I live on Writers’ Block. That’s our nickname for my street. From my front porch, I can see the houses of two novelists, a poet, a children’s book author, several editors, and other creative people. (And that doesn’t even include my own house, which is home to two authors.)
Writers’ Block is a great place to live — unless you’re talking about the kind that takes up residence in your head when you’re trying to write. Things like deadlines, even the self-imposed kind, can help a lot when I get stuck. But I’ve found that when those wheels are spinning and spinning and can’t get any traction to move the story forward, it’s almost always due to one cause.
I’m looking at the scene from the author’s point of view — not the reader’s or the characters’. That means I’m outside of the story rather than deep inside my characters’ world. And this usually happens in one of two ways:
I’m trying to force my characters to do something they wouldn’t. This happens when I’ve got an idea about where the plot is supposed to go and I’m trying to manipulate the characters like puppets to make the story get there. All of a sudden, a smart character has to act dumb or a perceptive character has to miss something that’s flashing in everyone’s face like a Times Square sign. Or I’m trying to force a character to make a choice that the character simply wouldn’t choose. In other words, I’m trying to make something happen because I want it to be that way — not because it’s true to the characters.
I’m writing the scene from outside the moment. When I write or revise a scene, I know what’s coming next. I know the intentions and thoughts of all the characters involved. I know (or have an idea) what will happen 10 or 100 pages from now. I have a bird’s-eye view of the whole book. But the characters don’t. And readers don’t. I can get stuck when I’m looking at the scene from too high a perspective and don’t get fully involved with what’s happening on the ground.
For example, you might have a confrontation scene where one character pulls a gun on another. As the author, you know that the first character has no intention of killing the second character. But unless the character (and the reader) believes that the threat is real, the scene will lack emotional punch and will probably stall.
For me, the first issue is more of a first-draft problem and the second issue happens during revision. That’s because moving the characters through the plot happens while I’m mapping out the story; in a second or third draft, I know the overarching plot and need to get deeply into individual scenes.
When your perspective as author gets in the way of your story — whether because you’re trying to move your characters like chess pieces or because you’ve taken too high a view of things to make the scene compelling — there are lots of ways to get yourself back into the story:
- Do a writing exercise where each character explains what he/she is thinking and feeling in the scene.
- Give the scene to a trusted reader and ask for a blow-by-blow response to what’s going on.
- Put the scene aside for a couple of days and then read it through again, noting how you feel as a reader at each point in the scene (write down your impressions if that helps).
- Forget what’s in the next scene and read this one as though you’re coming to it for the first time, with a focus on how your point-of-view character is experiencing it — looking especially for what the character’s unexpressed thoughts and feelings.
Sometimes, I’ve got to remind myself to stop playing God with my characters and experience the story as they do. And without fail, that gets things moving again.