Monday 22 September 2014

How to Unstuck a Story

At some point we have all reached some kind of impasse when writing a story. It might be a specific problem the character finds himself facing which you can’t figure out how to resolve, or it could be a more general structural issue and you’re not sure what should happen next.

Both of these types of problems can be sorted out with a little patience and a moment of inspiration. You think and think and think and then the answer comes to you. Usually. Sometimes, however, the answer does not come. Everything you come up with seems not quite right.

When this happens you should remember two things. First, no matter how unsolvable your problem may seem your brain has the capacity to solve it. You know this from experience, from all the times you’ve been in this position before (whether in writing or in real life) and you have that eureka moment and you know exactly what to do.

And secondly, just because your brain can give you the answer doesn’t mean it will. It’s one of those inexplicable evolutionary traits that don’t really makes sense. Sometimes your brain just doesn’t want to help you and needs to be poked with a stick. Well, here are some sticks to give it a little push in the right direction.


Reading around a subject and gathering information often helps unlock a problem, and access to information (on any subject) has never been easier). However, trying to find the right bit of information after you hit a snag in your story can be quite difficult. Research is better done before you start writing and once you have stuffed your head with as much pertinent details as you can manage, to forget it and trust that when you hit that snag something will bubble up.

This isn’t quite as random as it sounds. Having all that information banked will inform the direction your story takes so that whichever road you end up going down, there’s a good chance there will be a relevant chunk of knowledge somewhere in your noggin. 


Just musing over a problem in a relaxed state can produce great results. There are no guarantees, but simply playing over problematic scene in your head and trying out different things can be very helpful. This can take time though and it helps if you aren’t disturbed or interrupted every five minutes. Anyone with children will know just how rare that it is. 

Do Something Else 

In many cases just letting the idea gestate while you busy yourself with other things can be the best thing to do. It’s important to know what exactly the problem is, whether it’s a particular scene or a character or maybe how something is revealed, but once you know what needs to be fixed, simply putting it in the back of your head and doing some other task often leads to the answer popping into your head without warning.

Of course there’s no guarantee of when this will happen (if at all) but it does work a lot of the time and so is worth trying.

Things to remember here are that your brain requires energy to work so if you go off and do something that leaves you mentally exhausted you will be less likely to have that eureka moment. What constitutes mental exhaustion varies from person to person—some people can look after kids all day and then be ready for something stimulating, others feel brain dead and end up starting at a wall—so you have to figure that out for yourself. Generally things like doing the dishes or gardening or having a shower work for most people because it keeps you occupied while leaving your brain relatively unencumbered.

Stretch Your Concepts 

This is the approach I personally find most useful. Just take the problematic scene and reimagine it in the most extreme ways possible. What if he wasn’t a policeman, but drove an ice cream van instead? What if it wasn’t in a hotel, what if it was in a space station?

The point here isn’t to rewrite your story in a completely different style or genre, the idea is to allow your brain to go places it wouldn’t normally go.

Often when writing, especially when you’re deep into your story, you become locked into certain ways of thinking. So many moments rely on other moments that you don’t want to break away to far from where you are in case it leads to the whole thing unravelling. But usually there are fairly big changes you can make with minimal disruption if you just allow yourself to contemplate them without restricting yourself. Considering weird and illogical variants is one way to do that. And when something in that ridiculous idea clicks, your brain will often suddenly present you with a way to make it work in your story as is. 

If you found this post useful please give it a retweet. Cheers.


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Doing something else usually works for me, like playing my guitar. It frees my mind.
And if one's Aha moment results in breaking out into a rendition of Take On Me, then try again.

mooderino said...

@Alex - Lol. An Aha moment best kept to oneself.

Unknown said...

Great advice! I love to research, as I find the more information I have at my fingertips, the greater my options on where to go with my story.

Sarah Foster said...

I do the daydreaming thing quite a bit. I always try to figure things out when I'm trying to fall asleep or when I'm in the shower--things like that. But lately I've hit a brick wall trying to figure out a subplot. I've tried leaving it alone for a while but that isn't working either. I might have to try your "stretch your concepts" advice. It could be interesting.

dolorah said...

That research option sucks me in every time. I can get lost in research :)

Al Diaz said...

I haven't tried the extreme yet. Maybe that is actually what my manuscript needs to come back from the dead.

Unknown said...

The research is what keeps me from writing!! But I tell myself, I must research until I find what I need. :)

Rachel Pattinson said...

I'm gradually finding that the more I research/daydream or think about my novel as I go to sleep, the more able I am to work around problems. There's also baking - there's nothing like getting elbow deep in bread dough/cookie mix/jam and then having a bolt of inspiration....

Unknown said...

this is really great advice. It is really annoying when you get so far to all of as sudden have nothing.

mooderino said...

@Wendi - thanks.

@Sarah - the more you stretch the better.

@Dolorah - you have to remember the point of the research, rather than wallowing in it (which can be very tempting).

Al - worth a shot.

@Diane - you can never know everything but hopefully enough to get from A to B.

@Rachel - and even if you don't come up with any answers you still have a cake.

@Lilith - very true.

Rachna Chhabria said...

Whenever I am stuck I do something else and somehow (magically) the brainwave or the Eureka moment happens. I just take my mind away from the story.

mooderino said...

@Rachna - strange how the brain works sometimes.

Stephanie Faris said...

GREAT tips! Someone once said you should make a list of all of the things that could happen next--start with the most obvious, then get crazier as it goes. Sometimes the best ideas come once you've gotten past the obvious ideas.

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