Four Ways to Combat Writer's Block
Updated: Oct 4, 2020
"The wonderful thing about writing is that there is always a blank page waiting. The terrifying thing about writing is that there is always a blank page waiting."
That blank page can be intimidating. Whether you're working on a short story, a novel, or a screenplay, your task is creating something out of nothing. All you have is yourself, your keyboard, and your ideas.
There are good days where I have what I call the "writer's high." The words flow by the hundreds and even the thousands. I can type with Bruce Almighty-like speed until 2:00 am and nothing slows me down.
Okay, I'm exaggerating a little, but you get my point.
I also have days where I'm lucky to write a hundred words. The blinking cursor on Microsoft Word is in the same spot it was an hour ago. The wind outside is too distracting, so I turn on some music. I don't like the song, so I spend ten minutes looking for another. I finish my coffee, so I have pour myself another cup. Now I need to use the bathroom. I get back to my laptop, aaaaand the blinking cursor is still in the same spot. Instead of Bruce Almighty, I feel more like the distracted dog from Up.
I believe there are ways to get past those tough days without having to give up on your current project. Here are four things that have worked for me:
1) Skip Ahead
Here's some mind-blowing news: You don't have to write your story in order. If you get to Chapter 4 and don't know how to start it, then skip ahead to the climax at the end. If there's an exciting or intense scene you've been itching to write, don't wait until you get to Chapter 30. Write it now! If you have a clear vision for a scene in Act III, there's a good chance you can learn things about your characters and settings that inspire the way you introduce them in Act I.
2) Change the Scene
Sometimes, writers get stuck on a scene because it just isn't interesting to them. I once labored through a scene where two characters chatted in a coffee shop. There's nothing wrong with a scene like this (plenty of stories have compelling coffee shop conversations) but for this particular story, it didn't spark any passion within me. It just felt like a scene I had to force in order to accomplish the goal of having these two characters learn more about each other. But if the scene doesn't interest you, I guarantee it won't interest your readers.
You can accomplish the goal of a scene in many different ways, whether it's changing the setting, having the characters do something active as they learn about each other, or throwing in some tension and conflict within the conversation. When Sylvester Stallone wrote the first draft of Rocky, he had Rocky and Adrian's first date set in a restaurant. He and director John G. Avildsen both ended up agreeing the scene was "really boring," and this resulted in the memorable ice skating date.
Orson Scott Card (author of the Ender's Game series) says it best: "Writer's block is my unconscious mind telling me that something I've just written is either unbelievable or unimportant to me, and I solve it by going back and reinventing some part of what I've already written so that when I write it again, it is believable and interesting to me. Then I can go on. Writer's block is never solved by forcing oneself to 'write through it,' because you haven't solved the problem that caused your unconscious mind to rebel against the story, so it still won't work-for you or your reader."
3) Do Some Research
If your main character is in the military, interview any veterans you know. If the story is set in Paris, look up locations throughout the city. If you want to include time travel in your story, do some research on quantum physics (no, I'm not kidding).
Sometimes the reason we have nothing to write is that we don't know enough about a topic or place. In many cases, doing research has given me ideas for entire chapters. For example, the main character in my upcoming novel is a Marine Corps veteran. I was never a Marine, but my dad is a Lt. Colonel who served for 24 years. Asking him questions and listening to his stories helped me through a lot of parts in my novel where I felt stuck.
Even if the topic we're writing about seems unrealistic (like time travel), research can help us find ways to make it feel plausible in the context of the story. Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park is a great example of this. While bringing dinosaurs back seems like a fantasy, Crichton's knowledge of paleontology and biotechnology allowed him to write a compelling story that makes this concept feel real and believable.
No, I'm not telling you to procrastinate. Scrolling through Facebook or watching three episodes of The Office would be procrastination. But physical activity, whether it's going on a ten-minute walk or a ten mile bike ride, is good for the brain and for creative thinking.
Exercise allows more blood flow and oxygen to reach the brain and encourages neuron growth and maturation (https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/why-do-you-think-better-after-walk-exercise/)
I like to go on jogs when it's nice outside, and some of my favorite scene ideas have come while running. The music I listen to while exercises also sparks creative ideas (and I will definitely do a separate post about this in the future).
I hope this has been helpful, and feel free to leave a comment about what you do to combat writer's block (or creative block from anything, including painting, drawing, etc).