7 Things to Write When You’re Stumped
Is writer’s block suffocating your writing process? Just not sure what to write next?
If you could use an idea (or seven) to get your story unstuck, keep reading.
So, this is what stress feels like. You’re halfway into writing your story that you’re sure is to be the next Pulitzer Prize winner. Except that you’ve hit your first major challenge in the writing process.
You have no idea what to write next.
Giving yourself time and space away from your project can often be the solution. But you’re reading this blog post because either that didn’t work or you simply don’t have the time to wait for inspiration.
When you’re stumped on what to write next, try these seven writing tricks so that you keep writing (instead of hating) your first draft of your story.
We think that writing is a linear process where we write scene to scene as it happens in sequential order. But this is where we often get caught up on how to transition from one event to the next.
And this can put a halt to our writing.
So don’t. Instead of writing your way out of a problematic scene shift, write something else. Jump ahead in time or jump to another scene to write.
This isn’t cutting corners. You will probably have to go back to fill in that time gap with words. Or you may find that a time jump is simply what your story needs.
Let your inner editor make a note about the time jump so that you don’t forget when the editorial stage comes around.
Elaborate, Elaborate, Elaborate
Does your hero take the time to look around and live in the present moment?
Like many writers, I prefer to write dialogue and action. And it’s easy to skip over describing the current environment or how a character looks because the action and dialogue are more thrilling to write.
But it’s these descriptions that keep your reader grounded into the created reality of your story. And it never hurts to remind your characters where they’re standing in order to realize what they should do next.
So when I’m stumped on what to write next, I know it is time to pause the dramatic action and describe.
This may sound like contradictory advice, especially when a story’s plot is driven by actions. But readers love bringing their senses into the reading experience. So describe what the characters hear, touch, smell, see and taste. You may find that your story’s setting has more of an impact on the plot than you first though possible.
Provide a Recap
One of my favorite soaps recently started each episode with a “previously on ____” intro. Even though I watch every episode for years, I still appreciate this recap before today’s story starts.
Sure, I know what’s happened. But I don’t always remember it in its exactness or see its relevance to the unfolding plot.
Same goes for your story. It’s okay to write a story recap when you’re stumped. Why? Because it doesn’t appear to your readers that you’re writing this simply because your story is stuck.
Recaps are natural within a story, especially those with lots of action or several hundred pages. A quick summary of the key action and dialogue that’s taken place in previous chapters not only renews reading interest but also assures your readers that they know what’s happened so far.
Have Character Y explain to Character Z explain what’s happened so far in the story. Or have Character X go on a rant about a previous scene or key conversation. Or let the narrator recap the previous happenings. As long as the recap naturally flows with your story, your readers won’t mind the refresher.
Pick Another POV
In a perfect world, it only takes a first draft to write a novel that’s destined to be a best-seller. And in a perfect world, you can keep your story consistently focused from your narrator’s point of view, be it in first-person or third-person narration.
But your first draft isn’t supposed to be perfect. That’s why it’s a first draft.
You can experiment in your first draft before the red pen comes out during the revision stage. So instead of staying stuck in your writing, take on a challenging scene by writing it from another angle.
How would this scene appear to Character Z instead of Character Y? Would this character notice something that your current narrator doesn’t? How does minor Character T feel about this situation, the setting, the characters, him/herself?
You may find clarity in how to proceed from your established narrator POV from this perspective exercise.
Write It in Ink
I think I can assume that most writers today write on a computer or tablet. Writing on technology lets your see your word count in real time as well as saves a step in the writing process by typing out your story now.
Yet you’re not saving a step if your writing is stuck.
Instead of wallowing in your writer’s block, power down your device and pick up a pen.
You already spend too many hours in front of a screen, whether it’s a computer at work or a television at night or your smart phone in between. Staring at a bright screen is a strain to your eyes, especially if you have to squint to see the words that you’re typing.
Give your eyes a break and try writing what’s next down on paper. You may find that the words come more easily to you this way.
Yes, it’ll take more time to type up these words. What matters is that you wrote and your story is closer to completion.
This tactic also applies if you always write by pen. If you’re stumped on how to write your story, try typing out a scene to see if it renews your passionate pace of writing.
See a Film
During my final Creative Writing MFA semester, I was tasked with scrapping my 200+ page thesis and write a new 200+ page thesis in 30 days—if I wanted my diploma.
Yes, this did happen to me.
Fortunately, my thesis was a creative writing project, so I needed to write a collection of short stories. Unfortunately, all writers know how reliable inspiration is under pressure…
I couldn’t miss one day of writing, so I gave myself an assignment: Watch an independent film every evening.
Strange task, I know. But I found that either a scene or the setting or a character within these independent films inspired an entirely different story that I was eager to write.
And when you’re a writer, you don’t turn off your brain when you watch a movie. You actively dissect every element of creativity and decide how you can apply it to your craft.
Of course, you don’t have to choose an indie flick. Watch a film genre that keeps you thinking and analyzing new strategies, not mentally checking out.
Catch Some Zs
When all else fails, sleep on it. No, I’m not being sarcastic.
When I settle in to sleep every night, I think of a problem that I want to solve. As I feel drowsiness come over me, I rephrase that problem as a question to myself before falling asleep.
The beauty of our brains is that this organ can contemplate a problem using all channels inside our brains as we sleep.
We’ve all had some crazy dreams.
If you’re a productive person like me, you’ll like accomplishing a hard task overnight. I have often realized mid-dream (or at least when I wake up) that I have the solution I’ve been seeking.
Don’t stay stuck in your writing by overthinking the problem. Explore the solutions to your problems within a dream-like state where the bounds of reality don’t restrict your thinking. You may find that you knew the solution all along.
When the words aren’t flowing it’s definitely worth taking a break of some kind, as you mention. I find one of the best things to do is go for a long walk.
The exercize burns of a lot of the stress that builds up when you’re trying hard to think of new stuff. And the changing scenery puts you in a different mental and emotional space. It usually works for me.