Writer’s Block and Outlining

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.


39 thoughts on “Writer’s Block and Outlining

  1. Actually, that’s kind of interesting. For a while, I was afraid to outline anything because I kept trying to put character into the outline, and that didn’t work because the only real way I’ve been able to develop characters is by writing the actual scene. Which means…discovery writing and not outlining. And, as you said, the outline is more for the plot itself, rather than the character.

    At this point, I think I’ve more or less got that sorted out. The outline is separate from the character. The key is to just fit it all together when I do the writing. It helps to remember that my outline is not set in stone, so if I need to throw it out the window to let my characters in a little better, instead of letting the plot run the scene, it’s easy to do.

    That said, I think I usually have writer’s block caused from a lack of entertainment in the scene, more so than lack of character. Especially with any scene written from the point of view of my villains. Gah.

  2. I do not have a cure for writer’s block. Not a definite one. When it’s a macro issue, I tend to start things off with panicking. Then I have to calm down and either think about it freely or distract myself until the answer comes. Talking to Mom helps a lot of the time, but not all. When writer’s block is a micro issue (usually me not knowing how to get words on the page), I [redacted for secrecy]. But it all varies.

  3. I hate those brick walls which seem insurmountable, knowing this scene has to be done right to set up the rest of the story. I’ve had some scenes take months to write, and then, once past them, the following scenes just pour out quickly.
    I hope you find the right path, and sink those last two ships.

    1. Indeed. But there is a way to get those trouble scenes written quickly, if you can analyze the problem.

      I already found the right path– that’s kind of what the post was about. But thank you!

  4. Good post. (I need to come up with a more interesting way to say that.) Writers’ block is a tricky, multiheaded beast that is not easy to slay. What you said about practicing and learning to pinpoint the problem is spot on.

    I think that penultimate paragraph pretty closely resembles my outlining process. I outline to fall in love with the story, and I write the first draft to fall (the rest of the way) in love with the characters and to revel in the details.

      1. I don’t think stakes are the problem. I think it’s pacing and clue managing. How to release what information when and what to withhold and how to misdirect and cast suspicion on innocent people and how to place clues that don’t look like clues until you think about them in the context of the dead aunt or whatever.

      2. People remember the first and last items in a series of descriptions. Describe three things and have the clue in the middle. (According to Mary Robinette Kowal, this works.)

      1. Ah… I procrastinate all the time. But I guess I’m sort of even with Bob the Marshmallow, because after all, I am a quick writer. 😛

  5. That’s a good way to think about outlining–thinking of it as the plot, not the character necessarily. That’s usually what I tend to need figured out at least partially ahead of time. Character comes more naturally, but plot? It’s still what usually gives me problems.

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