-today doldrums. This is the in-between variety, the Type 2 writer’s block, where you know you could write a scene, but you don’t feel ready to write it yet.
For me, the problem is usually that I don’t have the right concrete details. I think there are two basic types of “what should happen” questions: high-level structural stuff and low-level details. You need both to make it through a draft (or at least, I do).
The first question is pretty simple: where is the scene/chapter/novel going? At a high level, what is it trying to achieve, and how do the pieces fit together to achieve it? For me, by the time I get to a scene or chapter, I have a pretty good idea of what I want it to do. In the story as a whole, the plot goes like this, the characters develop like that. For a particular scene, this is the state going in, and this is the state coming out.
The second (and in my opinion, more important) question is: what are the key details? You need more than big-picture ideas before you can start writing. Every generality in your story is going to be supported by specific details. Readers don’t read about the duality of self; they read about how a particular self is torn in two by a specific set of events. They don’t read about obsession; they read about how a certain person becomes obsessed with a particular thing. This applies to a scene just as much as to a novel. Readers don’t read about a conflict between two opposing goals; they read specific dialogue between two characters who have those goals.
You need (at least, I need) a few of those specifics in mind before you start writing: a line of dialogue, a particular action, even a certain description. I can go from “this scene is a muddled blank mess” to “I have a clear picture of what this scene is going to be” just by thinking of one detail or one good line of dialogue from the most important part of the scene (usually something near the end). Once I have that specific bit, I can hang the rest of the scene around it. Other parts all fall into place as either leading up to that detail, or following from it.
It’s like trying to find your way through a wilderness: when every direction seems just as valid as every other direction, it’s hard to make any progress at all. But if someone were to whisper in your ear, hey, at some point you’re going to pass by an oak tree with a big black lightning scar on its trunk, in the middle of a field with nothing else around, then suddenly you’ve got a much better sense of where you’re headed.
For me, the best way to come up with these details is to take a walk. Walking is a wonderful distraction for your body. It’s physical enough that it gets your blood flowing, but not so much that your brain has to concentrate on what it’s doing. I think the simple repetition of putting one foot in front of the other has the same drone-like cadence of a meditative chant. It takes over part of your brain, and lets the rest of it wander.
Often I find that when I start walking, it’s hard to concentrate on what I want to think about—the next section of my manuscript—and that’s okay. I try to nudge my brain there, but I give it a little time to settle in. Then, about ten minutes into the walk, my mind gets into a focused zone. I can bring up questions like “okay, brain, what should happen next?” and quite often, I’ll get good answers.
Walking may not be your cup of tea. Your cup of tea might be an actual cup of tea, just under the point of scalding, sipped on your back porch. Or a hot bath, or a ride on a unicycle. Whatever floats your boat—including, I suppose, floating boats.
The key, I think, is to get yourself away from your writing, and to get yourself into a zone where bright little bits of creativity can emerge from the dark crevices of your mind. Big-picture things like plot or structure can be chewed-over by your logical mind. But the sharp little details that make a scene work have to come out of your creative side. You can’t force them into existence; you can only put yourself into a place where they can spring into existence.
When they do appear, it’s important to get them recorded quickly. Don’t trust yourself to remember them later! For me, the best way to save ideas while on a walk is to use the voice memo feature on my phone. Then later, when I get back to my desk, I transcribe them. Since walking-and-thinking usually takes long enough that I don’t have time to write as soon as I get back (real life, unfortunately, is waiting for me), I end up transcribing the voice notes at the start of my next writing session. Hearing my own ideas about the upcoming scene, and typing them out, is a great way to ease my mind into a writing state.
Whatever your specific method is, I’ll bet twopence to a pound that there’s something you can do to move your story along that isn’t chaining yourself to a desk (and isn’t playing hooky either). If you can figure out what you have to do to get your muse to whisper some details in your ear, you’ll spend less time in a literary wasteland, trying to figure out which way you should go next.
filed under walking-your-way-to-better-writing