Got Writer's Block? Take it Scene by Scene

Posted by Jess
When you think about it, a novel is really just one big collection of individual scenes. I remind myself this when I'm feeling overwhelmed. Just take it scene by scene I say, but sometimes it's not that simple. Sometimes I feel blocked because my mind won't give itself over to the scene that's forming inside my head. It's like I can see it, but my feet aren't touching the fictional ground. So here are four techniques that I use to help me step on in there.

1. Write the scene from another character's point of view.
This is the technique that I use most. It is also the one that helps me the most. Especially when I'm having trouble finding out how the scene progresses. When I can see it from another perspective it often helps me see how the scene should play out. Also, you'd be surprised by how much you learn about your narrator through the eyes of another character.

So here's what you do: First, find a character who plays a principle part in the scene. Then write the entire scene from his or her point of view. Have them drive it instead of the narrator. What is this character thinking? What are his or her motives? What do they know that the narrator doesn't, or vise versa. What happens to them in the scene? Write all of this down in a new document, or on a piece of paper. It can be in the third or first person, which ever is less of a distraction to your thought process. Now, when you're done, go back, and use what you found out to rewrite the scene through the eyes of the narrator. It should be a little easier now that you know what happens. And you can use the other character's reactions/actions to drive how the narrator acts/reacts in the scene. If it didn't help then perhaps the character you chose didn't have a pivotal enough part. Try using a different character. Keep doing this until all of the pieces fit together. I find this helps me because it takes an originally empty scene, and breaks it up into each character's view. Each new view molds together forming what will eventually become a shadow box rumbling with life.

2. Remember that your characters are people, and people think.
Sometimes I get stuck trying to figure out what a character's reaction should be. It's in those moments that I ask myself, "Well what are they thinking?" What were they thinking right before this moment? Have them look at their surroundings. What do they see? How do they feel about it? Does it remind them of anything? What emotions does it ignite? Write all of this in their character development notebook (or simply on a piece of paper). Once you figure this out, go back to the scene in your draft. The character's reaction should be clear.

3. Take a few minutes to write out a memory from your childhood, or adulthood, with you as the main character.
Let's call these memories "scenes". Maybe you feel blocked because you're stressing out about how much less your paycheck was than you were expecting. Write about the moment you opened your check or account balance page. What were your expectations as you clicked on the bookmark, the feeling of hovering the mouse over the view account tab, barely realizing that you're holding your breath as you click and the new page loads, the deep exhale that follows deflating every crevice in your heart as you realize you won't have enough to go to LA.
Or you can pick a specific "scene"  that makes you happy, like waking up and running down the stairs on Christmas morning. Or your very first day at work. Or an experience that's related to what your character is going through. No matter what scene (memory) you chose, you already know what happens. You know what decisions were made and why, who said what and how you responded. By writing a memory, you take out the thought process of having to create believable characters and events, which subsequently allows your mind to open up and see the scene as vividly as possible. (Which is how it should be for your fictional scenes... Vivid pictures in your head). I like to think of this technique as the stretches you would do before exercising to help limber up your joints-- or your thoughts in this perspective.  

4. Sketch out the setting of the scene that you're having trouble with. Now before you start saying, I don't know how to draw! I want you to know that I don't know how to draw either. For some reason my dad didn't give me that gene. (Stingy pants!) But sometimes it helps me to do a rough sketch of the setting so that I can better visualize what I'm looking at. And so that I don't have my characters picking up things that I moved two scenes ago. Even if it's just straight lines and stick figures, it helps.

For instance in a scene of my book (which I actually ended up chucking) the mailman is sitting on top of his mail tuck with a small scruffy cat sitting next to him. The truck is parked on a rooftop in the city. So I drew this out-- the mailman, his truck, the cat, and the surrounding buildings. The rooftop, and the door on the opposite end that leads inside the building. The main character poking her head out of the driver's seat, seeing if anyone is out there. She didn't know the mailman was on top of the truck. She thought the roof was empty. So, when I was writing this scene I was having a hard time figuring out a natural reaction to this, but after I drew it out I could see how freaked out she was at first to see him sitting up there, and then how curiosity took over as she wondered what it would feel like to sit up there with him looking at all of the buildings. It wasn't the best sketch, but it helped me step into the scene.

So next time you're feeling blocked, try out one of these techniques and let me know how it works for you!

Also, I'd love to know what you do when you have writer's block. Do you know of any other exercises that help you step into a scene? Let me know in the comments below.

Until next time,

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