I’ve spent this last week figuring out some plot structure in my current manuscript. Which means that I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about “the blank page” or “writer’s block.”
Keep in mind this discussion is different than not being able to write because of anxiety, depression, or life issues. Not having a reserve for creative things when your world seems to be falling apart is a real conundrum. One that I haven’t yet mastered. I think we creative types are more sensitive to our emotions, so it can be a real bummer when it affects our productivity.
Not being able to write because of the emotional place we’re in and not knowing what to write are vastly opposing problems.
Because I’ve spent a lot of time plotting this week, it’s meant that I’ve spent a lot of time on YouTube as well. How else would I waste my time? Ha!
I’m fascinated that 100% of the advice (or so close that percentage that whatever differing suggestions are lost) to dealing with a blank page or writer's block is to “just keep writing.”
“Just keep writing” is useful advice if you can’t write because of anxiety, depression, or life issues, but it’s not great advice if you’re stuck within the story. If you keep pushing you’re liable to make more of a mess than what you had to begin with. The choices you make with the plot when you push yourself tend to be the most obvious, and well, it’s just not thoughtful or surprising.
In my mind, a plot is like a spiderweb. In order to create a web, a spider makes a starter thread connecting the end points of the web onto which the rest of it is built. That’s your main plot.
From there, the spider creates a few more dissecting threads. They do not have to have a linear progression, their job is to stabilize the web. These are your other plot points: it’s how your characters interact with one another, what they want, what they’re willing to do to get what they want, etc.
Then the spider begins to circle the web, connecting the stabilizing threads together and constantly circling around back on the web.
This is where most writers (me!) get stuck, in the huge tangled complication of how to weave together all the different plot points.
When I start writing I know at least my starting thread. Most times I know several other threads as well (though, that’s not always the case). But there comes a point in every story, that while I know where it’s heading and every scene that the story needs to get there, I have no idea what to write within those scenes.
That’s where brain mapping comes in.
For me, brain mapping is simply the act of getting all those little bits of information floating in my head into a space where I can see them and make use of them. That’s it. Because I believe that we all intuitively have the answers to the story already. — That’s where the “trust your gut” advice comes from, and the reason why when you edit, you find that you’ve already placed things within the story that work for the new idea.
Any way you can get the information out of your brain and onto the page in a way that works for you, is the key.
The first thing I do is identify the problem.
I’m talking the obvious thing here: I don’t know what character A is supposed to do. Or characters B and C have a conflict but I don’t know what it’s supposed to be about, etc.
Write that problem down in the center of a blank piece of paper.
The second thing I do is identify the issues I have associated to the main problem. There’s not going to be many of them, three to five maybe.
Write those issues connecting off the main problem.
Then I ask myself questions about those issues. How they relate to each other. How they influence the plot and characters. How they change the situation my character finds him or herself in.
Write these questions down, but also write the answers that come with it. ALL the answers. This is not self-editing time. It doesn’t matter if I go in a wrong direction, I just make a new branch and start with a different thread of answers.
It will look something like this:
Much like that spiderweb, I know I’ve reached the end of my brainstorming when my idea points begin to circle around the paper, connecting to each other. Meaning: the issues start linking to the answers in the threads of other issues.
At this point, I still don’t have the answers to my plot problems. What I have is a map of the ideas floating around in my brain. Now I turn them into a linear list in order to get some writing done.
This is where the magic happens.
Start with blocking out the issues in headers. Not the problem, but the issues that offshoot from the first central question.
Under each issue header, I construct a plan to fix the issue by looking my brain map and putting the ideas into bullet points. Write it out.
• Character A feels disconnected. Has social issues. Doesn’t have friends.
• He also feels ….
• Problem he faces…
• The catch…
• Solve this by…
In this process, I’m not afraid to challenge the ideas on my brain map. Don’t be afraid to say: “That’s interesting, but what if…” It’s there to guide me, not to keep me imprisoned. Sometimes I hang my map on the wall for a few days so I can let the connections between the ideas soak in.
Once I have these ideas worked out, I then decide how I will implement them into the plot.
This is not a drag and drop. For instance, in my example I wrote “Character A feels disconnected,” I now have to decide how to show this within the framework of my novel. Where in the plot (perhaps in several places) can this be highlighted?
And just like that, I’m back in business writing again.
Best part? I won’t have a hot mess of a plot to fix at the end of the draft. I’ll still have to fix stuff, it will just be less painful.