Writers Tips for Getting Unstuck

Sometimes a writer just gets stuck in the middle of a story. The potential causes are numerous, but most writers go through it. Getting unstuck is the goal. I’ve had plenty of experience getting stuck in the “middle slog” of a novel. These are a few things I’ve done.

Free Write

Writers Tips for Getting UnstuckSit down with paper (do this by hand if you can) and start writing about the story: plot, characters, locations, how you feel about it all. Keep writing until you have it all out. If nothing shifts right away, wait 24 hours, re-read your free write, and repeat if needed.

Forced Write

This is different from above only in that you are not allowed to stop your pen from moving or take time to contemplate. Set the timer (15 minutes is a good start) and don’t stop moving that pen until the timer goes off. This method works best for me if I’m having a conflict with the plot or the character and I have opposing morals.

Best And Worst

If stakes are a problem, take your main character aside and create two lists together. The first is a list of the best things that could happen to and for your character, including best outcome for the story. The second is a list of the worst that could happen to and for your MC. Use the latter to create stakes and hurdles. use the former to provide the relief moments, the desire, and the reward for overcoming it all.

Change Locations and Stress Scenes

If your characters have you stuck or remain uncooperative, surprise them. Take a character out of the setting of your story into something totally different (put the small town boy in Paris or the driven career woman at the mercy of a housebound elderly relative). Keep them in character and take notes on what they reveal. If the fish out of water scenario doesn’t do the trick, put your character in an extremely stressful situation and let them figure it out. In either method, the goal is to know your character better and to uncover both their secret fears and hopes.

Write Out of Order

If the scene is holding you back or you aren’t sure what happens next, skip it and write a scene further into the story. The advantages are that it gets words flowing and you can usually figure out what (if anything) must happen when you know where events are headed.Maybe it’s just a panster thing, but it helps me during the middle slog.


What’s your favorite way to get unstuck in your stories?

Developing Personal Characteristics for Your Character

What's In Your Character's Wallet?Some characters are shy or too private to get to know easily. One way to get to know your character and develop their personal characteristics is to use what I call the “What’s In” technique. Just ask the following questions. Think about the answers and take notes.

What is in his/her closet? What kinds, styles, and colors of clothing hang there? Any memorabilia stored on the shelves? Is the closet organized or chaotic? Wire, plastic, or wooden hangers? Are there dry cleaning bags? Anything kept hidden at the back? What about dresser drawers? What is kept beneath socks or winter sweaters? What sort of undergarments and sleepwear do you find? In what colors and fabrics? What do these spaces and clothing tell you about your character?

What is in his/her purse or wallet? Look in every pocket. Are there photos? Phone numbers? Ticket stubs? How many credit cards? What are their limits and balances? What membership cards do you see? Stores, restaurants, gym? Is there a library card? Security access passes? How used or worn are any of the cards? Did you find anything unusual? Is the wallet/purse always on your character’s person or casually stored? What is the quality of the wallet or style of handbag? What do these things tell you?

What is in his/her car? Start with make, model, and year. What color is the car? What color is the upholstery? Is it cloth, leather, or vinyl? Is the car messy or fully detailed? What’s in the glove box? The console? Which radio stations are programmed? Are there luxury add-ons like GPS, Onstar, satellite radio? What’s on the floor on the passenger side? In the back seat? How does your character feel about the car? Is it a tool or is it a status symbol? Are they regular about maintenance? Does the car have any mechanical or electrical issues? How common is the make and model in the same town? What can you learn with this information?

What is in his/her desk drawers at work? (If the character doesn’t have a job, substitute a junk drawer). Are there any office supplies your character hoards such as paper clips, pens, or staples? Where are personal items kept? What sort? What sort of snacks are in the drawers and how fresh? Is the desk shared or used only by your character? Is it organized or messy? Sit at the desk and describe all you see. Open each drawer. Look in each cubby. Examine the desk top and every item on it. What does your character reveal about personality and attitude about the job?

If you like, extend questions like these to other areas of your character’s life such as medicine cabinets, bedside tables, pockets, lockers, backpacks, whatever you can think of that might contain personal, professional, and hobby items belonging to your character.

What is the most unusual item in your wallet or purse? What does it say about you?

Your Hero Has Two Brains

Your Hero Has Two BrainsHow many times have you read a novel and been annoyed because one of the characters makes a stupid decision? You know it’s stupid. The author knows it’s stupid.

But the character doesn’t know it’s stupid. She thinks it’s smart. She reasons it all out using horrible logic and comes to a stupid decision, because the author needed her to make a stupid decision so as to add some plot twist to the story.

What’s gone wrong is that the author got lazy. He knows that people make bad decisions all the time. He needs a bad decision to get his character in trouble.

And he lets the character use bad logic to reach that bad decision. He makes the character be stupid.

But that just makes the author look stupid.

It’s the wrong way to make the right thing happen.

Yes, you absolutely must throw your characters into danger. Over and over. Your characters must do stupid things.

But they’d better do them for the right reasons.

And yes, there can be a good solid reason for behaving irrationally.

I’ve just finished reading an amazing book on what makes people do stupid things. The title of the book is THINKING, FAST AND SLOW.

The author is Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist who never took a single course in economics, yet won the Nobel prize in economics in 2002.

Kahneman has spent his long career studying why people do things. Why do they sometimes make irrational decisions? (The conventional wisdom among economists for many years was that people act in their own best interest. Kahneman and his collaborators showed that people often don’t.)

THINKING, FAST AND SLOW is the best nonfiction book I’ve read in the past year. If you’re a novelist and you care about how people think, you need to read this book.

It’s a long book, but it’s not hard to read. Prepare to be astonished.

In this article I’ll give you a few (a very few) tidbits from the book.

Your Intuitive Brain

Let’s switch gears for a second. Here’s a simple math problem for you:

Suppose you’re at the store and you see a baseball bat bundled with a baseball. The price for the ball and bat together is $1.10. You ask the clerk how much the bat costs all by itself.

The clerk grins and says, “The bat costs exactly $1.00 more than the ball.”

Quick, how much does the ball cost?

Have you got the answer?

If you’re like most people, your mind’s first reaction, almost instantaneous, is to say that the ball costs 10 cents. That’s your intuition speaking.

And your intuition is wrong. The ball costs 5 cents and the bat costs $1.05.

If you work this out with your rational side, it’s an algebra problem that takes a couple of seconds.

But your intuitive side instantly barrels in, suggesting the wrong answer much faster than your rational side can do the algebra. Unless your rational side intervenes and insists on checking the answer, you’ll get the problem wrong.

More than 80% of US college students get this problem wrong. Even at elite universities like Harvard, more than half get it wrong.

The human brain is a funny thing. Your intuition is incredibly fast, but it can lead you astray without you knowing it. And this, I think, is a useful thing for a novelist to know when he needs to get somebody in trouble.

Daniel Kahneman’s book, THINKING, FAST AND SLOW, gives hundreds of examples of the strange foibles of the intuitive side of the brain.

Would you rather receive $3400 right now, or $3800 a month from now?

Most people would take the money now. Their intuitive side wants the money right away, even though it’s rationally better to wait.

Your Risk-Averse Brain

Would you bet $100 on a single fair coin toss if the payoff for winning was $110?

It’s a rational bet to make, but most people wouldn’t. Their intuitive side is terrified of risk. If they take the bet, they could possibly lose $100, and human intuition is designed to avoid losing. The typical payoff that makes a human’s intuitive side happy is $200. That’s enough to balance out the fear of losing $100.

Yes, the rational thing would be to take the bet if the expected win is positive. But your intuitive side doesn’t like it. The pain of losing is greater than the good feeling of winning.

This was one of the most surprising things I read in the book, because lots of people go to Las Vegas and gamble on bets that have a slightly negative expected payoff. Kahneman doesn’t discuss the psychology of this, but my best guess is that it’s related to the following fact.

The very strange thing is that people really like gambling when the payoff is huge, even if the odds are heavily against them.

Suppose you have a chance to win $100 million in the lottery. There are 200 million tickets, and each one costs $1. Would you buy one?

Most people would, even though the ticket costs twice the “fair” value. Why? Because the payoff is huge and the cost is low. Buying the ticket gives the possibility of radically changing your life. Your intuitive side loves possibilities.

Your intuitive side sees that you stand to gain $100 million and you stand to lose only $1. Your intuition doesn’t care a fig about the odds. The amount to gain is vastly bigger than the amount to lose. Decision made.

So why do people go to Vegas to gamble? Kahneman doesn’t say, but here’s what I’m guessing. Even though the odds of each particular bet are against you, it’s possible to have a long run of luck and let your money ride and come home with a big payday. It’s not likely, but it’s possible.

We’ve all heard stories of people who did it. So the trip as a whole has a possible big payoff, even though each individual bet is against you. And your intuitive side lovespossibilities.

In fact, your intuitive side is heavily swayed by the way possibilities are presented. Here’s an example:

  • Your surgeon tells you that the operation has a 99% survival rate. You feel highly optimistic, and you’re eager to have the operation. Because the doc focused on survival.
  • Your surgeon tells you that the operation has  a1% death rate. Oh my god! You have a 1 in 100 chance of DYING right there on the table! No, no, no! You’re scared out of your wits. Because the doctor focused on death.

Notice that the surgeon is giving you the exact same information in both cases. A 99% survival rate means a 1% death rate.

Your rational side gets this, but your intuitive side doesn’t.

Yes, your rational side can talk your intuitive side off the ledge. But only if you give your rational side a fighting chance. If your rational side is out of practice or it’s been misinformed or it’s dulled by alcohol or it’s shouted down by your intuitive side or it’s smothered by lust, then you have all the ingredients you need for a bad decision.

Your Associative Brain

Your intuitive side is also very strong on making associations between words.

If you play a word game and happen to see the words “Florida” and “forgetful” and “bald” and “wrinkled”, then for a short time after you finish playing, you will walk more slowly than normal. You will act old, even though you didn’t actually see the word “old.” Your intuitive side does that free-association thing and it affects your body.

When you read a sentence that uses a lot of long words in it, you tend to disbelieve it more than if it were written using short words. Your intuition tells you that somebody is trying to snow you.

If you read a sentence that has an internal rhyme, such as “Woes unite foes,” you tend to believe it. Somehow the rhyme gives it credibility. And that’s bizarre. What do you think? Is it really true that “Woes unite enemies?” But that’s the same thing as “Woes unite foes.” Even though your rational side knows this, the rhyme still rings more true to your intuitive side.

Your intuitive side is eager to accept the easy answer. But here’s a strange thing. Remember that baseball bat problem? If you read that problem in a font that’s nearly illegible, your rational mind will have to work harder just to read the question. And you’ll be more likely to get the right answer. Just because the font is bad. Just because your rational side is more engaged in the problem.

Your intuitive side loves to jump to conclusions. Your rational side is perfectly able to check those conclusions, but it’s way slower than your intuitive side. Your intuitive side requires no effort at all. It’s always on, always tossing out answers. Your rational side takes time and effort to work. If you max it out, your intuitive side may just step in and solve a simpler problem. And you may not even notice.

This means that your intuitive side can quickly and easily leap to a wrong conclusion. Your rational side will have to work hard to check the conclusion, and it’ll take much longer. So a lot of times, your rational side just doesn’t bother to check.

Most of the time, this doesn’t matter. The reason you have intuition is because it’s often right, or close to right. Intuition is good. It’s just not perfect.

The Lesson For Novelists

When you need your character to make a bad decision, you can’t afford to let him use his rational side. You have to do an end-run around that.

You need to appeal to his intuition. You need to find a way to get his intuition to cheat him.

How do you do that? There are zillions of ways. Read Daniel Kahneman’s book, THINKING, FAST AND SLOW, and you’ll learn a few hundred ways.

And once you’ve absorbed a few hundred examples, your intuition will be trained and you’ll be able to easily invent a billion ways to defeat your characters’ intuition.

Yes, really. Your rational side can train your intuition to get other people’s intuition to do an end-run on their rational side.

If that isn’t twisted, I don’t know what is.

This article is reprinted by permission of the author.
Award-winning novelist Randy Ingermanson, “the Snowflake Guy,” publishes the free monthly Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine, with more than 7,000 readers. If you want to learn the craft and marketing of fiction, AND make your writing more valuable to editors, AND have FUN doing it, visitwww.AdvancedFictionWriting.com.

12 Tips for Making the Most of Your Writing Time

Making Time to WriteAs we wrap up the Making Time to Write series, here are twelve tips for making the most of your writing time. As always, take what works for you. These are a mix of practical “boots on the ground” tips and those designed to enhance your brain’s readiness.

1. Think about your scene before you sit down to write. Play it in your mind, decide where you will start, and run through the mood.

2. Use Rachel Aaron’s method: Take five minutes at the beginning of each writing session to make notes on what you plan to write before beginning.

3. Minimize interruptions as much as possible. This will save you needing time to get back into the story. (And yes, your family can be trained. 🙂 )

4. Conversely, some writers are good at training themselves to immediately continue after interruption by suspending or pausing the story in their minds. Use tip three or tip four according to what works best for you.

5. Use a timer, either the Pomodoro method or an adaptation that works for you.

6. Consider dong word springs with writer friends. This also helps with overcoming resistance, and is easy to do via Skype, Twitter, or your favorite social media.

7. Take a warm sower before your writing session.

8. Take a notebook to bed. Get comfortable and write until you fall asleep.

9. Cultivate mindlessness (a form of productive boredom). Walking, exercise, washing dishes, vacuuming, and similar tasks occupy y our front brain while your writer mind gets busy. When possible, go straight from mindlessness to writing.

10. For the socially minded, schedule regular write-ins with your writer group or writing friends. This puts writing on the schedule in a new way. 🙂

11.”The desire to write grows with writing,” said Desiderius Erasmus. The more we write, the more we get into the story, the more we want to write. The more we desire to get words on the page, the more we will naturally look for time to do it.

12. Seek an accountability partner to encourage you and also deliver a swift kick when needed. Set goals and then report on those goals the next time you speak.

I hope the Making Time series has been helpful and given you a few useful tips to try in your own writing life.

Do you feel this series is helpful to writers? Which tips spoke to you?

Making Time to Write

Not-So-Obvious Time Wasters

Finding Hidden Time

Becoming Portable

Forming the Write Habits

The Job vs No Job Myth

12 Tips for Making the Most of Your Writing Time