Stalled scene? Lagging action? Flat description? Sometimes when you’re writing it feels like there’s no way forward—and all you want in the world is to trade in your pen and paper for a nice, mind-numbing sitcom.
Most of the time, though, a scene stalls for one simple reason: you don’t have enough information. And that’s an easily-remedied problem. Try these jump-starts the next time your words won’t cooperate.
Engage the Senses
Take a few minutes to list sensations present in a scene: What does your character see, hear, feel, taste, smell? Ask how your character interacts physically with her environment—how the breeze flutters her sleeve, for instance; the way she sweats in response to heat; or the way her muscles ache from sitting too long in one spot.
Go beyond the obvious: What emotional mood do you want in the scene? Find details in setting and character description that will evoke that mood.
Play the Movie
Find a quiet spot to sit back, close your eyes, and let the scene play out in your mind. Take the time to visualize details—and use that list of sensations you made above. Imagine your character’s movements through the scene, her reactions to unfolding events.
Go beyond the obvious: Keep in mind your character’s emotional state, level of confidence, fears, worries, hopes, and dreams. What is her starting point in the scene? Where will she end up, physically and emotionally?
Have the Conversation
Freewrite a page with nothing but dialog. Let your characters rant and argue and confess and apologize, following their lead through unbridled conversation. From this, pick and choose the pieces that are most telling, most gripping, most real. Pick the pieces that show character and move your story forward.
Go beyond the obvious: Your characters might say things to themselves—internal dialog—that they wouldn’t say aloud. Consider whether uncensored dialog that won’t fit in an out-loud conversation has a place in your character’s thoughts.
Try On a Different Point of View
If your characters’ actions feel inauthentic, try talking to someone other than your protagonist. What does that secondary character want when he enters your scene? What is the villain thinking as events unfold? Sometimes looking through another character’s eyes will give you insight into how they will respond.
Go beyond the obvious: Remember that your antagonist is the hero of his story. What does she desire, fear, hate, or love? How are her wishes being thwarted? Finding ways to sympathize with your “villain” will let you create a more believable character.
When the Muse Speaks, Listen!
When you feel stuck, there’s always a reason. Sometimes, you need to figure out more about your plot, world, setting, or characters. In that case, pre-writing, brainstorming, mind-mapping, daydreaming, and other creative techniques can help you to find your way forward.
Even more important, when you develop the habit of answering blocks and doubts with action—like brainstorming setting and scene details—you derail your mental nay-sayer. She can stop jumping up and down and having hysterics. “Look,” you say, “we’ve been here before. We have a plan.” You’re learning to sidestep your inner critic—and that’s always a good thing.
Luke Raftl says
Great tips, Cheryl
Sometimes you do really have to think outside the box to kick start a scene. One i hadn't tried was to just write the conversation out in dialogue. I actually have a scene i need to rework that I might try that with right now!
One thing I do that seems to help me is just to write whatever comes to mind, be it nonsense or valuable, in a frenzied type of writing brainstorm, and then so back through it later and pick what i need and discard what i don't. Often the stuff that comes out as complete jibberish kickstarts a thought or angle that you hadn't thought of previously!
Cheryl Reif says
Yes! I do that, too! That's my strategy when I can't think of ANYTHING to write, and invariably I come away with bits and pieces to move the story forward.
Thanks for stopping by!
I just bookmarked this to come back to the next time I'm stuck. Great suggestions – I love the idea of just stopping and sitting and letting the movie play for a bit without the frenzy of trying to write it down.
Patrice Kavanaugh says
Hi Cheryl, I found you/this site through a mutual friend, Jill Kemerer. Love your suggestions. I'm having a tough time for many of the scenes for my current wip, and appreciate your different ideas. I will give them a whirl in the next several writing sessions!
Loree Huebner says
Great tips! I "play the movie" and have "the conversation." I find the shower is a great place to play out the scene like a movie in my head – no distractions until you run out of hot water.
Cheryl Reif says
Jai: I'm glad "playing the movie" resonated with you. Sometimes this works best for me if I'm almost–but not quite–napping. That in-between state seems like a good place for my brain to wander into creative places. I just have to keep enough willpower to wake myself up to write, because I never remember these ideas later.
Patrice: Thank you! I hope these ideas spur your writing forward :). The motivation for this post was that I'm tackling tough spots in the plot of my new WIP…it's helping, slowly but surely.
Loree: A lack of hot water would definitely be distracting! This is a great idea, because in my house the shower is one of the few places I have 20+ minutes (almost) guaranteed uninterrupted. Thanks for sharing!
Watch creepy videos or have a creepy visit from a snow owl. Also good for inspiration.
Cheryl Reif says
The snowy owl is so inspiring, I've invited it to my house