Writing is a complex and abstract process where you have to deal with expressing themes, characters, settings, plots, conflicts, resolutions, the illusion of natural sounding dialogue, subtext, and so on. If you’re writing fiction – especially if it’s fantasy or science fiction – then this process becomes even more complex as you’re making it all up as you go (what do the culture, sub-cultures, and outside cultures look like? what do the alien or other non-human species look like and what do their own cultures look like? how has science/magic impacted the course of history and the various cultures? what does the political and geographical landscape look like?).
Any outline will waver if you’re mapping out these fictitious characters and their motivations as weighed against the fictitious world filled with fictitious technology/magic, species, governments, cultures, non-humans, and so on.
Of course, if you’re writing a script that you plan on actually getting produced, you might also need to consider the number of characters, the amount of visual effects or special practical effects that will be necessary (and how complex they might be) as these factors also weigh in on the cost and therefore feasibility of a project.
Essentially, there are a lot of moving parts, and you somehow have to still “write what you know” about shit that you’re making up based on your personal life experience, other stories you’ve heard and seen, from your research, and from your own honest self-reflection.
And while it’s clearly easy for the writing train to fly off the rails, it can be just as easy to get it back on track, whether the root of your writers block is fear, exhaustion, perfectionism, a lack of life experience, or any dozen other reasons.
So instead of curling up in a corner and refusing to write until your Muse finds you, wallowing in self-pity, making excuses, or giving up – you need to admit that you’ve hit a wall. Acknowledgment is always the first step to addressing any problem. From there, you can try out some or all of the below suggestions. Not everyone shares the same process, and there’s no ultimate or universal solution, so use whatever works for you, and discard those that don’t.
#1: KILL A CHARACTER
This certainly sounds harsh, but it can be quite effective. When you’re stuck, play around with killing off your protagonist, antagonist, or any of the supporting characters. Death leaves drama in place of what it takes, and there are plenty of great examples of this.
George R.R. Martin has certainly made a living from killing off his characters in his Game of Thrones franchise.
Alan Moore wanted to write a more serious and realistic superhero story where superheroes and supervillains did, in fact, die, but DC wouldn’t let him kill off their newly acquired characters. So he told the same story in a parallel universe using analogues of the characters he originally wanted to use (the first two Night Owls instead of the original two Blue Beetles, Doctor Manhattan instead of Captain Atom, Silk Spectre instead of Nightshade, Comedian instead of Peacemaker, Rorschach instead of The Question, Ozymandias instead of Thunderbolt). And thus Watchmen was born.
In another story of superheroes, DC’s Superman comic writing team had literally a full year of story development and planning dashed when the Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman went into development. Both the comic and the show planned on finally marrying Clark Kent and Lois Lane (in order to attract a stronger female following). And even though the comic writers had been setting that plot line up for a year, the new TV show won out. Annoyed and scrambling for ideas, comic writer Jerry Ordway jokingly suggested, “Let’s just kill ‘im,” which became a running gag in story meetings. The joke grew on Mike Carlin. “The world was taking Superman for granted, so we literally said, ‘Let’s show what the world would be like without Superman’,” said Carlin in the documentary Look, Up in the Sky! The Amazing Story of Superman. Talk about making lemonade out of lemons – The Death of Superman is a watershed moment in comic book storytelling history!
Harrison Ford has long stood by the idea that Han Solo should have died in Star Wars: Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (although he admitted to changing his mind in a 2015 interview). The character lived on, of course, because George Lucas countered along the lines of there was no money in dead Han Solo action figures. As Ford put it, “I thought the best utility of the character would be for him to sacrifice himself to a high ideal and give a little bottom, a little gravitas to the enterprise.” Considering that Han Solo starts out as a self-interested and money-grubbing criminal in A New Hope, and by Return of the Jedi becomes a respected and loved general, who risked his life on Hoth to rescue his friends, etc. – it really would have been a very meaningful moment if he were to have sacrificed himself for the cause of ending tyranny in the galaxy.
#2: KILL THE SCENE
Similar to #1: KILL A CHARACTER, if a scene is giving you trouble, experiment with nixing it from your story altogether. You might need to tweak the scenes before and after, but getting rid of the scene in question might just be exactly what your story needs!
If you try cutting the scene and it just creates more problems than you had before, or your story loses value, then you need to ask yourself what value this scene brings to the story. Does it develop the characters, progress the plot, shock the audience, provide a much needed moment of comic relief? Get to the root of what the value is for the characters, the world they inhabit, and the audience who’s watching and listening to it all.
And don’t be afraid of deleting the scene altogether, and rewriting it from scratch. There’s a lot to be said for starting over again, especially if you’ve gained further insight between then and now.
#3: FOCUS ON STRUCTURE
This is for those of you who get ahead of the game and don’t put together an actual outline…shame on you!
If a script is the blueprint for a film or show, then you need to have structure – just ask any architect or engineer! You don’t want a stiff wind to crumble all your hard work, or investors to pass over your writing because character motivations and plot arcs aren’t clear. So if you haven’t yet, draft an outline and reference it now and then and especially whenever you get stuck.
There are a lot of story structures out there as described by gurus Aristotle, Joseph Campbell, Syd Field, Daniel and Gulino, Blake Snyder, Jule Selbo, Hegel, Kubler-Ross, Maslow, and more. There are also structures for genre writing (thriller, drama, comedy; romance; tragedy).
#4: DROP SOME DOPAMINE
Get your blood pumping – whatever that means to you. It can be straight up calisthenics, taking a walk, taking a dance break (my personal favorite), doing chores, or playing with your dog or cat. Alternatively, meditating or even eating (though this is not an endorsement of binge eating or anything like that) can and will release dopamine. Whatever you choose, the dopamine your brain releases as a result lowers stress and anxiety levels and increases happiness and mental clarity.
#5: GET PERSPECTIVE
Whether you’re in the weeds or the trenches, you aren’t looking at the big picture anymore, and that’s a problem.
Stepping away from the project to call an old friend, play the guitar, take a bath, or even just to take a nap can help you see the things you were missing before.
If you’re like me and you don’t like the idea of 100% stepping away, you can also research your subject matter, watch a movie/show or play a video game with the same or antithetical subject matter/themes, you can imagine yourself as one of the characters you’re writing about living in the world you’ve created, or simply pass along your work to a confidante for feedback. Either way, you’re gaining new or more in-depth perspective.
#6: PHONE IT IN…FOR NOW
Starting from scratch is tough. Writing when you’ve got something to work from on the page – even if it’s complete schlock – makes the process a lot easier. It gives you a starting point. So when you’re stuck, sometimes it’s best to just jot down, “[plothole]: Rivendale” or “And then they fight, Guard #1 is killed, and Jameson runs, scared” and just move on (for now). It doesn’t have to be any good. It just has to be something. And if you decide to throw in the placeholder and move on, then you have to remember to go back and flesh it out. It’s there only as a temporary bridge to get to the rest of your story or just to have something on the page to work off of.
Alternatively, and my own personal preference, is to write the story out of order. That is, write the parts that are most interesting to you. When you’ve finished writing the most exciting and interesting parts of the story, then you can go back and “connect the dots.”
#7: USE YOUR VOICE
If you have no trouble talking to friends about your story, but you’re having trouble actually writing it, then this is a great method for you, whether you’re using voice-to-text software to write your story, or simply reading/telling your story aloud so you can hear what it sounds like. This method was used by 16th century French essayist Michel de Montaigne and 19th century American writer Henry James (though they dictated their work to secretaries since voice-to-text technology did not yet exist).
Regardless, speaking aloud (is, scientifically speaking, a completely normal phenomenon and) provides perspective, and a more objective experience of what was – or is being – written. This constructive neurological tool works by cuing the brain to “visualize the object, enabling you to actually see it better,” according to Gary Lupyan, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. The science of how this works is less important than the fact that it actually works, so go give it a shot!