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Last week, I was struggling with writer's block. I was a quarter of the way into my latest novel's first draft when I hit a wall. I was writing a scene and something was wrong. But I didn't know what. I knew the scene's setting, I knew the characters that had to be there, and I knew what the scene had to be about. It was all there. But the scene was dead. I tried to push through it. I tried polishing the scene. But nothing worked.
So I sat down with a sheaf of notebook paper and a pen. I wrote out questions, asking myself what the scene was about. Not what happened in the scene, but what the scene did for the book. I answered that the scene was supposed to be an echo of two of the novel's themes--confession and forgiveness. And while the scene did echo those themes, it wasn't a quiet echo. It was loud and bombastic. Instead of the ethereal whisper of a violin, it was the subwoofer boom of a percussion backbeat. Strong enough that it was distracting from the plot and themes instead of underlining them.
Then, I asked myself what the scene was supposed to do for the characters. It was supposed to deepen a minor characters, which it did by exposing one of his flaws. But the failing I showed was more of an as-a-writer-I-know-this-character-is-supposed-to-be-flawed-and-I'm-trying-to-make-him-flawed-but-not-too-flawed. And that was the problem, the flaw was half-hearted. It was a speck of lint on black velvet, not a tear ripping through the velvet and the silk lining. I needed a real flaw, a surprise to the reader. I needed to make the reader catch his breath, but still like the character. A much harder task.
Once I realized what function the scene had for the characters and themes, I brainstormed fixes. I realized that what needed to happen was the exact opposite of what I'd written. So I took the scene back to the bones and rewrote it. The words flowed across the page. The scene practically wrote itself. Writer's block was over.
If you're struggling with a scene or facing writer's block, think about the scene/chapter/plot twist's function. Think about the purposes it's serving in terms of advancing plot/character development/themes and ask yourself if those things are all working together in the scene. If not, ask yourself how it's failing those purposes. Once you understand what's wrong, then you can fix it.
So maybe writer's block isn't always a bad thing. Maybe it's just an early warning system, a red light flashing "Hey, dummy, this doesn't work." That's what I'm telling myself.
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