We’ve all been there. You’re chugging along on your story, feeling confident, relishing all of those great ideas that won’t stop flowing, when suddenly… nothing. Your brain shuts down. Come on, you think. It’s not that hard. Just come up with what happens next. Why can’t I think of what happens next?
And then you have a panic attack and think maybe you’re not such a great writer after all and quit and watch four hours of Netflix instead.
Or is that just me?
Whether your nervous breakdowns are as dramatic as mine or not, everyone has had many, many moments where they simply get stuck in the writing process. It’s okay! It happens to everyone. But what matters is knowing how to deal with it, so here are five good tips for what to do when your brain just won’t cooperate with you.
1. Ruin your character’s life.
No, seriously. If you’re stuck, it might be because you can’t think of anything exciting to happen next. As authors, we tend to think about events from inside the minds of our characters, but for this type of “stuck-ness,” you’re going to want to start thinking about your book from the perspective of your audience.
And audiences love conflict. It creates drama and intrigue and is what makes people want to keep reading.
So think about the worst possible thing that could happen to your characters at this point in time, and then do that. Now you have a conflict, and conflicts create purpose for both you and your characters.
2. Work on a “trash project.”
The most important thing when writing is to not stop writing. If you stop for too long, your brain starts using its creative momentum and starts to focus on less important things, like how much nicer it would be to watch four hours of Netflix. Don’t let your brain get to that point! In order to keep it moving, it’s always good to be working on at least one side project in addition to your “real” book. This way, if you start getting frustrated with the “real” book, you can switch over to the “trash” book and write nonsense with the peaceful knowledge that it’s for your eyes only and doesn’t have to be perfect because no one is ever going to read it. Sometimes just writing for fun can help remind you why you love it in the first place and will let you go back to work later with a clearer mind.
3. Write a quick “To be continued” for yourself, and move on to the next scene.
Pretty much all types of scenes can be simplified to either an “action” scene (you know, the exciting, plot-developing stuff) or a “reaction” scene (the part where the characters decompress from whatever just happened, sort out how it relates to their own personal journeys, and plan their next steps). One of the most common reasons that I get stuck is when I have to write a reaction scene and just can’t get into it because I’m already thinking too far ahead to the next exciting action scene. This is okay! Sometimes it’s actually easier to write reaction scenes once you’ve figured out how they relate to the bigger context of the book, so jumping ahead to the next scene that your brain IS focused on and excited about is much better than trying to tediously plow through a section of writing that isn’t putting itself together fast enough. Just write a note to yourself that you’re going to come back to this part later, and move on to whatever “next” scene your brain can focus on first.
4. Watch ideas like a movie in your head.
Sometimes writing is just hard because words are hard, and everything has to be perfect, and you have to think of what’s going to happen next, but you also have to think of the most eloquent way of depicting what’s going to happen next, and then your brain overheats. A good way I’ve found to get around this is to think about what happened in the scene that you’re stuck on, and watch them like a movie in your head. Don’t try to think about descriptive words for what is happening, just use your imagination and think about how your characters would naturally act in the situation (this is why it’s important to make sure that your characters are as fully fleshed-out as possible in your mind BEFORE you start writing!). Once you’ve watched the movie in your head a couple times, write down the bare essence of what happens. Don’t worry about all those flowery descriptive phrases–you can come back to that later. The best thing to do is to go back to the bare minimum and figure out exactly what the next concrete events are so that you can keep moving forward.
5. Read something in a related genre.
The good news is that no matter what you’re writing, there are going to be countless books that have similar audiences, writing styles, characters, or themes. If you’ve executed all other options and simply can’t make your brain think creatively anymore, do what writers do best: read. Find something that relates even a tiny bit to your story, and get inspired! To go one step further, I would recommend reading something with a narrator that has a similar tone to yours, even if the plot is very different. Being confident in your narrative tone can really help drive a story when you’re stuck on the plot because it’s what makes your characters take on that “mind of their own” quality that successful authors often mention when discussing their work.
Above all of these tips, keep one thing in mind when you get stuck: you are not a failure, all authors get stuck sometimes, and you will get past this hurdle soon. Happy writing!
Taylor Simonds is an Orlando-based professional editor and writer. She is currently a contracted manuscript editor for Write My Wrongs and a staff writer for CollegeFashion, and has previously worked in writing and editing for Anaphora Literary Press and MuggleNet. She is a fan of all things literary and is never without a book, but in her free time she can most often be found wandering Disney World, vintage shopping, or working on her first novel, which she wishes would just finish itself.