UNSTICK Your Plot & SMASH Writer’s Block | Part 3 – Tools & Resources
Welcome to the last of a three-part series designed to get your story started or moving again, even (especially) if you have crippling writer’s block.
This part of the series focuses on the tools and mechanisms available to help put all of the aforementioned knowledge into practice. It will also mention the actual work processes of the solutions to the problems mentioned in the first two sections.
Activities such as brainstorming, storyboarding, and other ways of thinking up new parts to stories can be very work intensive and time consuming. How easy or how hard writers find each creative activity often depends on a combination of inborn talent and the willingness and dedication to improving their writing skills and abilities.
The good news is that with enough applied time, effort, and diligence, all things writerly can be learned to a very high degree of skill. With that being said, let’s start by focusing on some narrative tools that are excellent writing aids.
- Narrative Tools
It’s helpful to think of this section like baking cookies. Sure, you could go to the local mill, grind wheat into flour, collect honey from the bees, raise a few chickens for eggs, and generally complete all the other tasks you’d need to collect the raw ingredients and bake your desserts from scratch, or you could buy a pre-blended box of cookie mix from your local grocery store, along with the few other items listed on the back of the box. All you need to do at home is follow the directions, perhaps adding in a few special touches of your own, and voila! Delicious, mouth-watering cookies.
The writing tools at our disposal work much the same way. It’s far easier to write a story if you collect a bunch of story elements first and then mix them all together with your own unique take.
Following are a few narrative tools you can apply to various parts of the writing process.
- Obstacles: Murphy’s Law
I talked about obstacles fairly in-depth in part two, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention a very specific and handy tool to utilise when impeding your characters’ progress; Murphy’s Law—whatever can go wrong will go wrong. Essentially, have your characters make a plan and then have things go wildly off the rails over and over again. As satisfying as it can be when characters execute a daring plan flawlessly, it’s twice as exciting when things go wrong, and they have to suddenly think or fight themselves out of an unanticipated sticky situation.
- Character Arcs
There are numerous examples you can find of a typical character arc. Two opposing but related arcs would be redemption and corruption. In the first, flawed characters are won over to the light side, and in the other, the dark side claims them. Sometimes the same character undergoes both arcs, like Anakin from Star Wars. Other examples of common arcs include healing from trauma, overcoming selfishness or some other negative trait, or learning to forgive. It’s quite important to develop an idea of where your characters start versus where you’d like them to wind up. What lessons do you want them to learn or impart? In the case of tragedies such as Oedipus or Othello, how far do you want them to fall?
Applying character arcs to your stories is a great way to give your characters goals and further, can give your entire story a solid direction, even if the actors within it are themselves unambitious.
What is a literary trope? According to the dictionary, it can be a “a recurring theme or motif” and also “a convention or device” based around common stereotypes. These can be small and specific or large and broad, extending even to entire story arcs.
For instance, characters getting hit literally anywhere and immediately spurting blood from the mouth is a trope common to action films and anime, which serves as a shortcut to tell viewers the character is seriously injured. Another often used trope is that of the unseen or deceased parents, so popular in Disney films and young adult fiction, allowing the young protagonists to have grand adventures that would most definitely not be happening if the parents were properly involved.
Each genre of writing usually contains a few standard tropes that readers come to expect (like the fake relationship trope common to romance stories), and the deliberate inclusion, exclusion, twisting, and inversion of certain tropes can make stories feel very fresh when combined with your unique ideas, characters, and world-building.
Let’s briefly look at two examples – the MacGuffin and the Deus ex Machina – and how they are used to create, drive, and resolve plot in various stories.
A. The MacGuffin
Essentially the quintessential quest item, MacGuffin’s pop up all the time in adventure and questing type stories. A MacGuffin is a plot device – usually an object of some sort – that is being desperately sought after by the story’s characters. This device can be relevant to the plot, but is often unimportant in of itself, the character development and the life lessons subsequently learned being the story’s primary focus. A good example of a useless MacGuffin would be the items (and by extension the title of “Ultimate Detective (or Human)/Genius”) that the detectives of Brooklyn 99 fight over during their annual Halloween Heist. (Side note: the series recently concluded, and it’s notable they chose this particular trope of the show as a setting for their very last episode.)
A more useful type of MacGuffin would be the infinity stones as presented in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and more specifically, The Guardians of the Galaxy.
There, while being the catalyst that gets everyone to band together on a grand quest, the stones are also of vital importance to the plot, as the villain cannot be defeated without the heroes interfacing with the power stone. While each containing individual stories (some of which focus heavily on the stones, some hardly at all), the entire overarching plot of the MCU through Endgame is explicitly about the heroes trying to collect and use the infinity stones before Thanos does.
Either treatment – useful or irrelevant – will work, and including a MacGuffin (whether literal or metaphorical) is a great way to give your characters goals and drive the story forward.
B. The Deus ex Machina
When it comes to ending stories, another great trope that pops up is the Deus ex Machina. This is a literary device involving our heroes being saved by outside forces at the zero hour. It usually works best when this moment is precipitated by an action carried out by one or more of the characters earlier in the story, and when you’re writing your first draft, can be a nice way to set up the ending.
The Molière comedy, Tartuffe, blatantly but elegantly includes a Deus ex Machina moment in the last act of the play, when the king of France himself saves the beleaguered family who are about to be financially ruined by a con-man pretending to be a priest. It’s a fantastic moment, because the plot twist involved in the reveal forces the audience to reexamine the rest of the story through a fresh lens.
There are hundreds more such big tropes and thousands more such little ones. Although, as mentioned, different genres tend to include specific sets of them at certain beats throughout the narrative, they can certainly overlap from one type of story to another. Tvtropes.org is a great online resource for finding and understanding many different types of tropes you might want to experiment with in your writing.
A second great asset to have in your writer toolbox is a thorough understanding of structure. While all stories can essentially be boiled down to the same basic two or three plots, there are various more complex and layered narrative structures writers tend to default to when drafting and revising. Some structures work best when applied to novels, others fit quite well when paired with comic books or plays, but there is often overlap from one medium to another.
(To continue the analogy from earlier, if tropes are the ingredients to a story, structure is the moulding and baking process. It’s everything that holds it together and gives it a definable shape.)
When setting up and drafting your story, if you find the plot meanders too much and you’re getting away from your original plan – or if you have no plan, and you’d like to rein things in a bit – it’s worth going back over your story and seeing if it fits into a solid narrative structure. If it doesn’t, applying one can help you get back on track. It is important to understand however, that not every structure is a one-size-fits all, and if your story has hit a block somewhere, it might be that the structure you’re using does not suit the type of story you are telling, so feel free to experiment with structure, especially if a conventional one is not working for you and your storytelling needs.
Not every story follows exactly the same beats, even within the same genre, but if you start with one or two of the common structures listed below, you’ll be well on your way to successfully finishing that first draft!
- 3 Act Structure
Common in many current blockbuster films and modern young adult literary works, this structure splits a story into three fairly well delineated parts (setup, build up, payoff), characterized by a turn at the end of acts two and three. Although not a new concept, the three act model was popularised as a narrative tool for film in the late 1970’s and has been highly regarded ever since.
- 5 Act Structure
Common in television and plays. Popularized by the famous playwright William Shakespeare, five act structure is still used with great effect today in television because the transitions between acts neatly line up with commercial breaks.
- Hero’s/Heroine’s Journey
Based the work of psychiatrist Carl Jung and refined by literature professor Joseph Campbell, this structure follows a circle, constructing a progress as much physical as metaphorical, in that the characters often end up back where they started but emerge quite different, having undergone many trials and tribulations along the way. This structure is found in action and adventure movies like The Lion King and Star Wars, and draws from ancient epics such as Homer’s Odyssey.
- Fairytale Structure
Perhaps one of the most well known and earliest learned Western story structures, this usually starts with “Once Upon a Time” and ends with “And They Lived Happily Ever After.” Fairytale structure tends to follow a “And then this happened” outline, going through a series of misfortunes brought on either by the character’s naivety or some fatal flaw until the final climax. Often, some kind of life lesson is imparted to the characters, such as in King Thrushbeard, where a spoiled princess learns a painful lesson in humility.
- Nonlinear Structure
As the name implies, this is when the story jumps around instead of progressing forward through time from one event to the next. These types of stories tend to be connected by theme rather than plot. It can be helpful to write a first draft in linear progression and then rearrange it later, but you might find it works best to dive right in with the pieces already shuffled about. Non-fictional poetry collections often feature this type of structure.
A vignette is a short story (ranging from a drabble of one hundred words to upward of 1000) that can stand on its own, but is usually part of a larger loosely connected set of stories. This type of story structure is commonly found in fanfiction circles, as the narrative burden of world-building and character conception and introduction has been largely removed, letting the writer focus on interesting moments occurring just outside of canon. Other examples of vignettes occur within the genres of slice-of-life manga, such as A Man and His Cat, or the ever popular American sitcom format.
When drafting, don’t be worried if your story doesn’t seem to fit any of these structures. There are quite a few more out there than those mentioned above, and you can always beat your plot into submission during revision.
Format & Organisation
An aspect of structure, these tools are often more tangible, as while structure is the invisible glue that holds our story together, how we put it together, and how it looks on the page (or sounds over the radio) is something we can visually, aurally, and tactilely experience.
For example, a story that is mostly laid out in dialogue, with sparse notations about setting, time, and description is generally considered to be a script and is often connected with film.
Storyboarding, another film technique which involves drawing images and shuffling them around to fit your narrative is a formatting and organisation tool that can greatly aid in drafting. This visual format is well suited to kinesthetic, hands-on storytellers, but can be used by anyone. Editing film is fantastic way to tell a story. Simply by taking different video and audio clips and arranging them in a certain order, editors can a weave together an engaging narrative. This is usually how documentaries are put together, and often, fans of film and television use pre-existing footage in a creative order to recontextualise the canon or even tell a different story altogether. For a great example of how editing is its own form of storytelling, the excellent video How Star Wars was Saved in the Edit by RocketJump on Youtube is required viewing.
In decades past, stories like The Lone Ranger were told on the radio with a dynamic cast accompanied by an array of inventive and innovative sound effects, and in 1938, a broadcast of H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds was so masterfully acted that (despite notices at various points that the radioplay was fictional) it caused a panic among some listeners who thought the science fiction tale of an invasion by an alien race was actually real. Today, podcasting has largely taken up that space, two great examples of which would be the popular series Welcome to Nightvale and SCP Explained.
A common issue among those new to writing non-fiction such as memoirs or autobiographies is that the story already exists, but needs to be organised into a coherent, digestible narrative. Centering these types of projects around a particular theme is often the best way to structure the narrative into something interesting and meaningful. A lot of the story will have to be left on the cutting room floor, but a precise, focused narrative will be both easier to write and more attention grabbing than a meandering clutter including every little moment that happened.
When you’re first drafting, feel free to write using whatever format best helps your ideas flow. This can be anything from well constructed prose to fragmented run-ons to bulleted lists. Applications like Siri and Google docs have free software allowing writers to dictate ideas straight into a word document, and it might help to keep a drawing pad nearby to quickly sketch out images that pop into your mind.
Whatever helps to get your ideas out of your head and onto paper or some other experienceable medium is valid.
Now, it’s all well and good for me to impart all this advice and then tell you to go away and start brainstorming – itself a technique that helps to sort through all the info in your mind and derive new ideas. But how does a writer acquire all the tools to help them move beyond their imagination and begin storytelling in the first place?
The first and best thing an aspiring writer MUST do if they want to become a great author/playwright/mangaka/screenwriter etc, is to read.
Art students learn to draw their favourite paintings. Dance students replicate the moves of their instructors. Musicians listen to music. And so too, must writers read.
Aspiring novelists especially should take this advice (yes, listening to audiobooks counts), and although those wanting to go into alternate forms of storytelling (graphic novels, film, etc.,) should focus on their chosen mediums, cross-pollinating these different storytelling formats is extremely helpful in the long run and greatly builds up the knowledge base writers can pull from when creating something new.
If writers have access to nothing else, they can still learn how to tell a good story by reading hundreds of them, copying what works, and throwing out what doesn’t. In addition, traditionally published novels tend to have the advantage of using a specific set of grammar rules writers can unconsciously pick up and use – without having formally studied English – which makes the reading experience much more accessible.
It’s very important to read both fiction and non-fiction, as history is filled with the fascinating tales and exploits of those who came before and has served as inspiration for some of the most memorable stories throughout the ages. William Shakespeare pulled both from the recent history of his time and the ancient past to create MacBeth and Julius Caesar, George R. R. Martin famously based much of the political conflicts of his A Song of Ice and Fire series on the English “War of the Roses,” and of course, the critically acclaimed musical Hamilton is firmly rooted in events surrounding the American revolution.
Read the genres you enjoy as well as ones you haven’t tried before. Pick a book from every section of the library or bookstore, and see what sparks your imagination. Sometimes it’s worth reading – or at least encountering – badly written books, or novels with subject matter you detest, so you know what you would definitely rather avoid writing.
Read articles and poetry, textbooks and epics, independent authors, fanfiction, and traditionally published works. Read the back of a cereal box if that’s what you have at your disposal! But always remember, if you want to write, and write well, you must read.
The next thing you can do is study!
If you’ve already started on step one, reading, congratulations, you’ve begun studying! But there is a difference between passive and active learning. If you truly desire to master the craft, it’s vital to move beyond simply absorbing what you’re reading and into actively picking apart a story to really learn its inner mechanics.
Why and how does a good story work? How do I replicate it? What grammar rules should I be following to construct coherent sentences? These are questions any aspiring writer should be asking. While it is possible to come to the answers on your own, much of the hard work of story analysis has already been completed and repackaged into solid writing advice by other writers, editors, and literature enthusiasts. By seeking out and following well established, authoritative guidance, writers will be able to far more quickly rise from the ranks of novice to master. After all, there is no need to reinvent the wheel.
There are two caveats to briefly mention here.
- Don’t feel like you have to exactly replicate every piece of writing advice you come across. Different genres and styles and cultures have different storytelling conventions. You must adapt what works for you, and discard what doesn’t. In the words of perhaps the greatest martial artist to ever live, Bruce Lee, “Absorb what is useful, reject what is useless, add what is essentially your own.”
- Never stop studying. There is always more you can learn, a higher level in the storytelling craft you can achieve. Don’t let either failure or success stifle your drive to improve.
There are many resources, both free and otherwise that can be accessed when studying storytelling. Youtube has a fairly vibrant author community giving out writing tips, as well as hosting myriad booktube channels where readers offer quite deep and insightful thoughts about the books they’ve enjoyed or hated.
In fact, just about any social media site has its own dedicated cache of writers offering advice. Many longform writing articles also populate the internet, most turning up with a simple Google search, and writing podcasts are on the rise as well.
Writing books (many with accompanying workbooks) can be purchased online or at your local bookstore, though don’t forget to check your local library for complimentary access to books on storycraft.
Libraries are also often hosts to writing workshops, both physical and virtual. Some even provide online certificate courses, as do quite a few colleges, and there is always the option of obtaining a degree (or several) in writing.
The last thing you can do is find a writer friend or two and pick their brain. Whether this is someone you’ve known for years, someone you match with at an author mentor-mentee program, or an online writing partner discovered through social media, these people can help you along your journey, offering one-on-one advice that aids the growth of your writing skills. Many urban areas also have dedicated critique groups that offer writers a vibrant and encouraging space to share their work and hone their craft.
Following is a handy, but non-exhaustive list of writing, storytelling, and general knowledge resources to aid in filling your writing toolbox:
General Knowledge Channels:
Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller by John Truby
On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King
Save The Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need by Blake Snyder
The Elements of Style, 4th Edition by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White
The Hero with a Thousand Faces (The Collected Works of Joseph Campbell)
Wordsmith: A Creative Writing Course for Young People by Janie B. Cheaney
The last thing to do once you’ve gotten your writing toolkit together is practice!
The more you refine your writing process, the easier it becomes to invent new situations and scenarios and develop endings and middles.
Regular repetition of something is generally the best way to learn and see consistent growth. Some writers swear by writing every day, at the same time, for the same set amount for years on end. Others are more fluid with their writing schedules, and some writers go long stretches of time without writing at all. (This last practice is not particularly recommended, as the less time you put into learning something, the longer it will take to achieve your goals.) What works best for you will depend on your specific time constraints, writing ambitions (do you want to write fanfiction? Screenplays? Is hitting the New York Times Bestsellers List your ultimate dream?), and other conflicting factors.
You can type out your ideas on a computer, use dictation software, or even pull out a good old-fashioned typewriter. Maybe you’re like me and construct elaborate fantasy settings before falling asleep at night. Perhaps you’re a people watcher and enjoy imagining what sorts of lives the strangers around you are living. However you practice, make sure to do it as often as you can for the best results.
Whatever your writing schedule looks like, you can always keep things fresh and motivating by switching up the type of practicing you do. If you’re working on a novel, it could be that penning a short story will get your creative juices flowing. If you’re a screenwriter, challenging yourself to write a epic fantasy can stretch your writing muscles in all sorts of new ways. Authors of fiction might try their hand at biographies or academic papers, and a journalist might get into comedy.
If you’ve just started your writing journey, be gentle with yourself, and simply have fun with the process, knowing that you’ll grow along the way, and that if you keep reading, studying, and practicing, eventually you’ll gain the skills and self-assurance to get from beginning to end every time with confidence.
There can come a time in a writer’s journey when they bemoan what they’re writing because it seems terrible to them – and that wasn’t the case when they began! Don’t despair if this is your reality. The better you get, the more you can see the flaws that novice!you missed entirely. Just keep practicing and learning; if you stick with it, you will push past those plateaus.
A Few Closing Thoughts:
Ambiguous or open and sad endings are okay. Not everything in life has definitive closure, so these types of endings can be quite relatable.
Sometimes an idea is best left bite-sized. I’ve seen absolutely amazing stories suffer because the author extended the idea a bit too long. It can be the case that withholding certain details compels readers to desperately crave the unsaid implications, making the story linger with them far beyond the initial reading. A fantastic example of this is the Tell Tale Heart by Edgar Allan Poe. Clocking in at just over 2,000 words, the story’s short length is its greatest strength. It’s a quick and easy read, but impossible to forget.
Lastly, don’t be afraid to write bad ideas. Remember, there are no stupid ideas – at least not on the first draft. If you want to write about a Mary Sue self-insert who defeats the forces of darkness using the power of a mystical unicorn, go for it! If it gets your story finished, it was a good idea.
That concludes part three, and thus this series. I trust you now have a grasp on how to start from nothing and end up with a finished first draft. Hopefully this also helped answer questions about how to push past writer’s block and get your WIP started again.
Thanks for following along, and please feel free to add comments on what you’ve found helpful as well as questions about anything discussed in this and the previous articles.
Now go forth, and write!