Saturday, March 3, 2012

Why Writing Roadblocks Are Good for Your Story

road_block.jpgImage via Wikipedia

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Writing is a lot like embarking on a journey with an incomplete road map.  You think you know where you’re going, but the map doesn’t show the unexpected detours, the places where the road suddenly ends, and the new highway under construction.

Also, you entrust your car (the story) to a driver (your main character), who has a mind of his own, is often distracted by shiny objects on the side of the road, and wants to stop occasionally to take care of bodily functions (sleeping, eating, going to the restroom).

You, the writer, want to keep moving forward in a predetermined direction, but the incomplete map and willful driver get in the way, creating writing roadblocks that threaten to derail your story.

It’s enough to make a writer give up on the journey and start over (e.g., rewrite the story from the beginning or abandon the story in favor of a new one) or even stay home (give up on writing altogether).

But don’t be hasty.  A roadblock can be the best thing to happen to your story.

Writing roadblocks come in many forms.  Sometimes your character is faced with a decision, and you have no idea how she will decide.  Or another, unexpected character shows up, and you don’t know what to do with him.  Or the plot twist you thought was going to be brilliant turns out to be lame.  What do you do now?

Here are eight tips for working with your roadblock instead of fighting it:

1. Begin with your character. Your character must want something.  What is it?  How important is it that she gets what she wants?  You do not have to determine up front whether or not your character succeeds – the fact that she wants something gives your story purpose and direction.

2. Determine what’s at stake.  What will happen if your character does not get what she wants?  Will she lose her last chance at happiness?  Will the murderer get away?  Will the world come to an end?  Again, you do not have to know up front if your character will win.  You only have to know what will happen if she doesn’t.

3. Be prepared to accept the worst. Writers can hold themselves back if they fail to consider this.  And it is a hard thing to consider.  We like to think of our main characters as winners, and much of popular fiction teaches us that the hero always wins.  But doubt and uncertainty can paralyze us as writers if we don’t face every possible outcome.

So what if your character loses her last chance at happiness?  What if the murderer gets away?  What if the world comes to an end?  What then?  (And there is always a “What then?” even if the world ends.)

4. Determine the steps your character will take to reach her goal. Once again, you don’t know if she’s going to succeed; you only know what she’s going to do next.

5. Determine some of the obstacles in your character’s way.  If you’re like me, creating obstacles for your character is tough.  It’s like tripping your own child while he’s carrying a tray full of expensive china across the room.  My advice: Don’t stress too hard in dreaming up obstacles.  Your character will no doubt trip by himself at some point, which leads me to . . .

6. When an unexpected roadblock occurs, see it as an opportunity for growth – for both your character and yourself.  This is where you truly test your mettle as a writer, where both you and your character discover hidden strengths.  Just as adversity in the real world can bring out hidden talents, forgotten skills, and surprising character traits in people, so too can roadblocks reveal hidden aspects of your story, thereby keeping it fresh and exciting.

7. Keep forging ahead. Go around the roadblock.  Fly over it.  Dig under it.  Heck, it’s your story: drive straight through the roadblock if you wish.  Whatever you do, keep writing.

8. Don’t start over.  If you do, you deprive your character and yourself of a chance to grow.  Instead, muster the courage to keep going forward, wherever the story takes you, even if the outcome differs from what you originally wanted.

Writing is discovery, but not all discoveries are pleasant.  When a writing roadblock threatens to derail your story, seize it as an opportunity to trust in yourself and in your story.  After all, a roadblock may just make the entire journey worthwhile.

What do you think?  How do you deal with writing roadblocks?

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Dennis Young said...

Good article Greg, and very insightful. Yes, stories are filled with roadblocks, some of our own doing, others not. It's not unusual for an author to paint him/herself into the proverbial corner, and we've all done it more than once.
I look at these roadblocks as a challenge. Obviously something in the story needs to change; how do I, as the writer, effect that change to be a positive one, keep the story moving, and hopefully, improve it. Your story will let you know when it needs a boost, and whether the roadblock is a plot issue, problems with a character, or just plain writer's block, I take it as an opportunity to review and assess the story and see what it's trying to tell me.

Greg Gildersleeve said...

Good points, Denny. Taking the time to reassess your story when a roadblock occurs is good practice. However, I would caution that reassessing at that point should not be taken as an indication that you need to start over, as some of us (namely, me) are tempted to do.

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