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Diagnosing Writer’s Block: Symptoms, Remedies, and Prevention

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Raise your hand if you’ve ever visited one of those well-known medical “information” websites, only to become convinced within minutes that you have a rare, incurable cancer. (Raises hand.)

There have been times when I’ve wished that there was a WebMD for writers, where I could type in symptoms like “this scene feels slow” or “I don’t know how to ratchet up the stakes” and be offered a list of possible diagnoses, followed by a step-by-step list of cures.

When I struggle to write, it usually feels less like a roadblock and more like a slow wade through a river of molasses. Delicious? Maybe. Good for you? Decidedly not. It feels like the opposite of the flow state, or that feeling of being fully and energetically immersed in the act of writing. Instead, each word starts to feel like a slog, each sentence like I’m painstakingly carving them out of stone.

But I’ve only recently realized that this feeling isn’t something that’s wrong with me, but rather that writing starts feeling agonizing when something isn’t working in the writing itself. Figuring out exactly what that is, of course, is a challenge that depends a lot on the author’s own style and quirks. It’s taken a lot of trial and error to get to where I can recognize the symptoms of “something isn’t working here.”

There are an endless number of reasons that writer’s block (“writer’s river of molasses” just doesn’t flow as well, pun intended) can crop up. This post only deals with one of those reasons: when you know something isn’t working, but you aren’t sure what.

There are a few tests that I’ve landed on as helpful tools for figuring out what that something is. They are geared toward fiction writing, but your tests will probably look different at any rate. While they’re in no particular order, I hope they can at least serve as a starting point.

Take a break.

How is “take a break” a test? Sometimes I look at a scene for so long that I lose the forest for the trees. Sometimes I’m just having a day of brain fog. I’ll take some time away from the story—sometimes just for a few hours, but often for a few days—and when I return, the words come easily.

But when I say “take a break,” I really mean take a break, not “work on something else,” not “write a different scene” or “do research” or “outline the rest of the book.” Stop, entirely, and give your brain a chance to recover. I know our society rewards constant work, but every time I’ve grumpily, reluctantly taken a few steps back from writing, I’ve returned with a clearer head, feeling better about everything. Sometimes I can see clearly what’s not working, and other times I don’t even remember what was bothering me, and other times I can at least think more clearly about what might not be working.

I know I said these tests were in no particular order, but I would recommend trying this one first because sometimes, as the IT team at one of my old jobs used to say, the problem is PICNIC: “problem in chair, not in computer.” If you feel stuck, sometimes what’s wrong is in our heads, not in our stories.

Revisit the purpose of the scene.

Once I’ve taken a break and returned to find that I’m still stuck, I’ll start the actual diagnostic tests. I start at the spot where I’ve gotten stuck with the smallest unit of space in a story—the scene—and I ask myself whether it is working as intended: What is the goal of this scene from a story perspective? Does it push the plot forward? Is at least one character being forced to grow or change? If I can’t provide a clear, tangible answer to any of these questions, then I know this is likely where the problem lies.

Most often, I’ve unintentionally slowed down the pace of the story by getting lost in the logistics of getting characters from Point A to Point B, or that I’ve simply started having too much fun watching the characters go off and do their own thing and I’ve forgotten who’s in charge here.

But with a tangible scene goal in mind, I can start to refocus my writing. I emphasize tangibility because I often found myself defining the “goal” as something like “introduce the protagonist’s strained relationship with her older brother.” This is not tangible. Tangible is “protagonist’s older brother bails on their plans again, and she decides she’s had enough of his irresponsibility.”

If I can’t come up with a tangible goal for the scene, that I take that as a sign that this scene can probably be chucked out or merged with another one.

Check in with your characters.

Looking within the scene itself from character points of view can also help me identify what’s not working. As with the scene goal test above, my questions focus on each character’s individual aims: Is the main character (or the scene’s focal character) working toward something? Or are they just spinning their wheels? Does the character know what they want (or think they know what they want)? Or are they simply existing?

Characters often have both immediate and long-term goals. A long-term goal might be winning that promotion over their jerk of a coworker, while an immediate goal might be to do well on an upcoming presentation in front of the boss. Again, tangibility is key.

Often when I find a story slowing down, it’s because I’ve lost track of my character’s goals. A character with goals is an active character who pushes the plot forward. By refocusing my character, I can refocus the scene and get it back on track.

Zoom out.

Take several large steps back and look at your scene in the context of the entire story. If you’re writing a book, where does the scene fall within the chapter, the plot or character arc, and the book as a whole? As in the previous two tests, can you clearly point to how this scene contributes to those larger sections? (Are you sensing a pattern here?)

Sometimes, for instance, I’ll find myself subconsciously “padding” an arc with unnecessary scenes because I’m trying to draw out the suspense before the next Big Moment. Of course, drawing something out is often the fastest way to kill suspense, which tells me that I haven’t sufficiently set up the stakes or tension in the first place.

There are endless ways of zooming out from a story; I’m a visual person, so I like to lay scenes out in a spreadsheet (which is the only time I will earnestly seek out spreadsheets) so that I can see them all at once. Sometimes I’ll even color code the cells by arc, turning point, or subplot. You can also use index cards, draw the story in graph form, or take inspiration from this guy:

Pepe Silvia | Know Your Meme

Get a second opinion.

If all else fails, a second opinion can be invaluable to reaching the right diagnosis for what’s not working in your story.

This is also known as having an editor. Or a beta reader, or a loved one or friend who you trust to be honest with you.

Sometimes, all you need is some outside perspective to pinpoint what isn’t working. The key here is just to be open minded, to take their advice seriously, and keep being willing to try new things. Eventually, you’ll land on the right treatment, and your story will be all the healthier for it.

Standard disclaimer: This post has not been evaluated by a professional editor. It is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent writer’s block.

How do you figure out what’s wrong when you’re struggling with a scene? What’s your top tip for beating writer’s block?


About Kelsey Allagood

Kelsey Allagood (she/her) is a writer, occasional photographer, and trained political analyst specializing in the causes of war and systemic oppression. This background led her to begin writing fantasy fiction steeped in the anthropology of conflict. Her writing can be found in literary magazines such as Barrelhouse, GRIFFEL, Menacing Hedge, and Wanderlust. Her photography is forthcoming in RESURRECTION mag. She has also written on peaceful resistance movements, art as a form of political resistance, and countering violent extremist ideology. Kelsey has a Bachelor’s Degree in international and cultural studies from the University of Tampa and a Master’s Degree in conflict resolution from Georgetown University. She lives in Maryland with her husband, mother, and a rescue dog named Henry.

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