B.B. King’s classic, “The Thrill is Gone,” is one of my favorite songs. It brings to mind a dilemma many writers face: what to do when you’re in the middle of your work in progress and the thrill is gone?
Most of us start a novel with enthusiasm. You begin with a great story and a complex protagonist who has a concrete goal. The protagonist encounters some early obstacles. So far, so good. Then, you hit a wall. You have a clear idea how the story ends, but you don’t know how you’re going to get there. You’re a hundred pages or so into your first draft and you don’t know what to do next.
How do you scale that wall? I find it helpful to take a step back from your work. Go for a walk or a run. Take a drive. Do whatever works to clear your head. Conduct an honest self-diagnosis of your work. What’s not working for you? If you’re simply having an off-day and nothing’s flowing,
get back to it tomorrow. However, it could be something else, most likely a problem with either the story or the character (or multiple characters). Here are some common problems:
- The story has taken off in an unexpected direction and is not going where you intended it to go.
- A secondary character has taken over the story, overshadowing the main character.
- You need a “bridge” to get you from one major milestone/event to the next one.
- The main character is in a dire situation and you can’t figure out a way to get the character out of it.
- Your main character just isn’t working (this could be a fatal flaw).
- A scene requires some research or subject matter expertise you are not prepared for.
- The narrative voice doesn’t feel right to you.
- Your story isn’t working; it’s not believable, it doesn’t hang together, or events just don’t logically flow from one to the next.
- There isn’t enough tension or conflict to sustain the story (again, this could be a fatal flaw)
- There are too many story lines, subplots and/or characters
- You have a scene in your head, but you figure out how to write it.
The wall could consist of any one of these problems or it could even be multiple problems you’re facing. Let’s talk first about story-related problems. If a story is going in an unexpected direction, ask yourself whether this new direction will enhance the story or detract from it.
There are a number of renowned writers whose technique is to begin a story without the end in mind because they find it limits the possibilities. If the story doesn’t hang together, you need to decide whether it’s worth your time and effort to go back and make revisions. Many writers advise it’s best to keep moving forward on the theory that if you start revising your first draft, you’ll never finish it. If there are too many characters you can always kill a few off. That would also ratchet up the tension level.
As for the problem of a secondary character overshadowing the main character, an author at a writers’ conference I attended said she solved this problem by killing off the secondary character. The character’s death also lent a new dimension to her story.
In many cases, a good self-diagnosis followed by decisive action to fix the problem will surmount your wall and the thrill will return.
What do you do when you get stuck? What works the best for you to overcome writer’s block?