Smashing Through Writer’s Block

How to break through writer’s block.
How to break through writer’s block.

Writer’s block. It happens to all of us at some point or another. 

It happened to me while I was writing what was to become my award-winning novel, The Land Below. One moment I’m commuring up a storm—plot twists, colourful characters, and the like—only to suddenly grind to a halt. Next thing I know a month has passed without my having added anything more to my story.

I had succumbed to writer’s block.

But writer’s block, no matter how persistent, needn’t mean the end of your story. 

They say that genius is ninety-nine percent hard work and one percent inspiration, and they’re probably right.

Without the force of habit, hard things seem harder to do: Training in the gym. Getting up early for work – just skip exercising for a week, or return to work from a long holiday, and you’ll see what I mean. That engine just doesn’t want to turn over. There’s just not enough spark left in that battery. 

So, what to do? 

You could just give up and walk away. Have a drink. Take up table tennis. 

Or, like persevering with a car that won’t start, you could put your back into it and push. Never mind that the road is flat and narrow without a hint of a downward slope to make things easier. Never mind that there isn’t anyone to help you steer. If you want that engine to start, you just have to push until you gain enough momentum.

“Writer’s block will inflict us all at some time or another. The trick is to never give in to inertia and the sense of hopelessness it engenders.”

So, it is with writing. You have to fight the inertia. Grit your teeth and place those fingers on the keyboard. Write something. Anything. Heck, write about how much you hate writing.

Sure, what you write might be silly, uninspiring garbage that no one wants to read. But who cares? Silence that inner critic and push on. 

Five minutes today. Maybe ten tomorrow. Twenty the next. Just get back into the habit of writing, and inspiration be damned. 

Set yourself small goals – increase time spent daily at the keyboard. Pay no attention to the quality of the output just yet. Just write, write, write.

Suddenly, perhaps when you least expect it, the engine will turn. It might take several days. It might take a month, or longer. But inevitably, that engine will start and you will find yourself back in the driving seat steering the car down the road. 

And don’t be too surprised, if, a mile or two along, you happen to stop to pick up a hitchhiker, wearing a tee-shirt with a large M on the front, who spins you a yarn about kidnappings and dungeons, and how she escaped them both.

Summary

Beat writer’s block by writing through it, one paragraph at a time, one day at a time.

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How accomplished writers use emotion draw us into their stories.

Robert Frost recognised the power of emotions in his poems.
Robert Frost unleashed the power of emotion in his poems.

Robert Frost, highlighting the importance of emotion, famously wrote: “No tears in the writer no tears in the reader.”

Although he was referencing a specific emotion, it applies to a range of emotions solicited by great writing – compassion, awe, elation, fear, anxiety, jealousy, and the like. 

Stories that evoke a range of emotions, emotions that are tested against the writer’s own experience, bind the reader to the characters of a story by soliciting identification, sympathy, and empathy in the reader. 

Accomplished writers understand that such novels and screenplays are difficult to put down. The reader is compelled to keep turning the pages in order to discover how those emotions play out.

“Emotion can make or break your story, if poorly rendered.”

Emotions cross the boundaries of age, gender, race, and even species. Consider the following passage, taken from Margaret Geraghty’s The Novelist’s Guide, in which a character, Violet, tries to come to terms with the death of her beloved dog, Carey. Instead of the writer describing Violet’s feelings of sadness directly, she lets us experience these emotions vicariously through the technique of show-don’t-tell:

“When the vet had gone, Violet knelt down on the worn rug beside Carey’s basket. His was still, his mouth slightly open, one ear bent over like a rose petal, revealing the pink skin inside. He smelt a little. Nothing bad, just the way you’d expect an old dog to smell. […] 

In the end, she […] went to run a bath. Cleanliness was next to Godliness. She’d always believed that. When the bath was full, she went back to Carey, gathered him in her arms, and gently, carefully lowered the stiff little body into the warm water. It was, she reflected, the first time that he hadn’t struggled.”

That last line in particular is a genuine tear-jerker, compacting all the years of love for her dog in one distinguishing moment. 

Significantly, there is no abstract description of Violet’s sadness, her sense of loss. What we have instead is a concrete and specific scene that conveys immediacy by granting us access to Violet’s direct experience. Our hearts and minds jump back to a time when we, perhaps, had lost a beloved pet, helping to make Violet’s loss our loss. 

This technique lies at the heart of creating deep and genuine emotion in the reader and is one of the secrets in welding the reader to the characters in our stories.

Summary

Use emotion to bind readers and audiences to the characters in your stories.

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Suspension of disbelief – how to achieve it.

Suspension of disbelief—one if the topics covered in the book
Suspension of disbelief—one of the topics covered in the book.

In chapter 15 of Crafting Novels and Short Stories Scott Bell argues that audiences and readers need to be convinced of the credibility of a story in order to remain immersed in it. This is referred to as the suspension of disbelief.

Bell writes that sometimes a writer may push a plot point too far without sufficiently preparing us for it. Or, she may not push it far enough.

If something sounds right in outline but seems far-fetched when dramatised, re-examine the logic and emotions that lead up to it. If your murderer turns over a new leaf at the end of Act II, make sure you’ve given him an internal and external reason for this conversion.

“Suspension of disbelief is essential if one is to make the story credible.”

Additionally, remember to pace your scenes. They have an effect on the overall rhythm of the story. If your protagonist is alone for the first half of your film or novel, the narrative will contain no dialogue scenes. In the case of a novel, there will probably be much summary and reflection.

If your story takes place in a boat where four people are trapped for a day, however, you’ll probably have long scenes of dialogue. Here, it is important to vary the pace and rhythm of the dialogue. It will avoid monotony which weakens immersion and the suspension of disbelief.

As an exercise examine your plot’s rhythm by testing it against Scott Bell’s list:

  1. List all your scenes, skipping a line between each. Write down whether there needs to be any transition or change of pace between the scenes. Or can you simply jump to the next scene? If so, mark the scenes with “YES—I’m absolutely positive this part should be written as a scene,” or “MAYBE—in other words this needs to be a scene on its own.
  2. Search your story for scenes that can be combined. Here’s an example, specifically: You write a scene where your protagonist argues with her husband as he’s leaving for work, then you summarise her driving the kids to school, then include a scene where she gets her feelings hurt by her son as she drops him off at the curb.

“Unsurprisingly, overall story pace depends upon scene placement and construction.”

Perhaps you could combine the things that need to happen in the story. The other car won’t start so she’s got the kids and her husband squished into her car. She’s arguing with the husband as she’s trying to drive and can’t pay attention to the children, who are trying to get her attention. As she pulls up to the school, her son hurts her feelings on purpose as he’s getting out of the car. Lots going on. Not boring. And now the argument with the husband is tied to the child hurting her feelings.

  1. Study a film or novel you admire—something you would like to emulate. Jot down the length, number, and order of scenes, and in the case of a novel, the summaries, and passages of reflection. You will deepen your understanding and application of the above-mentioned techniques.

Summary
Pay attention to the techniques that go into the suspension of disbelief. Inject them into your own stories. Your tales will be all the better for it.

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What goes into memorable one-liners?

Forrest Gump is full of memorable one-liners.
Forrest Gump is full of memorable one-liners.

STORY consultant Linda Seger reminds us that memorable, dialogue, including memorable one-liners, is an indispensable part of any enduring story.

Memorable dialogue has rhythm, context and veracity. It conveys character through subtext and promotes plot through subtlety, ingenuity and compression. 

Sometimes a line of dialogue rises to the status of theme and serves to sum up the premise of the story. At its best, it becomes a meme, an item in our menu of commonly used expressions.

In my classes on storytelling, I urge my students to come up with several supercharged lines in their story that not only capture some important aspect of a character, but that also sum up or, at least, highlight important features of the tale. 

“Memorable one-liners become memes, spreading throughout society and immortalising their source narratives.”

Such snippets of dialogue increase their power through repetition, not only within the story itself, (the line is repeated by the same or other characters), but also extradigetically, through the viewers and readers who quote it in their everyday lives.

Who can forget these immortal lines? 

1. “Go ahead, make my day.”
2. “I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas any more.”
3. “Life is like a box of chocolates.
4. “I’ll be back.”
5. “I love the smell of napalm in the morning.”
6. “I’m not bad. I’m just drawn that way.”
7. “I’m going to make you an offer you can’t refuse.”

Memorable lines of dialogue echo, sing, resonate, surprise and excite. Like great music, they keeps replaying itself over and over in our minds. 

How many of the lines mentioned above can you place? Check below for the answers.

Summary

Memorable dialogue, including memorable one-liners, performs many functions in a story. At its best, it becomes a meme that spreads throughout society, immortalising its source.

1. Dirty Harry
2. The Wizard of Oz
3. Forrest Gump
4. Terminator
5. Apocalypse Now
6. Who Killed Roger Rabbit
7. The Godfather

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How to write a strong dramatic premise.

Dramatic premise: Don’t mess with nature—it bites!
Dramatic premise: Don’t mess with nature—it bites!

A strong dramatic premise is fundamental to most successful stories.

Here are four tips to help you come up with a winning premise:

1. Make the premise as extraordinary and unique as you can:

Rehashing old ideas from past novels and films results in unoriginal and predictable stories. The premise of Jurassic Park was unique at the time, and the box-office receipts prove it.

In my own best selling Scarab series, the original premise is: What would happen to the world if a mysterious formula, buried inside in a secret chamber beneath the Sphinx of Giza, proves to be the final link in constructing a quantum computer that can change the laws of physics?

2. Ensure that the premise statement is clear and contains a strong set-up and pay-off:

Here’s an example: The daughter of a callous hospital director is abducted by an ex-surgeon whose child has failed to qualify for a liver transplant and has died as a consequence (set-up).

This is intriguing, but not enough to motivate the story. Here’s the pay-off:

The fired surgeon kidnaps the director’s own daughter and removes her liver. The director has to find a replacement for his child’s organ, within two days, or she’ll die.

“Together with good characterisation, emotive storytelling, good pacing, and a sense of verisimilitude, the story premise offers a method for successful storytelling.”


3. The concept must raise dramatic questions:

In this example, such questions are indeed raised: Will the hospital director manage to find a liver for transplantation and save his child? Will the kidnapper allow the child to die? Will the hospital director become a more compassionate and caring man, or will this experience fail to change him?

4. The premise evokes the entire story in its essential form:

Steven Spielberg defines high concept as a pithy sentence or paragraph that allows one to hold the entire story in the palm of one’s hand. A strong story premise does the same sort of thing. That’s not to say that it is predictable and devoid of twists and surprises, only that we know enough about the sort of story we’re about to experience, to hold our interest.

Summary

The dramatic premise is a short description of the story that acts as a blueprint for the entire tale. A strong premise is one that is unique, contains a strong set-up and a pay-off, and generates dramatic questions.

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The fabula and the syuzhet in stories.

Extracting the fabula from the syuzhet is essential if one is to make sense of Memento.
Extracting the fabula from the syuzhet is essential if one is to make sense of Memento.

The fabula and syuzhet are important narrative concepts, yet few writers know exactly what they mean.

The syuzhet is the story that unfolds on the page or screen. It contains all the gaps in information, obfuscations, and complications that help make the story gripping to readers and audiences.

The fabula, by contrast, is the sequence of events readers and audiences reconstruct in their minds while the story unfolds in order to make sense of it.

Think of the fabula as the all-revealing, areal perspective of a story. It affords full discloser, offers no surprises and grants no unsolved puzzles. It is replete. 

The syuzhet, on the other hand, represents the subjective, ground-level discombobulation of the fabula. It is intended to generate a kaleidoscope of puzzlement and intrigue to keep us engrossed. Arguably, the syuzhet contains the artistic fingerprints of its creators. It is the level where most of the art and craft happens.

Memento, for example, has an extremely convoluted syuzhet. The hero, who suffers from short term memory loss, has to constantly try to understand events that make no sense to him, since he has forgotten the intentions and motives that have preceded them. The creators of the film offer a story that unfolds from present to past. this approach captures the disorientating subjective experience of the hero.

“The fabula reorders a discombobulated syuzhet in the mind of the reader or audience in order to make sense of the overall story.”

Most films, even conventional ones, routinely hide information from us. This is in order to build suspense or interest. In Manchester by the Sea the protagonist is unable to form relationships. He seems content to remain in an abusive, low-paying job is explained through a series of flashbacks later in the film. 

Other more ontologically complex films reveal information at a more formal level. The result is the existential surprises of the sort we see in films such as Donnie DarkoVanilla SkyJacob’s ladderEternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and many others. Such puzzle films present the audience with two or more levels of existential reality. This makes it harder to construct a fabula from a stubbornly uncommunicative syuzhet.

In my own novel, The Level, the syuzhet withholds crucial information from the readers, challenging them to build a coherent fabula before they can understand the meaning of the story.

The benefit of fabula construction for writers lies at the initial stage of story-creation. In planning a complex tale it is best to build a clear fabula before attempting to shift, hide, and surprise through an artful syuzhet. Failure to do so will leave writers as confused as the readers and audiences they are attempting to woo.

Summary

Establish a cogent fabula before attempting to write a convoluted and artful syuzhet.

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Plot from character

William Golding is a master at forging plot from character
William Golding is a master at forging plot from character.

The longer I think about stories, both as a writer and as a teacher, the more convinced I become that it all hinges on character.

It wasn’t always the case. When I was first starting out, I tended to emphasise the outer journey – the series of tangible events that exist at the level of plot. Back then I focused on the originality of the idea, the high concept, the attempt to grab one’s attention through a new and unique premise.

Certainly, these are important tools for developing a story. The success of my first novel, Scarab, is proof of that. 

But as I went along, my focus shifted to character. I began to conceive of a story from the inside out. I obsessed over the following questions. Does the character lack self-awareness at the beginning of the story? Moral and ethical values? What is her wound, couched in a secret? What must she learn/heal before she can accomplish her goal? Is there is tension between her want and her need? In short, how what is her character arc?

“Plot from character is an insurance policy against shallow and inauthentic character action.”

I began to see that the outer journey, the plot, needs, somehow, to be molded from the materials of the inner journey. And that the events occurring at the level of plot need to be synchronised to the flows that occur along the character arc. 

I recognised that understanding the character arc, therefore, is the true precursor of the story. It is reason the hero reacts to events or initiates action in the way that she does.

This realisation has made it easier to write action and plot as manifestation of character. It’s an insurance policy against writing shallow, inauthentic characters.

In The Nostalgia of Time Travel, I write about a man obsessed with fixing a dreadful mistake that resulted in the death of his wife many years previously. Every action, every thought he experiences stems from this obsession. Whatever else the story is about, it is also a tale about a driven man relentlessly attempting to do the impossible. A man who refuses to give up. In many respects his outer life is nothing more than a reflection of his inner life. 

One of the greatest examples in literature of how character shapes the story is found in William Golding’s great novel, The Spire. The novel describes the Dean of the Cathedral’s, (Jocelin’s) determination to build a spire on top of a structure that may not support the additional weight. The effort to convince the master builder to built it is a study in the consequences of mistaking pride and stubbornness for faith and strength. 

Summary

Plot from character is a methodology that many of the world‘s greatest writers have perfected.

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How to set up the story’s surprise.

A well-crafted, well-timed surprise in your story quickens the blood and makes your story gripping and memorable.
Shutter Island contains a surprise of such magnitude that it changes the genre of the story.

What is the role of ‘the surprise’ in a story? And how is it set up?

A surprise can prevent complacency and predictability and boredom. Additionally, a well-timed surprise, stemming from an important revelation about a past event or character, can help make sense of the entire story. Placed near the end of a film or novel, it can leave a lasting impression.

Who can forget the explanatory power of ‘She’s my sister AND my daughter’, when Evelyn reveals the family’s unspeakable secret to Gittes near the end of Roman Polanski’s Chinatown? The revelation not only sheds light on the seemingly puzzling behavior of several characters, but it helps explain the murder at the center of the story.

“A well-crafted surprise is an antidote to boredom and predictability of a story.”

In Shutter Island, the surprise is more of an existential revelation than an unexpected twist. The film is a closed multiform narrative. Please check out my video on non-linear stories for more information on such narratives.

The film opens with Deputy Teddy Daniels, and his partner, Chuck Aule, arriving on the island to investigate a psychiatric facility where a patient has mysteriously disappeared. At first, Shutter Island appears to be a classical detective story. But things are not what they seem. The grand, existential surprise in the film not only turns the plot around, it changes the type of narrative it is—from detective story to psychological thriller. We accept the change because it has been carefully prepared for by the film-makers. The audience has been given a sense that the world is not what it seems, so when the grand surprise does come, it does not feel forced or far-fetched.

Summary

A well-crafted, well-timed surprise counters complacency and boredom by injecting narrative adrenaline into a story.

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To be or not to be a writer?

This story explores the torments faced by a writer.
This story explores the torments faced by a writer whose talent has seemingly dried up.

So, you want to be a writer, you say? Really? In this age of shrinking readership? A time when video games, a thrill-a-second movies and digital media are stealing the public’s attention away from reading? There’s no money in it, you’re told – except for a fortunate few. Go get a real job. 

The truth, however, is that the world needs writers. Without well told stories the world would lack conscience. It could not fully articulate its dreams. It could not vividly weigh one possible future against another and articulate a moral message.

Writing is, by its very nature, exposes, explores, evaluates. But it also entertains. 

Films do indeed relate meaningful stories, but they need screenwriters to do so. Games, too, need writers to create the game worlds their characters inhabit. Art and music can indeed critique and inspire society, but its appreciation and significance is often communicated through words, after the fact.

“A writer is someone who keeps on writing despite the odds.”

In their purest form, stories that first exist as novels, novellas and the like, being able to directly explore a character’s mind from the inside out, uniquely capture the debate around a theme, a moral system. They trace the consequences of character action in a way that is difficult to achieve elsewhere. So much so, that they often inspire other forms.

We could sit here all day debating the strengths and weaknesses of our craft in our contemporary world, but it wouldn’t really matter. Because ultimately, true writers are stubborn, willful, and imbued with a sense of purpose that can’t be shaken off. 

Writers keep on writing because they can’t imagine doing anything else.

Summary

Writers consider their labours more as as a calling than a mere job.

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What constitutes great writing?

William Golding’s works are the embodiment of great writing.
William Golding’s works are the embodiment of great writing. A school teacher and novelists, Golding’s used his knowledge of school children in his debut novel, Lord of the Files.

Great writing embodies at least two distinct sets of skills. The first arises from the writer’s own life: empathy, intuition, observation, inquisitiveness, a moral compass, and the like. Some are acquired over time, simply by living one’s life; others are innate and spring from the writer’s general and emotional intelligence.

The second set has to be acquired through hard work. It has to do with knowledge about the craft, such as how to fashion the theme of a story, how to make characters engaging, how to weave plot and subplot together so that they compliment each other, is easier to acquire.

Much of the writerly advice offered in books, blogs, and courses emphasises this second set. Mention is made of the importance of the first, a writer’s powers of observation, or the need to be inquisitive, but the emphasis is on how to work with technique.

The reason is simple: It is far easier to teach someone how to deploy a turning point to spin the story around than it is to align that turning point with some astute observation about the human condition.

I often advise fledgling writers to pay equal attention to both sets of requirements; to try and integrate them into their writing process from the start.

“Great writing, given the presence of talent, stems from a continuous process of learning—learning from one’s own experiences and learning through study.”

The information needed to produce great writing is all around us—in streets, shops, restaurants—if only we can learn to observe, relate, and recognise its relevance in our work.

I was once fortunate enough to be teaching at a college in Australia, which was situated a few hundred meters from the art gallery at Brisbane’s South Bank. I would often spend my lunch hour there browsing through its many treasures.

I remember on one occasion being captivated by a painting of a young woman in a floral dress. She was leaning against a tree and seemed rather forlorn.

Out of the corner of my eye I noticed that someone else was studying the painting intently. A glance revealed that this person, an elderly man with deeply wrinkled skin, was working his top lip with his teeth. Another glance revealed his moist eyes.

I crept away so as not to intrude, but my imagination raced with narrative possibilities. Did she remind him of his own daughter that had, perhaps, passed away? Or, had the young woman once been a lover who had perhaps rejected him?

I tucked the image away in my mind to use in some future story, perhaps as a minor beat, perhaps as an inciting incident or a turning point.

The point is that one’s readiness to absorb experiences, to remember the small details that breathe life into memory, and to allow for the narrative possibilities to take hold of the imagination, is a wonderful way to broaden one’s skills in life and in writing.

Summary

Great writing requires the integration of two distinct sets of skills. The one stems from living and learning from life, the other from mastering the techniques that transform life into stories.

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