Tuesday, October 26

Posted by Laurel Garver on Tuesday, October 26, 2010 17 comments
Every writer has times when s/he can't seem to make forward progress on a project. Writing books everywhere have suggestions about why this is, and how to overcome it.

In my reading, I've seen two common ways to understand low/no productivity: as a wall and as a desert. I'd argue that all creative people will experience BOTH, because the underlying issues are different, even if the end result is the same. For brevity's sake, I'll tackle each in a separate post.


Sometimes we're happily drafting away, when BANG! we can't move ahead further. Productivity comes to a screeching halt. Hitting a wall usually looks like one of the following:

-a character is in crisis and you can't seem to get him out
-you've given the character something to do and she refuses
-your characters stop speaking to you
-despite your best efforts, the wrong characters keep flirting or fighting or snubbing each other
-you really need character Z in this scene for balance, but he doesn't quite fit
-a minor character keeps upstaging the major ones
-you've heard over and over that you can't give characters what they want
-you're miserable only making the characters miserable

Walls pop up when you stubbornly insist on continuing in the wrong direction. As writers, we serve the story. And sometimes that means binding and gagging one's rational mind and shoving it into a closet.

Instead, make space for your intuition and just try things. That might mean letting characters decide which ones get the biggest roles, and letting them show you what's truly an "in character" action. Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird has a chapter called "Broccoli" that explains how she encourages her intuition. Lamott says, "Writing is about about hypnotizing yourself into believing yourself, getting some work done, then unhypnotizing yourself and going over the material coldly" (114).

For me, walls happen when I follow writing "rules" too rigidly, or let a too simplistic understanding control how I shape scenes. Take for example "tension on every page" and "put your character up a tree and throw rocks at her." The fact of the matter is no published book I've ever read does this. There are always periods of reversal, peace, safety, humor, etc. that release tension periodically. If you have unmitigated misery and difficulty, your reader will begin to disengage, or your serious story will simply become a farce.

Think of the Battle of Helm's Deep in The Two Towers film. Peter Jackson deftly keeps ramping up the tension without wearing us out by putting in Gimli's humor as a pressure release valve.

Consider letting a character have just one crumb of the thing they want in order to keep alive the hunger and motivation for more of this desired thing.

What have your walls looked like? Have you had success letting intuition and "just trying things" move your story from stuck to steaming ahead?


  1. Yes, but can you imagine a wall appearing in the middle of a desert? I agree that following rules too rigidly creates walls of frustration,sometimes before ever beginning. The rules are much better used during the editing process.

  2. That wall for me recently was asking a question I couldn't figure out an answer to. I didn't understand why I did what I did, but I couldn't take it out for various other plot reasons. I need to learn that broccoli trick, I'm ALWAYS questioning my plot motivations when I'm writing. That's a task for revision, I think. Good post!

  3. Helm's Deep is a great example, Laurel. You always have such brilliant and meaningful posts. :-)

  4. Good post. Gets one thinking about what it is that stops us in our writing, or from moving forward in our lives toward whatever goal we want to reach.

  5. Hmm I just get stuck occasionally and have to put it aside for a few days. the rules don't really concern me because most the time they aren't rules just guidelines *grin* I've seen rather a few pieces of work ruined because the writer was too concerned with the rules :)


  6. Rules get me stuck. But I'm slowly learning how to break them effectively. Excellent post Laurel.

  7. What gets me stuck is when I realize that my story doesn't have enough tension. I keep writing, but I slow down. Then extra layers of the story slowly come to me and I realize the characters and subplots I can add to spice up the story.

  8. I get stuck with plot issues. I do have success with following advice from other writers who have experienced the same problems. Great post, Laurel.

  9. I need to read Lamott's book! I'm stuck right now.

  10. I just hit one of those walls in my current WIP. I was cruising along just fine, more than one thousand words a day and all the sudden, it wasn't flowing anymore. It took me a day or so to realize it wasn't that I was stuck, it was that the scene wasn't going anywhere. It wasn't advancing the plot--and I had cut down on the tension--so it wasn't flowing like it should.

  11. Jill: I hear what you're saying about leaving the rules for revision--but having spent 2.5 years revising because I just wrote whatever and it was a mess, I kind of want to get more right the first time with book 2. Somewhere between the extremes of rule flouting and rule rigidty is where we should probably ideally be.

    JEM: your wall problem might instead be a desert one: your creativity is a bit starved and needs to be fed before you'll be able to conjure a solution.

    Shannon: thanks. I'm thinking I should do an analysis of that section of a film to talk about how to build incremental tension. It's really a well-done piece of storytelling.

  12. Ann: Lamott's Bird by Bird was really stimulating my thinking on this whole issue--as is trying to get through chapter 4 in my current WIP.

    Nicole: setting aside can be a helpful thing--if one puts a time limit on it. Walls can turn into long hiatuses if we're not careful! But you're right that after a little rest, the intuition is more likely to show up and help us map a different route, away from the wall.

    Lynn: Lamott's ideas of coaxing your intuition to help you are a great antidote to being rules bound.

    Mediea: sounds like a "desert" problem more than a wall. Stay tuned--I'll post about that tomorrow!

  13. Roxy: I highly recommend Robert McKee's _Story_ to help with plot. It's written for screenwriters, but is dense with good ideas for building solid plots. My plot problems is too many ideas randomly popping up and having trouble keeping the plot arc contained and organized, but McKee's book is so helpful!

    Mary: That's why I picked it up at the library for the fifth time (really ought to buy it!). Bird by Bird is a wonderful mix of advice and "I'm there in the trenches with you." And she manages to be wonderfully funny throughout.

    Cindy: So your wall was a not-working scene you didn't need. Taking a step back and looking at the overall flow sounds like an excellent approach to the problem.

  14. What a great post! How many times are we our own block without realizing it? Allowing ourselves to write what wants to come is sometimes hard, but always worth it. Thank you!

  15. I usually just need to wait it out while my brain works out whatever I'm stumped over. I'll read. I'll work on something else. Eventually I get over it.

  16. I usually hit a wall when I feel as if I can't connect with my character because I am distracted or something else is going on that won't allow me to focus.

  17. Janet: our rational mind can be the biggest block of progress. One's intuition needs freedom to try things and play.

    Laura: Good plan. The one thing that almost never works is continuing to bang one's head against that wall.

    Victoria: Sounds like a looking in the wrong direction problem, as if the character is saying "Yoo-hoo! I'm not over there, I'm over here!"