One week into NaNoWriMo 2015 and I expect a lot of people to be stuck, so I made up a short list of tricks to overcome minor stuckness. These a little tricks to help you through those little moments of word freeze that are short of full blown writer’s block.
The Inverse Sentence Trick:
Take the last sentence you wrote (ex: I looked at her.) Write an inverse sentence after it (ex: I looked at her. She looked at me.) See where the story takes you. Once the story is moving again, you are free to cross out the inverse sentence.
And if it doesn’t work, you might be writing in a passive voice (ex: She was looked at by me.) Change that into an active voice. Now, try again.
This is closely related to the “Last Word Trick”, where you take the last word of the previous sentence and make it the first word of your next sentence. (ex: I looked at her. Her deep blue eyes were teeming with unspoken fears.)
The Vanilla Trick:
Let one of your characters say “Vanilla.”
This remark is usually completely out of the context of the story. Your other characters don’t know what is meant and neither do you. Make them react. Build the story from there.
“Vanilla” can mean a flavor, a taste or a color. And it doesn’t have to be vanilla, of course. It can be raspberry, burgundy or ginger. But vanilla is a little better because it also has connotations of character, as in “plain vanilla”. The word “lemon” shares all those qualities.
This used to be known as “The Bananas Trick” because a random character unexpectedly said “Bananas” mid-story. It was overused about half a century ago and mystery novels frequently had someone unexpectedly saying “Bananas.” Velma, the bespectacled young woman in the Scooby-doo series, often did this, sprouting out-of-place single words to the confusion of everyone around her.
Once the story is moving again, you are free to edit out the “vanilla” or “bananas” comment later. You don’t have to keep it in the second draft.
Unseen Entry Trick:
When stuck, let something unseen enter the scene and let the story take it’s course from there.
This something unseen can be a smell, a sound, a taste, a touch or a gut feeling. Anything you cannot see. It could be the smell of cookies baking in the oven, a sound of someone cocking a gun, a taste of bile in the mouth of a humiliated protagonist, a gust of cold air against the skin or the feeling of being watched.
Once you let this unseen thing enter the room, see if the story will start moving again.
The Light Trick:
Change the light.
Someone turns on or turns off the light in your scene. The electricity fails. The sun hides behind the clouds, or is eclipsed behind the moon. The sky clears and the sun shines. Automobiles pass by and your scene is briefly illuminated by headlights.
You get the idea.
When you are briefly stuck in your scene, change the light and see what follows.
The Anger Trick:
Were you ever in a situation where you said something that you did not know was inappropriate and someone suddenly became very angry at you?
Make that happen to your characters.
Suddenly somebody sticks a finger into someone else’s face and says,
“You know what? You should burn in hell!”
Or someone says, “I’ve never felt so insulted in my life!”
Now your characters are left scrambling to figure out what just happened.
Have you ever been angry yourself when somebody made an off hand comment about race, gender, domestic violence, politics, poverty, rape or disease and you responded with inappropriate anger for the occasion?
Make that happen to your characters.
When you are at a minor stuck point, get someone to flip a lid.
The Pizza Trick:
Take a break from writing. Have a pizza. But don’t have it alone. Have your protagonist and your villain share it with you. Two actors and a movie director taking a break from the filming.
You comment on how cold the pizza is, or how good, or how late it was in arriving. Your two characters respond in kind. Then you go on about awesome pizza you had in the past, about other foods and small stuff.
Before you finish your slice of pizza, the story is moving again.
When you are stuck, it’s time to have that pizza, and share it with your characters.
The Funny Story Trick:
Do you have a funny story you tell when you are having a beer? Everyone has a funny story. Here’s mine:
I was in San Diego on business. A lone man from Japan with no local friends, I did not know where I should eat. So I was wandering around Old Town when I came to one of those restaurants that had tables out on the sidewalk. There was this man who seemed to be enjoying his meal. He was probably Mexican extraction but he didn’t look like a tourist.
“Is that good?” I asked.
“Oh very,” he said.
“Do you live around here?”
“Oh, just around the block”
“Do you come here often?”
“I dine here at least twice a week. I order the same thing every time.”
That was enough endorsement for me. So I walked into the restaurant and told the waitress I wanted exactly what the man was having.
It turned out to be grilled habanero stuffed with crab meat. Some people clearly have a higher tolerance for spicy foods than others. First, my mouth was on fire, then, my stomach jumped out of my mouth.
We all have funny stories to tell.
When you are stuck, take a break from your narrative and tell one of your funny stories to your characters. Or have one of your characters tell the story to you. See what happens.
By the way, the story doesn’t have to be funny. It could be about something annoying that happened at work. Any story unrelated to the narrative you are writing that you can tell to your protagonist will do. Observe how your character would react to such a story. What would he say? And watch the story start moving again.
The Skip Chapter
This is really not a trick. It’s more like advice.
Do you ever feel that you know exactly what is going to happen two chapters later, but don’t know how to get there?
Here’s a clue: You don’t have to write your novel in sequence.
Skip a few chapters and write the part you know you can write. The in-between parts will become clear to you when you have a better picture of the later parts.
And don’t worry about the word count. Those blank chapters will not stay blank forever. You will catch up later.
That Queasy Feeling
I wrote earlier that when you know what will happen two chapters later, but don’t know how to get there, you should just skip two chapters and write the part you can write.
One person commented that the obsessive compulsive part of her wouldn’t let her do that.
That’s good and bad.
Good because you are obsessive compulsive and bad because it is dictating how you should write.
In writing, if something bugs you, do it.
If you can’t write a linear narrative, try to write linear a little bit. If you cannot write out of chronological order, try that. If you are homophobic and feel queasy about homosexual people, throw in a gay love scene. If you are pro-gay and feel angry at homophobic people, throw in a homophobic character. Do something that bugs you.
Stephen Spielberg is afraid of sharks, clowns, graveyards and I can’t remember what else, but he wrote his fears into his scripts. A lot of successful writers have done that.
When in doubt, go for the option that bugs you more.
The Trevanian Trick
Some people here have expressed that they were stuck because they were about to do morally reprehensible things to their fictional characters and they just didn’t have the stomach to go through with it.
Which brings us to the Trevanian Trick.
This one is so damn famous, everyone should know about it already. However… ahem… generation gap being what it is… maybe some of you are too young to know.
Travenian was a famous best selling author. His real name was Rodney William Whitaker and he died in 2005. His books crossed genres and varied in literary styles. The secret to his success was method acting. When he wanted to write a story, he would first imagine what sort of person would write such a story, then tried to embody that imaginary writer. When he wrote, he wasn’t writing as Professor Whitaker, he wrote as the imaginary writer that he invented.
Writing a dark novel can be painful at times. I am pretty sure if any psychiatrist read my darkest works, he would insist that I be institutionalized. Yet still, some writers can write darker than that, even while in real life they are happier people than me. That is because they become, consciously or not, the imaginary writer who would write such a dark story.
So if you come to a particularly grizzly, cruel or immoral turn of the story and you feel that you cannot do that to your beloved characters, imagine what kind of a writer could do it. Then embody that writer. Be the method actor playing the writer. Machiavelli wrote “The Prince” after he was fired from public office, but he wore his diplomat’s official robes when he wrote. So put on your alternate identity. Wear a costume. Paint your face if you have to. Don’t just be the writer in sweatpants all the time.
When stuck, put on a different persona.