Jumpstarting a Stalled Story

Do you have writer’s block? Is it something you struggle with sometimes? Most of the time? All of the time?

It might help to know that you aren’t alone.

At least, that’s what so many blogs, articles, and advice columns out there would have you believe. Right before they try to convince you of the “1 simple trick to overcome writer’s block” that they, and only they, can impart.

I would formally like to call bullsh*t on this trend.

Writer’s block is defined as “the condition of being unable to think of what to write or how to proceed with writing.”

People like to define their writer’s block based on arbitrary distinctions (no idea, too many ideas but can’t commit, don’t know what happens next, boredom, fear, etc., etc., etc.). And yes, you approach “no idea” differently than “too many ideas”, but in the end it always seems to boil down to having to just sit down and write something.

If you’re serious about writing, then you probably have at least one idea (otherwise, why are you wanting to write?). It might not be a complete and/or coherent idea, but it’s still there, knocking around in your noggin’. Maybe you’ve just seen glimpses, heard whispers, and felt it hiding around a corner, but you’ve yet to fully grasp it. Maybe you’ve been buried beneath an avalanche of ideas that seem wonderful at first glance but are mostly tinsel and fluff. Whatever the particular state of ideas you are in, the only way forward is to write.

Now, that isn’t to say that you sit at the keyboard (or typewriter, or with pen in hand) and the words will magically come. But writing is a skill, and like playing the piano or baking a cake, it becomes easier the more you practice. So if you find yourself stuck, you need to write something. It might not be part of the story you’ve been working on, or it might not even be any good. But you’ve got to “get the juices flowing,” so to speak.

Personally, I am against the idea of starting a new project every time you get stuck (though switching between projects in different stages is something I do all the time. I’ll be working on Draft 1 of story X, revising story Y, and perhaps world building for story Z). That’s the quickest way to end up with a stack of unfinished stories that you may never even look at again. Which is a waste of effort and the talent that you’ve worked hard to cultivate.

If you don’t have projects at different stages, then you should do some writing exercises. These tend to be “fan fiction”-y type things were you imagine your main characters in strange settings and then write how they would act. It can help you get to know your characters better, develop them more fully, and inspire you to return to the story (which is the end goal, after all).

Most of the suggestions I’ve seen have been annoyingly fluffish. “Somebody tells your MC that they have a crush on them!” “The love of your MC’s life loves them back!” “Your MC just won a lottery!” (I’m being mean, I’m sorry. They aren’t all that bad)

The problem I have with most of them is that they are only applicable to a specific type of story. Generally one with some sort of romantic plot/sub-plot, in modern(ish) times, on Earth. Occasionally I’ll see one that is heavy fantasy or sci-fi. But there’s still the problem that they only apply to a niche genre or type of character. I’ve been writing historical fiction with a heavy draw on mythology and no romantic sub-plot (despite who my critique group ships). My answer to a lot of those prompts are something along the lines of “Well that would never happen.” Which, I would like to point out, is legitimate character development. Knowing what sort of situations a character would or would not be involved in tells you something about that character. But it doesn’t leave me with much to work with for writing practice.

So I would like to propose the following prompts and writing exercises. Many of them may require you to think of what happens before or after the story proper, but they should be applicable to (almost) all types of stories. And because I’m a nerd, if you want a random prompt. Roll (or generate) a number between 1 and 20. That’s your prompt. Go do some writing.

  1. Describe the first time (that a character can remember) that someone else made food for them. What did they eat? Did they like it? Why was the food made for them?
  2. Describe the last conversation a character ever had with the person/people who raised them. Did they know it would be the last conversation? What did they talk about? How did they feel afterwards?
  3. Describe a nightmare the character had that really stuck with them for days, weeks, and/or months. How old were they? What was it about? Did they tell anyone (and if so, what were the reactions)?
  4. Describe the first (major) injury the character ever experienced. How old were they? What happened? Did it leave a physical and/or psychological mark?
  5. The character has been left alone with a small child (who may or may not be related to them, your choice), and doesn’t know when they will next see another person. Why are they with the small child? What will they do with/to/for the child?
  6. Something frightened your character -what was it?
  7. An accident has left the character trapped somewhere. What happened, where are they, and what will they do?
  8. The character has found something they thought they had lost years ago. What is it? How did they find it? How did they lose it in the first place?
  9. Someone that the character thought was dead appears to actually still be alive. Who are they? How does this revelation make the character feel? Is it actual the supposed-to-be-dead person, or someone else?
  10. The character is mistaken for someone else, and the person who made the mistake thinks the character is lying. Who do they think the character is? Why do they think that? Why won’t they accept that it was a mistake? What happens next?
  11. FIRE! Where is the character? How did the fire start? How does the character respond to the fire? (stories set underwater and in places that a fire couldn’t start, substitute some sort of localized/small disaster)
  12. The character has been given tickets/seats/admission to some popular form of public entertainment. What is it? Where is it? Who gave the tickets/etc. to the character (and why)?
  13. The character is dying. Where are they? What happened? Is there anyone with them? What are their last thoughts?
  14. The character sees the future. Is it a dream? Hallucination? Prophetic vision? How do they react?
  15. The character is alone, and will be alone for several days at least. Where are they? Why are they alone? What do they do?
  16. The character sees someone getting robbed. What do they do?
  17. Describe the character’s childhood dream (e.g., “When I grow up I want to be…”). Why was that their goal? Was it supported by parental figures? Did they do anything as they grew to work towards that dream?
  18. Describe the first place the character considered “home.” Where was it? Why was that “home” to them?
  19. Describe the character’s first friend. Who is it? How did they become friends? Did they remain friends? (‘Friends’ can be pets, inanimate objects, AI, or anything else that the character forms an attachment to/with)
  20. How would the character react if someone told them that there was a book/legend/story/etc. about them?
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