For the past week, I’ve struggled with a single scene in my novel. It was a fun scene– I got to sink a ship (see meter in sidebar). My voracious fish species got to eat things. All was right in the world. Except… I started the scene, then restarted, then restarted. I went on vacation for three days, then restarted. And restarted. And finally finished it.
It was a scene I knew I had to write. Tensions were escalating, and this scene would instigate another sequence of scenes that would be even cooler. I couldn’t just scrap it because it wasn’t working– it wouldn’t make sense. I toyed with different viewpoints and styles, once only mentioning the scene offhand in a conversation. None of it worked.
Someone wise once said in slightly different words that every scene must do three things: forward plot, develop character, and entertain. I had the entertainment and plot down pretty well– it was a necessary action scene. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the character down. So I added an angle. Conflict here, conflict there, conflict in as many places as I could get. Foreshadowing a character reveal. I added character to a scene that already had plot and entertainment.
That phase of rewriting the scene over and over– that’s what they call writer’s block. At least, one style of it. (There are many.) According to several pieces of advice, I should take a walk, write something else, stop editing myself as I go (that was one I heard today)… There are many styles of advice for overcoming writer’s block. None of it would have worked. Outlining the scene beforehand? Perhaps, but it might have just turned out describing how the ship sinks, and that wouldn’t help with the character aspect.
Writer’s block is a difficult thing to peg. There’s no one thing that can cure it. Sometimes you need to push through– sometimes you need to stop pushing. Sometimes you need to add character– sometimes you need to bring down the character emotions. Sometimes you need to stop editing– sometimes you need to edit more. I’ve had all of these. There is no one solution.
But, with practice, you can figure out what’s going on. You can look at the scene, or what’s bugging you, and pinpoint the problem. From there, you can fix it. But never assume that someone who doesn’t have your work in front of you can tell you how to overcome writer’s block. On rare occasions, it happens. Usually, it just sets you back and frustrates you.
When working from an outline or a detailed mental picture of the story, I think, writer’s block usually comes from lack of character in the scene. The plot is there, because the outline is purely for plot– the entertainment is there, because it was fascinating enough for you to want it in your story. The character… Sometimes you can make character show in your outline, but usually the outline focuses on plot and entertainment. The character is for you to add when you make the jump from idea to first draft.
That might, in fact, be one key to outlining. I tend to look at an outline as a summary of the story (thereby taking the fun out of writing it), but that’s not completely true. The story is plot, character, and setting. You may have worldbuilt the setting and outlined the plot, but where’s the character? You have a few ideas, but you don’t know exactly what’s going to happen. Expanding on that, showing the character’s motives and decisions, is where an outline expands into a first draft. The outline tells what happens. The first draft shows how it affects the character.
At least, that’s one way to think about it. You might have a different oulining method, in which case my advice is like writer’s block advice– don’t take it too seriously, but work on your own solution.