Writer’s Block. Two of the most dreaded words in a writer’s vocabulary…at least when put together in that order.
You stare at the blank page, and it stares back. It’s taunting you. It’s telling you you’re no good. You’re just about to slam the lid on your laptop shut when you remember something crucial:
“Writing is a learned craft, not a mystical gift from the universe.” (I think I’ve heard that somewhere before…)
A craft? A learned craft? Yes. And don’t you forget it! Now click the link and read on. Let’s get rid of that pesky writer’s block using tried and true elements of the craft!
Break it Down
To understand the solution, we need to understand the problem.
When you look at any problem, not just a writing problem, it will almost always seem insurmountable at first.This is normal. It’s because you’re taking it in all at once. You’re seeing the big picture, and the big picture can be scary. But here’s a secret about those big problems…
Any big problem can be broken down into manageable tasks.
I mention on my About
page that aside from my passion for creative writing I’m a professional Software Engineer. The thing about enterprise software solutions, as we call them, is they’re extraordinarily complex
. For the last few months I’ve been taking our existing software product and building a security system into it, complete with Active Directory domain authentication, group/role-based permissions, system-wide lockouts, multiple levels of access restrictions, and dynamic security stores. Sound complex? It’s about as complex as it sounds. And I’ll admit, even after 15 years of experience I was more than a little nervous when I was given the task. But using tried and true principles of software engineering I was able to understand something that eased my fear:
It all begins with a single line of code.
I don’t think I need to belabor the point. You’ve got a big problem. The way to tackle it is to make it smaller. You don’t write the entire book at once. You don’t write an entire chapter at once. You write one line at a time. Those lines become scenes, the scenes become chapters, and the chapters become a book.
Let’s take it down to the scene level, as it’s the most manageable chunk to tackle for our purposes here.
Build the Structure
Scenes aren’t just convenient sections of text, any more than chapter breaks are convenient places for a reader to put a book down (gasp! Never that!). A scene exists to advance your story. In fact, everything you write should serve to advance your story in some way, be it through characterization, plot resolution, establishing something vital about the setting, etc.
I could write a series of blog posts on Scene & Sequel alone. For now I’ll break it down as follows. Scene is action. It should typically consist of the following:
- Scene-Ending Disaster
It should become clear, early in your scene, what your PoV character’s goal is. Once the goal is clear, there needs to be some conflict that opposes your PoV character. This is different, obviously, if we’re talking about your antagonist. Let the bad guy have it easy as long as you wish. But the “good guys” need to suffer like Sisyphus, eternally pushing a rock uphill.
That brings us to the scene-ending disaster, and this is a great place for writer’s block to set in. You’ll be plagued by questions: How do I keep the reader turning pages? How do I set the protagonist back so that he/she is worse off than before?
“Yes, but…” – “No, and…”
First, decide whether or not your protagonist is going to achieve the scene goal. Yes or No. The answer will determine where to go next.
Let’s look at “Yes, but…” You may decide that your protagonist is going to achieve his/her goal. That’s fine, but successes in the middle of your book should always come with a cost. The “but” is the cost. Here’s an example:
John needs to cross the rope bridge. Does he succeed? Yes…but as he’s stepping off the rope bridge, the opposing force is lying in wait to ambush him.
Sally needs to convince her boss to promote her, because she feels undervalued. Does she succeed? Yes…but the promotion means she’ll have to work side-by-side with the person she hates the most.
In other words: The hero succeeds in achieving the scene goal, but it comes at a price. And that price is always more conflict.
What if you decide your protagonist is not going to achieve his/her scene goal? That’s where “No, and…” comes in. This one is a “double whammy”, and it really ramps up tension and conflict. Here’s an example:
John needs to cross the rope bridge. Does he succeed? No…and as he reaches the other side, the bridge disconnects from its anchor, causing him to hurtle toward the opposite canyon wall clinging for life.
Sally needs to convince her boss to promote her. Does she succeed? No…and her boss is so agitated that he fires her for asking.
In other words: Not only does the hero fail at accomplishing the scene goal, but the situation winds up far worse than before the scene began. A true setback…and a reader left wondering how our hero is going to get out of the massive trouble they’ve gotten into.
I think you’ll find the Yes…but / No…and
“trick” very helpful. It’s a technique I picked up from Brandon Sanderson when I was writing Necromancer Awakening
Sign up for the free Erindor Press newsletter. Stay Informed. Be a better writer. Your contact information will NEVER be shared for ANY reason.
Join Nat on Facebook for additional content that he doesn’t post on the blog or on Twitter.
Be part of the conversation! Head on over to The Mukhtaar Estate and see what everyone’s talking about!
Nat Russo is the Amazon #1 Bestselling Fantasy author of Necromancer Awakening and Necromancer Falling.
Nat was born in New York, raised in Arizona, and has lived just about everywhere in-between. He’s gone from pizza maker, to radio DJ, to Catholic seminarian (in a Benedictine monastery, of all places), to police officer, to software engineer. His career has taken him from central Texas to central Germany, where he worked as a defense contractor for Northrop Grumman. He's spent most of his adult life developing software, playing video games, running a Cub Scout den, gaining/losing weight, and listening to every kind of music under the sun.
Along the way he managed to earn a degree in Philosophy and a black belt in Tang Soo Do.
He currently makes his home in central Texas with his wife, teenager, mischievous beagle, and goofy boxador.
This kind of reminds me of something from designing stages in video games; Goals, Obstacles, Circumvention.
– The goals are what the character wants. For story-writing example genericness, I’ll say “Rescue the Royal Family”.
– The obstacles are what’s keeping the character from achieving the goal. This would be “Five days travel, five hundred elite enemy mercenaries, and hidden dungeon keys.”
– The circumvention is how the character will solve the obstacles; get a horse, sneak past under nightfall, search the evil overlord’s pants.
Then, each of those circumvention methods becomes a new goal and you start the process again.
– When the goal is to get a horse, the obstacles is money, the circumvention is doing a favour for the horse monger.
– Now the new goal is doing a favour for the horse monger (catch the White Hart), the resulting obstacle is no one knows where the White Hart is, the method of circumvention is to simply search for it.
– Then the new goal is to search for the the White Hart, the obstacle is the cost of time, the new goal is ways to shorten the search.
You just go back and forth like that in a recursive cycle. In addition to starting at the beginning and asking ‘what should happen next’, you can start at the end and go ‘what happened before that’. You’ll have two sets of tools to create a logical and natural sequence of events efficiently.
That’s a great approach! Another technique I need to try now 🙂
Great article. Nice clear instructions for the left side of the brain. Shared on Facebook and Twitter. 🙂
This is great advice and very helpful – I was always getting stuck on the successful outcome but now I see that the conflict comes from the cost.
I enjoyed Mike’s strategy as well. Thank you both.
I wonder if there is a literary term, or theory for this explanation: it seems like a pretty fundamental concept to good writing.
I’ve only ever heard of it referred to as “Yes, but / No, and” on various podcasts and in various craft books.
I’ve written five books. I’ve never believed in writer’s block. My theory is that some part of what you’re writing interests you RIGHT NOW. That’s where you start. It might be out of order. It might be the ending or a key scene you’ve been thinking of. WRITE THAT! Once the juices are flowing, all the writing happens, but something you’ve gotta prime the pump, so to speak, to get it started.
Just got a book offer TODAY for book #6. I’ve never gotten a book deal on a Saturday before, but there’s a super cool acquisitions editor in NYC who is ON IT!
That’s fantastic, Lynda!
I’m pretty much with you on this. Writer’s Block, as such, is something I don’t pay much attention to. I write when I can, what I can, and don’t sweat it much if I’m not writing. Somehow I still manage to produce work 🙂
You do have a way of posting exactly what I need to read on any given day. It’s almost mystical 😉
Haha! I try. 🙂
Hi again, Nat! I’m really enjoying your posts!
Thanks, Daniela! 🙂
This is a great post with some really useful replies! I tend to move towards either writing something else that interests me & joining the dots later, or adding a conflict or twist to the scene I’m not enjoying.
I also re-read the whole thing and edit it to get back into the flow, and if I’m blocked it is usually because I’ve lost a sense of pace and action. Regaining that and a sense of character arc is useful too. It can spark off where it’s supposed to go…
Excellent points! I recently became bogged down in my work-in-progress and had no idea why. It turns out this particular story was begging to be written out-of-sequence. As soon as I realized that, and followed my own logical thread rather than my order of “scene cards”, everything opened up.