In “Story Talk: Writer’s Block—Really? Part 1” I introduced the myth and the reality of writer’s block and talked about the popular mythology about this overinflated annoyance. As it happens, writer’s block is 99.99 percent smoke and .1 percent fact. The .1-percent part is the only part you can work with. Here in “Story Talk: Writer’s Block—Really? Part 2” we look at that .1-percent piece and suggest a process to bust writer’s block that lends itself to real freedom, not airy-fairy workarounds.
To that end, consider these scenarios:
- When a professional musician is on stage and the pipes get stuck, the music doesn’t come, and he-she can’t deliver (and it happens) what do they do? Throw their hands up and walk off stage? Hardly.
- What does a professional actor do when the cameras are rolling or the audience is watching and the juice is gone, the character leaves them, and they can’t deliver? Do they run off to their trailer in a snit or walk off stage? Well, sometimes—you know actors.
- When a professional athlete is exhausted, spent and at the end of their physical limits how do they safely get to the finish line, or sink that put, or swing that bat when every fiber of their being wants them to just shut down and stop? Do they crumble in a heap and give up (rarely)?
When blocked, professionals know what to do and they do it seamlessly. They don’t take a Yoga class, they don’t write in their journal, they don’t doodle, or take long car rides into the countryside they fallback on craft skill and technique. The musician has skill and technique and this saves them. The actor has skill and technique and it is always there for them. The athlete has muscle memory and technique that are second nature. Once they tap this resource (technique), the juices will flow and they will “be back.” Blockage removed. That’s how professionals deal with “musician block,“ “actor block,” or “athlete block.
So, what should a writer do? The same thing—fallback on technique. For writers that means story structure. Story structure is your craft skill. It is always there and is always available, because story structure doesn’t depend on you. It is there for you to depend upon it.
What am I talking about when I say story structure? I’m talking about the essential pillars that hold up any story: a protagonist with a problem, what does the protagonist want (“desire line”), who’s the central opponent, who’s the protagonist allied with through the middle of the story (focal relationship), what’s the midpoint complication, what’s the low point for the hero-heroine, what’s the final battle between the protagonist and opponent, and what evolution-de-evolution will the protagonist experience at the end of the story?
These are roughly the main structure elements any story needs to be told properly. But, when it comes to story structure, everybody teaches the same basic stuff. Different “gurus” use different labels and have more steps or pillars, or fewer, or the order might be vary. Don’t get hung up on orthodoxy and satisfying someone’s formula—even mine. This is about showing you a way out of a dilemma, not validating anyone’s story structure method.
If you don’t know story structure from a steak sandwich then get educated. There are lots of places to learn it: classes, books, me (sorry, have to plug). This is your lifeline. You can’t afford not to know story structure if you ever hope to be a professional screenwriter, or even a good amateur. And you can kiss goodbye ever truly busting writer’s block. Technique and story structure are the solutions to writer’s block. If you know story structure, then use what you know, whatever system or method.
So, assuming you have the basics under your belt (and even if you don’t), here are the concrete steps illustrating how craft and technique are the writer’s salvation, not handcuffs of constriction or limitation.
Figure out if you are dealing with life problems or “just” a creative process problem. Remember, life problems can affect your writing, but they are not writer’s block (see part one). They need to be handled, but you’re dealing with something bigger than just being creatively blocked. This process won’t help you. Go get other help—talk to a friend, call your mother, get therapy. If, however, you’re clear this is a creative problem and a not bigger life issue, then move to the next step; you’re in the right place.
Tell yourself the truth: this block is a good thing. You have so much flowing you can’t think straight. Be grateful and thank the writing gods. Really, take some time and think about and feel that gratitude. This isn’t psychobabble. You are not just “turning that frown upside-down”—this is a critical shift of your mental-emotional state that is essential to move forward.
Filled with gratitude, or at least no longer feeling suicidal, look to your story’s structure. Take a piece of paper and map it out as best you can. Write down the specific structure steps: protagonist with a problem, what does the protagonist want (desire line), who’s the central opponent, who’s the protagonist allied with through the middle of the story (focal relationship), what’s the midpoint complication, what’s the low point for the hero-heroine, what’s the final battle between the protagonist and opponent, and what evolution-de-evolution will the protagonist experience at the end of the story? Define these steps as best you can and work with them until you have the big picture solid in your head. Even if you know all these steps, do this anyway. If all this is Greek to you, then get educated. When you have a grasp of story structure come back and try this again, if you’re still blocked.
Assess the output of step 3. Think about where you’re stuck in your story and look at this list of structure steps. Where does the point where you’re stuck fall in the list of structure steps? Which step does it relate to most closely? Get your bearings for the spot in your story where your clog is stuck. If you are just starting your story and the page is blank and you haven’t done the basic structure work ahead of time, then DO IT NOW. Write out your premise line and structure the story (I will be writing a separate article on what a premise line is and how it is essential).
(Don’t get caught up in right/wrong here. There are lots of story structure systems out there. They may or may not mirror what I’m suggesting. If you have a “guru” you like then use their system. Don’t let orthodoxy sabotage your effort. I could care less if you follow my list—just use something.
Once you get your bearings, once you find specifically (or as closely as possible) where in the structure you are stuck, then pull this out and work with it separately. Brainstorm scenes, possibilities, scenarios, but all of this needs to be geared toward moving you forward to the next story structure step from where you are stuck! Maybe everything you write is gibberish. That’s okay. This is where you have to just force yourself. Like the musician or actor earlier—just do it. Don’t censor, don’t correct spelling, and don’t judge it, just write. DO NOT STOP. No breaks, no interruptions.
At some point the writing will stop being gibberish; it will start making sense. This might take two pages, five pages, or ten pages. Keep writing until you make that breakthrough. Once you do, you’re unblocked. Celebrate and get back to writing. If you get to page 30 and all the writing is crap, then stop, because you’re just playing a game with yourself and this is now a form of self-sabotage. Back off and come back when you are ready to really be done with this.
Drink lots of coffee. You’re unblocked, so you need caffeine! This is a serious step, by the way.
(Excerpted from How to Make a Good Novel Great: The Ultimate Guide to Writing the Traditionally or Self-Published Novel and Avoiding the Top 20 Fiction Mistakes. Jeff Lyons, 2013)
You can get my 30-page e-book, The7-Step Process for Busting Writer’s Block™, that goes into more detail about this process by going to Storygeeks.com and then signing up for the e-book on the homepage. And it’s free!
This process always works. Writer’s block is 99.99 percent smoke and .1 percent fact. So, don’t fall for all the hype about writer’s block; that only feeds the monster. If you are blocked, it is a good thing, because it means you have ideas and creativity ready to flow. Use this process, trust in your story’s structure to break the logjam, and bust the myth of writer’s block.
Tools to Help: