Wednesday, February 25

Posted by Laurel Garver on Wednesday, February 25, 2015 10 comments
Some ideas need to be coaxed out of your brain.
Every once in a while when I'm drafting a brand new scene, whether it's in the rough drafting process or in revision, to replace material or fill in an obvious hole, I hit a spot where I know roughly what needs to happen, but I don't yet know HOW to present it.

I typically leave a note to myself that's something like this:

[She overhears David and Sarah discussing their relationship]

Side note: Square brackets are useful for these notes-to-self, because they're characters you don't typically use in fiction (unlike parentheses), so the "find" command will help you ferret them out during revision to ensure you address all of your holes.

In my example, I know there will need to be a conversation, and that something will need to be revealed to my eavesdropper that causes CHANGE, because without change, I won't have a scene worthy of being dramatized.

But what? What will be revealed? What kind of change do I need?

It's easy to get very stuck at points like this. So how do you coax your brain to give you the answers? I've found that pounding at the doorway of my mind, demanding my brain to "Tell me!!" tends to have my brain call security to make the annoying writer go away.

Answers to perplexing "how do I present this scene?" problems require a very odd thing: to get out of an anxious fight-or-flight mindset and into one of relaxation. Because the relaxed brain is where good ideas hang out. It's comfy and chill there. No one screams "RUN FOR YOUR LIFE!" there.

Here are some ways to tap into your relaxed mind and then seek the answers to your writing dilemma du jour:

Pursue wordless creativity

Engaging in other creative pursuits that are not related to your language center (the speaking, reading, writing part of  your brain) can, surprisingly, help your words flow better when you return to writing. Some things to try:

  • Visual art: color, doodle, draw, paint, make collages with magazine cut-outs, scrapbook, shoot photos, retouch photos, record videos 
  • Tactile/visual craft: knit, crochet, sew, bead, embroider, whittle, carve stone or ice, do woodworking, throw pottery, sculpt with clay, play with PlayDoh
  • Auditory: play an instrument, whistle, hum, sing, drum on household objects ala Stomp.
  • Tactile/scent/taste: cook, bake, decorate baked goods, make candy, can preserves or produce

Get moving

As I mentioned in my post Two Habits That Will Cultivate Creativity, the act of walking has been shown to improve creativity, while one is on the move and for a period shortly afterward. It's the physical act of putting one foot in front of the other that matters, far more than the environment, so when it's frigid and icy outside, hop on a treadmill or roam an indoor shopping center to get the same benefit.

Do something boring and mentally roam

There's a reason all your best ideas come while you're weeding the garden or washing dishes or folding laundry: your full concentration isn't needed. Thus your brain is free to roam around. And because our minds love stories, well, that's the kind of jaunt your mind will want to take. Somewhere more interesting than this weedy plot, bubble-filled sink, or heaping basket.

Draw out and converse with your characters

Once you've gotten to a relaxed state doing one or more of the activities above, invite the characters from the problem scene to hang out with you. If they get chatting among themselves, listen in.

If they're a bit reticent to open up, ask them leading questions, like "how are you feeling in this moment? What are you upset or worried about? What are you desiring or hoping for?" Listen and record. Journal for your character. Pretend you're instant messaging or texting with him or her. Write a letter from your character to the person you need them to interact with (for more "epistle brainstorming" ideas, see THIS post). Be open to hearing the characters' attitudes and emotions especially. Don't press the scene into a particular shape, but simply gather ideas and freewrite, quick and messy.

Do you regularly take time to let your mind relax? Which activities sound like they'd help you most when you need to coax a solution from your subconscious?

Photo credit: pippalou from


  1. I use that square bracket bit, too. And I am a huge fan of going for a walk... erm... or having a glass of wine. Because you are right--the real need is to get out of your own way. I ALSO frequently do a Sudoku before the emotional scenes that I write longhand. It keeps my brain engaged but not ON anything that might get in my way.

    1. "Get out of your own way" is a great way to express it, Hart. :-) I think puzzles are great for relaxing the mind--even jigsaw, or electronic puzzle games like tetris or bejeweled/candy crush.

  2. I'll have to try out the square brackets. I find driving is great for me when my brain is thinking on story stuff. I'm one of those ppl that can just cruise all over and be happy- long as the music's good! =)

    1. I was a little nervous to put out into cyberspace the idea of driving as boring, mindless work, in case some troll accused me of advocating distracted driving. :-) But yes, it's true that driving doesn't engage your language center and thus should let you chillax about all things story. Remember to sing along to your music for maximum creative benefit!

  3. Thanks for sharing these wonderful tips. I've been stuck with my WIP for a while and these will be helpful.

    1. Glad they're useful to you, Saumya. You might want to check out my other posts on "productivity" and "writer's block." I wrote one a while ago that might be especially helpful "Now what? Four Key Strategies to Get Unstuck" Hang in there, my friend!

  4. Walking usually does the trick for me; but I've been doing short walks in the winter instead of the long walks it usually takes. So I've switched to early morning free-writes. They may not solve the immediate problem I'm hoping to solve, but they always give me something useful, so still feel productive, too. I read a post recently about how adult coloring books help - I was absurdly thrilled to hear there was such a thing as an adult coloring book!

    1. I know what you mean about not wanting to take the long strolls when it is so frigid outside. Yeah, coloring is one of the activities the author of Around the Writer's Block really enjoys. I should perhaps research the "adult coloring" phenom and blog about it! Thanks for the idea. :-) Glad that freewriting is working for you!

  5. A lot of these ideas have worked for me. Taking walks (or doing something that involves walking -- even going grocery shopping), folding laundry, and sitting in a long and boring car ride have all helped.

    1. Letting our brains relax is the key. Once it has "breathing space," the brain can do its best creative work.