Unsticking Stuck Scenes

I know things are really “clicking” with a project when my ideas converge so that the scene I’m writing (or rewriting) does multiple jobs.  Notes I’ve scribbled to myself about needing to fit this idea in or that line of dialogue (and I’ve been agonizing over where the heck I can fit it in), problems with pacing, a character having it too easy when I need the stakes high for them, etc. suddenly snap together in my brain to make everything work.  It’s an awesome feeling when it happens.

How does it come about, when it does, and how does a writer make it happen, when it doesn’t?  Usually, if I’m stuck or have writer’s block about a certain scene, it’s because there’s something that hasn’t clicked into place yet.  The basic elements are there, but something is missing, and I can’t always put my finger on it.

Some things that I’ve found helpful for getting myself unstuck and making my brain epiphanize faster:

  • Keep detailed notes on what you know you need to work into the story, and about problem areas that just aren’t working (even if you aren’t sure WHAT doesn’t work yet).  So often, looking over my notes about this kind of thing will suddenly spark a solution that knocks out three or four problems at once.
  • If you can’t put your finger on exactly why a scene isn’t working, start with the characters.  How is the storyline affecting them at this exact point in the narrative?  How are the characters affecting each other?  Are they feeling just one emotion, or are there mixed feelings about what’s going on?  People have a lot going on, psychologically, and the most obvious actions and dialogue are not always the most realistic, the most accurate for character consistency, or the most useful for the story.  The more in-depth you know your characters, the easier it is to tap into secondary or conflicting emotions to get what you need out of them.
  • Take a little time away from the story.  If you’ve been staring at the screen trying to puzzle it out for three hours and still don’t know what to do with it, take a break!  Let your subconscious mull it over while you relax, do something fun, do some chores, whatever.  It’s sneaky, and gets your subconscious to do the work for you.  I’m often surprised when, in the middle of playing a video game, I’m suddenly hit with the solution to everything that’s been wrong with my story for the past week.
  • Change the tension level.  Either make things waaaay worse for your characters, ramp up the obstacles they’re facing, etc., or give ’em an unexpected ray of hope, moment of calm, or unlooked-for ally.  I like to do this in a separate file so that I don’t have to worry whether it works or not–if it doesn’t, I can just go back to my original scene and try something else to fix it!