Except for a select few, writing takes heaps of work. Effort upon effort. So when writing a scene turns to a sinking quagmire in your brain, it’s time to take a breath. Writers all experience the rush of a story writing itself…until it doesn’t. How you navigate losing steam when stuck in a scene can bring you forward or halt a project entirely. What’s the elusive answer to writer’s block? How do we find writer’s un-block?
Tip #1 Reward Yourself—Tangibly
If you already do this, you know that rewards make a huge difference. Sometimes you’re stuck because the ideas aren’t there, but other times you need incentives. Motivational rewards create a cycle of payoff and progress that fuels your writing habits. Writing is like a work out for your brain. When your brain thinks about doing hard work all over again with no payoff, it revolts. However, if we build in a habit of rewarding it with what it wants, the writing flows without losing momentum.
Writing is a mental exercise with no physical reward. But changing that is simple. Some writers build a reward directly into their writing schedules. Small rewards for small achievements. Big rewards for big achievements. Small rewards can be snacks, coffee, veg-out time, playing with a pet, or something similar. Big rewards go all the way up to a vacation for a finished novel. Rewarding yourself with a break or a snack can sound silly. You’re not a child anymore. However, even the reward of a nap can bring you motivation to push through the tough parts or writing.
Consider this, rewarding yourself tangibly for small completions in a writing project is a technique with little cost but huge reward. Give it a try. 1000 words for a piece of chocolate, a finished chapter for an evening out. Only you know what motivates you well, but weaving a simple reward into your writing cycle can power you through the doldrums.
Tip #2 Move On—Don’t Try to Get it Perfect on the First Try
In some ways, writing a book is an apprenticeship. If it’s a first draft, you’re learning as you go and you should remind yourself that you’ll get more than one attempt. You may be tempted to try and get everything right in the first writing, but that frustration can be collapsing to any creative enterprise.
If the ideas aren’t there right now, then leave room for what needs to be there and come back to it later. Summarize what needs to be written there, but don’t stress about getting it down this moment. March on wards. Your writing process maintains momentum by moving forward. In a first writing the overalls story structure and character motivations stay foremost. Tone and coherence are more important on a second write through.
Ask yourself—‘do I have to write this right now?’
If the answer is no, use a placeholder like this:
[angry argument goes here, but the outcome is that Tate and Miles no longer speak to each other]
From there you can keep writing the story with the outcome of the scene even if it’s not actually written at this point. Once you get more familiar with your characters later on, it may become much easier to write this scene and put their full argument on the page.
Tip #3 Eureka!—Realize you’re on to Something
The joy of paleontology comes from revealing something brand new to human eyes. Shock. Surprise. Delight. Isn’t good writing after all these things as well? Sometimes there’s only an exposed end of bone to start with, but it’s there.
If you’re stuck, your story may be headed in the best direction—new territory. A realm neither you nor your reader have yet conceived. When you look at a difficult scene this way, it can be exciting. You may be as clueless as your characters as to how their conflicts will resolve. The scene you’re stuck on might be pushing things somewhere new—somewhere they need to go. You’ve essentially reached the edge of your imagination.
It’s uncomfortable because you’re forced to dig deeper, but if you think of it not as a burden of hauling load after load of dirt, but, rather, as the process of exposing something brand new to the world, the motivation can pull you through.
Tip #4 Dissect the Disconnect—What’s Got you Stuck?
You’ve had enough ideas to get your story to this point, right? So what ideas did you run out of? Have no idea where your story goes next? Then it’s time to take a step back and work on your world-building. Need to write a fight scene but never written a fight scene before? Take a step back from your story and try writing a few fight scenes for practice.
Instead of focusing on—‘on no! it’s not working!’—focus on which component is failing. You’re a story-surgeon. You’ve got an injured story in front of you. The good news is you know where it came from. As a surgeon, you’ll have to prioritize what to save. What matters the most? What needs to be cut off? What can your story not live without?
Break things down to the most basic level. If you’re stuck, it will be one of these—the plot, the characters, the dialogue, the tone, or the prose.
Have you found a plot hole? It’s time to patch it up. Don’t have any ideas for how your characters should react to each other in a scene? Then it’s time to get to know them better. Do you find that your prose is weak? Read up on what makes good prose and rewrite the scene while putting the new tips into practice. Take a step back from general frustration and give your scene a diagnostic. Then get out the scalpel.
Tip #5 Whew—Take a Break
Writing a novel is like running a marathon. It takes months and years of ongoing exertion to reach the finish line. Pacing yourself is the norm, and part of that is taking a break. It doesn’t mean that you stop altogether. It means you are taking focused time away from one task to recoup.
A break can also mean tackling a second writing project. Great writers use side projects and writing other works to take a break from their main work to feel productive and motivated. When you hit a wall with one writing project, think about starting a second project or return to another project to keep yourself moving.
Creative problems aren’t like solving math. Ideas take time to come together. It’s what makes creative writing unlike so many other things—you’re making something out of thin air! It’s not the same as baking or repairing refrigerators.
If you find yourself turning more and more negative toward how a scene is coming together, it might be time to take a break.
Tip #6 Use Teamwork—Get Help!
Your writing improves dramatically when you treat the creative process as a team sport. A writer’s group can do wonders for your work by exposing you to writing veterans and learning what they do to succeed. The same goes for being stuck with a scene. Another set of eyes can sometimes un-jam your writing in no time.
In our age, a writer’s group is at your fingertips. Never has it been easier to connect with other writers and seek out advice and tips. New writers can often be bashful about sharing their work, but you’ll find more like-minded supporters than you think.
It may take time for a new pair of eyes to absorb enough of your story to give good suggestions, but your novel work will only benefit from the assistance. It can be invaluable to have feedback from someone who is looking at your work for the first time. Do they love it—if so, what works for them? Are they confused—where did they get lost?
Additionally, a writers group can teach you about things like agents, publishers, marketing, and the like. The sorts of things you hope to one day find yourself wrestling with.
One of the best things about getting others involved with your writing process is the potential to find not only fans but friends. Friends who will ride along with you through the highs and lows of the publication process.
Tip #7 Scrap it—Gone but not Forgotten
Sometimes you have to face the music. You’ve done all you can, but it’s just not there. One way to get unstuck when writing a scene is to give up on it. Maybe the scene’s not coming together because it doesn’t belong in your book.
This leads to an obvious question—how do you decide if something needs to be removed altogether?
For some writers, this is a first resort rather than a last resort. If a scene isn’t working, you may be tempted to dump it all away and start over. Throwing away hard work can be easy for some, impossible for others. The more practice you have at writing the easier it is to know when to throw out a whole side plot or character and when to press ahead while leaving weaker parts present to fix later.
However, throwing away your hard work doesn’t mean you burn it in a fire or delete it from your computer. Just because you’ve removed the text out of your story doesn’t mean it’s gone. Just add it to a separate pile of unused writing. Stuff the pages into a distinct, separate folder—digital or otherwise. You never know what you may want or need in the future and there’s no need to permanently remove your efforts altogether.
No matter what way you attempt to push through a tough scene, don’t give up hope! You’re writing for a reason. Something inside you is putting words on a page, so hang in there. It’s worth it!