As a workshop instructor, along with being a writer, I’ve often heard students and colleagues bemoan the fact that the project they were recently so excited about has now hit the wall, been deserted by its muse, or basically futzed out. No amount of caffeine, chocolate, or alcohol could possibly save it. If your project has stalled out, leaving you blurry-eyed and screaming, I’ve got some thoughts that might help you step back from the ledge ...
First off, you should make sure you’re not stuck in a situation where you need a destination. What do I mean by this? A situation is not a plot. It might evolve into a plot, but generally, it’s merely a starting point.
For example, a group of people bobbing around in a life raft surrounded by sharks is a situation. If some of the folks decide to stab Johnny and throw him overboard to distract the sharks while they swim to the nearby island, now you’ve got a plot, a goal, a destination. Having your character(s) make a decision and then take action gets your project out of the situation stalemate. Deciding which decision or action is a function of structure, which I’ll address later.
Based on my experience, getting stuck in a situation is more common with writers who rush to the keyboard as soon as they get that initial flash of inspiration from their muse. Which is good. Get it down. You don’t want to lose the inspiration. But don’t invest tons of time in a project before you have at least some idea where you’re going with it. Otherwise, you’ll most likely end up like my friend who told me he had written the first 30 pages of seven novels … and had no clue what to do next, other than to start a new one.
Which brings me to my next point. If you’re a young writer—by young I mean someone who’s new to writing rather than chronological age—you should always take the time to plug your inspiration into a story structure that suits your genre. Don’t agonize over getting each plot point or beat absolutely right; you’ll probably change a lot of them during the course of the project. (Remember: writing is a process of discovery.)
The important thing here is structure will provide your protagonist with a goal or destination from day one. This goal will enable you to keep moving forward … and keep you from getting stuck in a situation.
If you want to study story structure, there are many how-to books to choose from. I’ve found most say essentially the same thing but modify their vocabulary to set themselves apart from the other books. Assuming most of you reading this article are learning the craft on your own as opposed to being in a writing program, I recommend Blake Snyder’s Save The Cat. It’s clear, concise, and provides a wealth of info. Another must-have is Dave Trottier’s Dr. Format Tells All. I once read it from front to back and learned some “tricks” I had no idea existed. A cool thing about studying structure is that it applies to screenwriting, fiction, and graphic novels. So it’s a good investment of your time.
Another thing I recommend, especially to young writers, is using 4 x 6 cards, a beat board, or a software program to help you visualize your story’s flow. With 4 x 6 cards, not only do you jot down what’s going on in each scene, but you can also get out your markers and color-code them. Mark each card so you can see (not read) if it’s a hot scene (red), cool scene (blue), interior (cut off a corner), exterior (don’t cut the corner), day (yellow corner) or night (black corner). Be creative. Make your cards work for you. Maybe track your bad guy by putting a black dot on each card/scene he’s in. Doing this takes time, but it’ll help with your decision making. You don’t want too many hot scenes in a row, or too many night scenes, or to go 30 pages without seeing your villain. You’ll have so much information you’ll never stall out or get writer’s block.
If I use cards, I set out four rows of 10 on the dining room table or my office floor. The rows represent Act I, 1st half Act II, 2nd half Act II, Act III. I walk and talk while brainstorming. And I like marking, cutting, and moving the cards. It’s so not sitting at my computer. An unexpected benefit: a producer I’m working with asked me to send him the cards so he could “see” the story.
How much time you need to devote to breaking down your story depends on your level of expertise and what you’re writing. When comics legend Jimmy Palmiotti (Harley Quinn, Deadpool, Black Panther, Jonah Hex) and I adapted his and Marvel EVP Joe Quesada’s graphic novel, Painkiller Jane, into a feature film, we used cards since we were creating an original story based on an existing universe. When we adapted Jimmy’s and The Boys Garth Ennis’s Back to Brooklyn, we had the graphic novel to guide us, but we discussed changes while solving the world’s problems during weekly lunches. Our graphic novel, Killing Time in America, was based on our original screenplay, which we wrote after coming up with a verbal storyline that we broke into smaller increments as we progressed. In each case, we knew where our story was going before we started writing. So, stalling out was never an issue.
Another factor that can cause projects to stall out is analysis paralysis. I know writers who try to keep up with every new how-to book, article, webinar. They’re searching for the odd bit that will—BAM!—propel their writing to the so-called next level. Thing is, you can’t read/watch them all. You’ve got to be highly selective.
Especially since the time you spend reading/watching is time you’re not spending on writing.
Being selective also applies to who you listen to at workshops and writers’ groups. I’ve seen writers get totally frustrated by contradictory (and stall causing) feedback: “I love it.” “I hate it.”
You’ve got to decide whose opinion you value most. Stick to your structure and keep writing.
A final thought:
During the plague year of 1606, when theatres were closed, Shakespeare wrote King Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra. Hopefully you writers find a way to keep on with your storytelling despite Covid. You might be the one folks will be watching/reading 400 years from now.
*Feature photo by Ekrulila (Pexels)