What Your Writer’s Block Might Be Trying to Tell You
By Emily Golus
If you write fiction, you’re probably familiar with this scenario: Your story’s been going relatively smoothly until you get to this one scene. Suddenly the gears grind to a halt, and you’re stuck. You try the standard advice for handling writer's block: you take a break, you put your writing aside for a little while so you can come back with fresh eyes, or you temporarily switch to another project. But as soon as you return to this particular part of your story, you're at an impasse.
In this situation, chances are the problem isn’t your willpower, but the scene itself. Sometimes writer’s block isn’t your enemy—it’s a helpful friend.
Here are three things that your writer’s block might be trying to tell you, and what to do to get your story back on track.
You Don’t Know Your World
When we write fiction, we work within a robust world that informs our story. Our setting—whether it’s a fantasy universe or something we pull from real life—influences what kinds of physical places and social norms our stories include. Likewise, our characters come with their own sets of internal rules, emotional baggage, and goals.
So if you’re trying to write a scene and are at a loss for how to describe the Emperor’s royal hall, or if your character’s had a door slammed in his face and every reaction you draft falls flat, then maybe your writer’s block is telling you that you don’t have the facts you need.
Here’s what to do: Step back and rethink the basics
Maybe you can’t describe the Emperor’s hall because you don’t know enough about Imperial China. If you don’t know what materials a palace of that day would even be built of, how will you fill in any details? It’s time to hit the research.
Or maybe the problem is you’re not familiar enough with your character to anticipate realistic reactions, so everything feels stilted. You need get to know him better. Flesh out his backstory, write out an interview with him, do an online personality test on his behalf—whatever it takes to help you really grasp who he is and what he wants.
Then you’ll be ready to tackle that scene, key information in hand.
You’re Forcing Something
Let’s say you know your setting and characters well. Now you’re staring at the screen, searching in vain for the words to express how Evelyn has suddenly fallen in love with Hugh, even though she felt revulsion at their first meeting. After all, many important plot points depend on this relationship.
Or you’re trying really, really hard to make it so a single shot from your hero’s phaser will blow up the Evil Empire’s flagship. But every time you try to explain why the door’s unlocked and no one thought to put guards in the room, it just sounds silly.
In these cases, it’s not about finding better wording. Your writer’s block may be telling you you’re forcing something unnatural into to your story.
Here’s what to do: Experiment with different choices
Open a new document. Hear me out: DON’T scrap your current version. See? There it is, safe, right where you left it. Now relax. You’re only playing a little game—nothing to lose.
In this new document, write out every other possible thing that could happen—from the most likely to the wackiest. What if Evelyn still hates Hugh, but gets close to him just to steal his ID card? What if there are no guards because a single phaser shot has zero effect, and the whole thing is a trap?
For now, forget about how this could ruin your story plan. Get every scenario out. Go wild.
When you’re done, look through what you’ve listed. Do any of these options actually feel more authentic to your story than what you’re trying to force? If so, can you figure out why that is? Maybe you can tweak the current scenario to better fit with what you’ve discovered about your character’s true feelings.
Or maybe these spitball ideas are a lot more interesting than your current plot, and you realize it’s time to take things a different direction.
This Scene Doesn’t Belong in Your Story
Maybe you are (as a random, nonspecific example that DEFINITELY did not happen to me) writing a scene in which Megan, your main character, is getting ready for an important day. She’s mulling over all the things that have already happened, and worrying about what could go wrong with her risky plan. You try to spice up the scene with vivid details about the rain pounding on the roof above and the feel of the comb going through her hair, but the words won’t come. And you hate to admit it, but the scene won’t stop being boring.
Your writer’s block might be telling you just that—this scene is boring and doesn’t belong. Sometimes we are, bless our hearts, writing a pointless scene that doesn’t add any new information.
Ouch, writer’s block. Ouch.
Here’s what to do: Drop the scene and see what happens.
Again, I didn’t say delete the scene. Keep it tucked safely in a file in case you want it back. But see what happens if you just jump to the next scene. Try showing Megan meeting up with the other person in the rain, twisting her fingers because she’s nervous (but not painstakingly explaining why). Leave out the stuff about combing her hair or which route she took to get there. Using the magic of fictional narrative, just poof her right to that moment.
You may find that you don’t even miss the boring scene—or that you can sum it up in a few words. In fiction, so many times less is more.
Thanks, writer’s block.
Writer’s block often stops our progress, but that can be an important part of the creative process. Our blocks are often a reflection of our writer’s intuition, and when an element of the story isn’t right, we need something to slow us down and make us reconsider.
So if you’re stuck, take a deep breath and get ready to think outside the box. You may find yourself thanking your writer’s block down the road.
(Photo courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net and njaj.)
A New Englander now living in the
Deep South, Emily Golus is fascinated by how culture shapes the way individuals
see the world. Golus aims to create stories that engage, inspire, and reassure
readers that the small choices of everyday life matter.
Her first novel, Escape to Vindor, debuted in 2017 and won the Selah Award for young adult fiction. Its sequel, Mists of Paracosmia, followed in April 2019.
Golus lives in Taylors, SC with her true love and two active little boys, and they have grand adventures exploring the forests of the Carolinas.
Keep up with Vindor news at WorldofVindor.com and
EmilyGolusBooks.com, or find her on Instagram as WorldOfVindor.