Nine Tips to Unstick Writer’s Block

The Five Elements of Fiction

by Debbie Wilson

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Please welcome Debbie Wilson again. She’s doing a series on the FIVE ELEMENTS of FICTION. This week it’s PLOT. (Read previous weeks  about CONFLICT and CHARACTERS.) 

List the elements of your day so far. Is that a plot? No.

Now change the list into prose.

Is it a plot now?

If you’re like most of us, your answer is still no. You might have some activities or incidents that would fit into a plot, but your life is not a story. Why?

Three authors give some insight in the quotations that below.

“Plot is people. Human emotions and desires founded on the realities of life, working at cross purposes, getting hotter and fiercer as they strike against each other until finally there’s an explosion—that’s Plot.”  —Leigh Brackett, Writers’ Digest, (edition and article unknown)

“To be stories at all they must be a series of events: but it must be understood that this series – the plot, as we call it – is only really a net whereby to catch something else.”C.S. Lewis, On Stories: And Other Essays on Literature  “A plot…is a carefully orchestrated telling of events that might include breaking up their temporal order, taking out certain pieces or emphasizing other pieces. It is in that manipulation that a simple story becomes a plot.” –Robert Kernen, Building Better Plots, p. 6.

If we were to summarize the above comments, we might come up with this definition: plot is “a carefully orchestrated telling” “of a series of events” in the lives of people whose “human emotions and desires founded on the realities of life (work) at cross purposes.” On the other hand, life is not a carefully orchestrated telling, and sometimes the series of events are unrelated. Although sometimes our goals and desires are at cross purposes with those around us, sometimes they aren’t. Therefore, on at least three levels our everyday lives are not plots.

Plot Structure:

 We begin with an inciting incident, something that changes the status quo:

  • Someone comes—A rich bachelor moves into the neighborhood; a tall, dark stranger rides into town on a weary gelding; an alien steps out of a space ship.
  • Someone leaves—The banker disappears with $30,000 from the bank; a child runs away to join the circus; the family’s dog is gone when the kids get home from school.
  • Someone gets news that changes relationships or what the main character has always thought about his reality:  Eric finds out that his childless wife Candy had an abortion before he married her; the “rich” family in the neighborhood is broke; the business where Tom has worked for 30 years is closing down.
  • Something happens that makes the status quo no longer bearable— Tim discovers that his overbearing father is not his father; Meg finds out that her abusive husband Jeff is cheating; loyal Sam hears that the boss’s obnoxious nephew will become the new manager.

The scene is the building block of the plot. When we write a scene, we think in terms of what we might see onstage or in a movie. We need to define what our goal is. Why must this scene be in the story? What must it accomplish (reveal character, add information, important action, etc.)? How will this scene affect our characters? What is our emotional goal for the reader for this scene? Each scene has a stimulus and a response. That response becomes a stimulus in another scene.

Each scene should contain a conflict. Some scenes should be action-packed, but some scenes need to offer different styles of conflict. The action-packed story should have scenes of humor or rest following the action scenes where the conflict differs from the primary conflict. Follow a man-against-man conflict scene with a man-against-himself conflict scene. As an example, our heroine witnesses a hit on a prominent senator. One of the assassins sees her and chases her. She flees for her life and escapes temporarily. Scene 2 finds her hiding out in her aunt’s bed and breakfast, wondering whether to contact the FBI or never say anything. She fights between doing what is right and doing what is safe.

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Approaches to Plotting:

Different authors approach plotting differently.

  1. The outline approach. The author begins with a simple outline with Roman numerals, I, II, III, etc. By each he writes information about the story. He goes through the outline again, adding A, B, C, etc., with scenes that fit into his larger points. Point by point he builds his story. He continues through the outline process until he can stop planning and basically transfer the story with some additions into prose.
  2. Flow of writing approach. The writer sits down, opens a vein, and lets the blood flow onto the paper. He starts out with a character, a theme, or a situation and asks “What if?” enough times until he has a story. C.S. Lewis started with images—a faun in a scarf carrying packages through the snowy woods, a queen on a sleigh, and a noble lion. As those images roiled in his mind, he developed The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. The Christian theme of the story followed as he wrote.
  3. The story board approach. A story board is helpful if we have several viewpoint characters. We could use poster board, a white board, or something on computer. Because I use poster board, I will give that as an example. I write the viewpoint characters across the top of the poster board. ( A friend places pictures of her characters beside their names.) Then on Post-it Notes I write notes about scenes and post them under the viewpoint character. When I know the order, I place the notes in that order. If I don’t know where the scene will fit, I put it slightly to the side underneath the character’s name.

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This method allows me to see if I am including all viewpoints in the story a reasonable amount of the time.

In some cases eliminating an extra viewpoint can strengthen the story by focusing the events through the main characters’ eyes. (An exception would be when I want one character to experience something so strongly, perhaps his own murder, that his viewpoint is demanded.)

I do not necessarily represent all viewpoint characters equally, of course, but sometimes it helps to see that Ned has dropped out of the story for the last thirteen chapters after falling off the cliff, leading some readers to think he is dead. I may need to resurrect him.

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Shattering Writers’ Block:

Occasionally we write merrily along until we reach a spot where we’re flummoxed. We just don’t know what to write. Nothing resonates. We type a scene, then delete it. We chew our eraser or our nails. Sometimes we even toss the story aside.

Years ago I read an article from a writing magazine that suggested a temporary approach. Some of these ideas came from that article. Other I have stumbled across over the years.

1.  A brief change of direction utilizing one of the following may break the logjam in our thinking. This temporary scene may give us insight into our character’s personality or switch our plot. We may throw out the scene or it may become an  important scene in the story.

2.  Give the main character a friend. The Lone Ranger rode with Tonto for a reason. It gave him someone more responsive than Silver to talk with. Tonto came up with good ideas, provided a foil, and rescued him when he was in a bind. A friend rounds the personality, offers opportunity for “down” time for your character, allows the possibility for humor, and shows your character’s style of interacting.

3. Put a tool in the character’s hands. The tool may come in handy later in the plot. For instance, in a  Western I’m working on, my school marm, Theodosha, is unconventional. In an age where women admire men’s playing sports but rarely participate, Theodosha loves playing baseball. That gal can really swing a bat. That bat opens all kinds of possibilities in my plot. It provides conflict, a defensive weapon, a way to judge potential suitors, builds rapport with the schoolboys, and holds open that weak schoolhouse window that always falls down.

4.  Regardless of what the tool is—knitting needles, woodworking machinery, or a high-powered rifle, it may add depth to the characters, inspire scenes that add excitement to the plot, or enhance the conflict.

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5.  Have the character interact with an animal—a lost puppy, a rattlesnake, a rabid skunk. Again, in the story I’m working on, bringing an old white family mutt into the story pointed out the possibility of the heroine being involved in a robbery of the jail.

6.  Bring a family member to visit. The threat of Theodosha’s family visiting to celebrate her thirtieth birthday, her official “Old Maid” status birthday, weighs on her throughout the story.

7.  Give him somewhere to go. A visit to a student’s home leads Theodosha to find a dying deputy. A trip to a friend’s home makes her the target of an ambush, and visiting potential students lands her at a brothel.

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8.  Have him engage in a sport. When the county sheriff can’t strike Theodosha out, he decides she’s too much trouble to deal with, heightening the conflict. The reaction of two suitors to Theodosha’s playing ball provides the opportunity for one to hit a home run and the other to strike out romantically.

9.  Change to another viewpoint character for a few scenes. This change of viewpoint may enable us to return to the former character with renewed vigor and see potential where we couldn’t find it before. Writer’s block need not be a blockade. Getting stuck does not mean that we stick the story away in a file for good. (Click to tweet.)

Trying one of these techniques can swing us back into the story’s action. So far in this series, we have dealt with character (an interesting and unique individual), conflict (the character’s goals obstructed by a person, event, nature, or himself), and plot (the carefully orchestrated telling of events). Next time we will explore the setting.


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  1. Great post! I have to do a workshop on writing a novel in 50 days and my borrow some of her ideas. 🙂

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