Spitballing Past Writer’s Block

Here’s a tip for when writer’s block has seized you in creative paralysis.

One day this past summer, I suffered from a mid-story blockage. I’d written what felt like half a story, but was unsure of where the action should go, unable to see what my characters should do. Taking a break from doing nothing, I watched the trailer for Aaron Sorkin’s Masterclass. In the clip he tells the group of writers to toss out lousy ideas (paraphrasing). Like a wet gob of paper shot into the eye, the solution to my struggles struck: Spitballing.

This is what I did, and have done since whenever stymied by writer’s block.

On a fresh piece of paper, I wrote the most obvious scenario that could happen next in the story. Beside it I drew a little horizontal line. Under the first item, I added a stupid idea (e.g., “A dragon comes crashing from the commode, spewing fire upon our cast”). I drew a horizontal line beside that. Continuing down the page, I wrote down 18 other scenarios that fell somewhere between the obvious and ridiculous poles. E.g., “A handsome stranger comes knocking”; “a gun fires outside”; “Jane observes that the mole on the back of Dick’s hand has changed shape and they bicker about whether it deserves a doctor’s examination.” You get the idea. I built on the list until were 20 possible scenarios that could next occur in my story.

Then, on those little horizontal lines I letter graded each entry. The worst of the bunch got F’s straightaway. The crappy, but not completely useless items got C’s and D’s. And the more promising entries received B’s. (With rare exceptions, I’m too harsh a critic to give myself A’s. You might be less insufferable and enjoy  your own fine idea on occasion. Bully you and your mental health.)

Then, I crossed off the F’s and D’s. I looked hard at those C’s–were they really promising, or just stealing space? Yeah, I killed ’em. That left me with B’s (and let’s pretend some A’s for demonstrative purposes). They didn’t feel like the most organic “next scenarios” for the story, but something about them felt sort-of-right. I explored why that was–what about the proposed action felt natural to the character(s) in the story. If necessary, I could have compiled another list that were riffs on the A’s and B’s, graded those items, and repeated. But I already had my answer and could resume writing the story.

Yes, first I had to circle my wagons around my “good idea” by making lists of other bogus ideas. That may seem like squandered time. But I needed those bogus ideas to narrow my focus. That’s okay. I’m not the world’s best writer and require more time than others to craft a satisfying story. To me, doing the extra work up front makes more sense, rather than shredding a stack of finished pages later and wondering where I went wrong.

When faced with a “What happens next?”, or even “What happens first?” question, we should spitball. Maybe your first inclination is right on the money (bully you, again). But chances are, your first idea is a safe one. An obvious choice. Challenge yourself to concoct a more original, yet still “natural,” option. (Meaning something unusual, but which doesn’t feel like you’re simply trying to impress with a weird idea that is inconsistent with the character’s behavior up to now in the story). Anytime we writers challenge ourselves to dig deeper, our work benefits. Who knows? Your extra effort could make the difference between a piece that is never published and one that sticks to the cultural consciousness like an old . . . well, spitball.

Exercise: Take a story you’re currently writing, or pick a mid-point in an existing story (yours, someone else’s–doesn’t matter). Ask yourself what could possibly happen next. Compile a list of 20 items. Letter grade each item. Toss out the lowest; give the highest a strong sniff. Once you’ve decided on the best choice, use the scenario to write the next page or two of the story. And then see what you think. If you’ve re-written part of an existing story, compare the new material to the previous version. Better? Worse? Why, why not? Share your results in the reply section below.

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