This entry is part 1 in the series Breaking Through Writer's Block

I’ve long thought that the term “writer’s block” is an oversimplification and generalization of a whole range of different phenomena that can afflict the creative endeavor. I have a unique perspective on the subject, being a writer, an artist, and a composer; all three bring with them virtually the same problems when confronted with an empty page, a shortage of ideas, or an apparent inability to get what’s in your head down on paper.

After breaking down the types of writer’s block, I was able to list a range of subtypes to the phenomenon, and identify the solutions that I use to get past them. In fact, I identified so many solutions that what was originally going to be a single quick article has turned into a five-part monster! In total, this series will present no less than 64 specific cures for 19 specific forms of writer’s block. (I say “no less than” because I’m still finding additional cures and slotting them into place!)

Be aware, though, that this list – long though it is – is far from exhaustive. The “three minute (or less) NPC” isn’t on the list. There’s virtually no overlap with the “great villains” series which looks in detail at The Mastermind as a villain, Combat Monsters, and The Character Villain. I’ve left out one of my favorite tools, The Thumbnail Method and in fact the whole Characterization Puzzle series – simply because they have appeared before. I could keep extending that list, because an awful lot of the content here at Campaign Mastery is about techniques for generating content for your game, or improving it. And while all that is related to the focus of this series, it isn’t the subject at hand.

Major Types Of Writer’s Block

There are four major types of Writer’s Block that I intend to focus on in the course of this series. They are:

  • Blank Page Syndrome – Coming up with something to write about;
  • Primary – Conceptual holes of varying degree;
  • Translations – Technical & Process holes, and quick answers when you need to Improvise;
  • Crowding – Too many ideas, and coping with the Fallacy Of Memory.

Each of these can be broken down into subtypes.

Blank Page Subtypes

Blank Page Syndrome is what most people think of when they think of writer’s block. It’s when you sit and stare at a blank page and nothing comes into your head. I’ve identified two subtypes of this type of Writer’s Block:

  • Standalone – When nothing is known about the content that is required, which is rare for RPGs, but common when all you know is that you want to write a story or a novel; and
  • Isolated – Where some ingredients are known, but you have no idea what to do with them. This is far more common for RPGs and series of all sorts, for obvious reasons.

Primary Subtypes

I developed this breakdown of places where the writer could “break down” by considering the process of writing itself, from vague notion to completed text. You’ll see what I mean when you look at the actual list of subtypes; they are all about moving from the general to the specific.

  • Conceptual – When you have a more complete starting point but no plotline;
  • Specific – When you have a broad plotline but don’t know what specific event comes next;
  • Setting – When you have a specific event but need a place for it to happen;
  • Action – When you don’t know what a character will do next;
  • Persona – When you have an event planned but need a personality to participate in it;
  • Dialogue – When you have a participant in a conversation but no idea what they will say next; and
  • Narrative – When you have information to convey but have no idea how to explain it clearly.

The need to come up with something for the next page in any of these categories can be a mental road-block on the creative highway.

The occasions when this comes up most frequently for me – I can’t speak for any one else in this respect – is when something is present for plot reasons and not to serve a specific function in the current story – which, by virtue of the plot breakdown/integration techniques that I use, happens regularly. “Subplot: Introduce Character X” or “Subplot: Introduce Location X”, or “Subplot: Development in plot arc X” or “Reminder of unresolved plot arc X” – things like that crop up all the time. But these brief notes tell me only that something is required to happen at this time, they tell me nothing about what that “something” should be.

As an aside, that gives some insight into the difficulty of writing on this subject; at this point, I should probably link to all the articles I’ve written on plotting and plot sequencing, like the recent one entitled “Amazon Nazis On The Moon: Campaign Planning Revisited” and “The Seven Strata Of Story“. Articles on Writer’s Block are a sponge that soaks up every other discussion you can have on a subject; before you know it, the topic is as large as the entire literary universe, so large that the sheer scope of it makes the discussion impossible to manage. I’ve had to work very hard on confining the subject to manageable limits!

Most of the solutions to the primary types of writer’s block assume that you can devote time to the solution – I’ve still leaned towards quick solutions, because time is precious and prep-time especially so, but when you need to take five or ten minutes, you can usually do so, even if it means that something else doesn’t receive its usual polish; it’s better to have something concrete for the difficult parts and be able to improv the parts where you know what you want to do.

Translation Subtypes

My initial thinking was that the primary subtypes were all about generating content of the required type, while this major category was more concerned with taking the content from a prior primary content type and extending it downward to another subtype. Only when I started listing cures did I find that this distinction was entirely artificial, except in two respects: technical problems, relating to the author’s proficiency as a writer, and on-the-fly content for those times when we need to improvise something on the spot, or close to it. For example, the first category deals with translating from a vague general idea to the series of specific scenes or acts that are needed to express that idea; this is in no way different from generating specific scenes, and is therefore covered under the lower level of primary subtype already listed.

So the translation subtypes lean towards quicker, more rough-and-ready, on-the-spot, solutions. Don’t worry, I still found plenty to talk about!

The specific translation subtypes that I came up with are:

  • Translation: Conceptual to Specific – When you know what you want to have happen in general but don’t know how to get there from here;
  • Translation: Specific to Scene – When you know what the next part of the story is but don’t know how to manifest it;
  • Translation: Specific to Setting – When you know what is to happen next but can’t find the right location;
  • Translation: Specific to Action – When you know what is to happen but can’t describe the action;
  • Translation: Specific to Persona – When you know what is to happen but can’t visualize who is to do it;
  • Translation: Specific to Dialogue – When you know what the dialogue is to convey but it sounds forced;
  • Translation: Specific to Narrative – When you know what the situational context is but can’t describe it clearly;
  • Translation: Scene to Action – When the location and the action don’t seem to gel;
  • Translation: Action to Narrative – When you can see the action in your head but can’t describe it fluently; and,
  • Translation: Persona to Dialogue – When the dialogue doesn’t seem right coming from the character speaking.

Once again, each of these can easily derail the creative process and leave you sitting around with your chin in your hands and a blank look on your face as ideas avoid you in droves. This is especially bad in a “live” improv setting, when you don’t have any time to spend coming up with a solution.

That’s my breakdown of the types of writer’s block, and forms the road map to this series.

  • In the remainder of this first article, I offer 4 solutions to each of the subtypes of Empty Page Syndrome, which can also be thought of as “traditional writer’s block”.
  • In part 2, I will look at the first half of the Primary Writer’s Block subtypes, and offer cures for the problems of Conceptual, Specific, and Setting Blocks./li>
  • In part 3, I will finish the discussion of the Primary Writer’s Block subtypes, and offer cures for Action, Personality, Dialogue, and Narrative Blocks.
  • In part 4, I’ll move on to the Secondary Subtypes, and offer solutions for five of them.
  • Finally, in part 5, I finish up the solutions to the Secondary Subtypes, and move on to the Crowding Subtypes, and cures for those. I’ll then wrap the whole series up with some well-meant general advice.

As one of my players is want to say on the periodic occasion, “That’s the plan; tell us where it goes wrong.” So let’s get started…

Empty Page Syndrome: Standalone

There is nothing so scary as an empty page when you have no idea what you can use to fill it. I’m going to talk specifically about Fear and Doubt at the end of this section. This is the “purest” form of writer’s block, and the one that most people think of when they hear the term; it’s also the source of that most vexing question, “where do you get your ideas?” – which I’ve heard more times than I can count at Science-Fiction conventions and “meet-the-author” sessions and interviews. I talked specifically about that question and the many responses that I’ve heard in By The Seat Of Your Pants: Six Foundations Of Adventure, where I discuss where I got my ideas from back in the days when I normally had zero prep time other than the trip to the game itself.

“Standalone” means that there is a completely blank slate apon which to write. This can be liberating, because you are not tied down to past works in any respect other than those you choose; it can also be inhibiting, because there is nothing on which to spark inspiration. It’s rare for this particular type of writer’s block to impact on an RPG, but it can happen – when you are creating a new game system, or a new campaign. It’s far more common for this to strike when you are dealing with other forms of writing – articles and short stories and novels and scripts and poetry.

The biggest mistake that writers – of anything – make is sitting in front of a blank page and waiting for inspiration to strike. By definition, a blank page contains NO ideas, NO inspiration – it’s empty (unless you can do something with the concept of emptiness itself, of course). So sitting and waiting for something to magically appear on that empty page doesn’t get you very far.

I have five cures – or six, depending on how you count them – for this type of writer’s block to offer, in addition to the six offered in the article referenced above.

Cure 1: Start with an opinion

Everyone has opinions. It could be about society, social issues, crime and punishment, business practices, a food preference, medical quackery, a television show, the weather, politics, religion, sport – you name it. Step One of this cure for writer’s block is to pick one of those opinions. Any of them.

Step Two is to generalize it. Take it from being your subjective opinion to being a broader opinion held by many others. Take it from being about one specific example – “I hate broccoli” – to a broader subject “some people hate green vegetables”.

Here’s the tricky, or perhaps I should say ‘clever’ bit: Step Three is to assign a new context to the opinion. Off the top of my head:

  • What’s the evolutionary advantage in people having likes and dislikes?
  • An man is selected as ambassador to a highly-developed plant-race because he doesn’t like salads, and is therefore less likely to offend them. Unknown to the authorities who chose him, they practice ritual cannibalism.
  • How do people’s preferences change over time?
  • Orcs don’t eat beanz.

Final step: write about it.

Cure 2: Start with a word or common phrase

Pick a word from a dictionary or a thesaurus. What does it mean? If applied to a different context, what might it mean? If its a word related to human behavior or activity – and almost all non-nouns are – how might its meaning change when considering a non-human society? What is “property” to an Elf, an Orc, or the Slime-people of Betelgeuse VII? What role does “value” have in human society? Ent society? Goblin society? What would an Artificial Intelligence value, how does that differ from what its creators value, and how might their interactions with each be affected? How does the word change when you add emphasis (some do)? Pick something of interest, then write about it!

Pick a common saying or phrase. Again, apply it to a different context. “Dressed To Kill” for example – that has multiple meanings even in human terms, depending on who is doing the dressing and whether or not “Kill” is meant literally. What new meanings might it assume in a non-human society? “In Style” – humans have fashion tastes that change regularly; keeping up with the latest style is expensive, and therefore always being ‘fashionably dressed’ is a mark of wealth, especially in olden times. What might the equivalent be? “The trolls are wearing their breach-cloths long this year.” Why?

Cure 3: Pick a random paragraph or line from a random source.

Grab a book or other source of text. Open it to a random page, and pick a passage of text randomly. Put it into a new context. Describe that context, then throw away the original paragraph or passage. Insert characters, and let them react to the situation.

“Harmony in music can be defined as any combination of notes that are played together at the same time.” The key words are “harmony”, “music”, “notes” and “time”. “Harmony in a meeting can be defined as any combination of suggestions that are put forward at the same time for the same purpose or achieving the same goal.” So we have a meeting, and a number of suggestions being made. These may be at cross purposes (lack of harmony) or in synch (in harmony). But people are more complicated than music – and a suggestion may be aimed superficially at one end while its true purpose may be something quite different. Start filling in the blanks and unknowns and you will describe the context: what is the superficial goal, and what is the real goal? What’s the backstory? Throw away the original text, put characters into the situation, and you have the beginnings of a story.

Instead of inserting characters, you could think about some attribute or aspect of the situation in general, or as applied to a particular group. You might take that same quote (it’s a line from “Music Composition For Dummies”, by the way) and do some research on the definitions of musical notes, which would lead you to the concept of intervals (which describe how different one note in a scale is from the next in a particular key), and to the discovery that other styles of music use different intervals – but that they are all regular ratios of each other when expressed as a constant, audible, frequency. Before you know it, you have spent ten minutes identifying the respects in which human music might differ from non-human music. And that’s an article. Or, if you apply it to a succession of non-human societies, a whole series of articles.

I recently offered as a free download an MP3 of my composition “Ogre” which was supposedly an example of the style of Music performed by the Ogre Clans in Fumanor. (You can get it from this link if you want it). What wasn’t stated at the time was a lot of the compositional context – the fact that making music was a community activity, and that Ogres are offended by the notion of excluding potential performers due to a lack of skill. They all have to contribute something to the performance. (Actually, it was a community Male activity, while singing is restricted to the females, who don’t ruin their voices with a lot of shouting). Those couple of lines, and the music itself, offer a window into one possible Ogrish society. How is elvish society expressed musically? Choral arpeggios? Wind instruments? Is “Greensleeves” the most quintessentially Elvish piece of music in existence in your campaign? Perhaps Drow go in for brass instruments instead?

I can talk about all this off the top of my head because I know something about music as a subject. That’s why that book was on my bookshelf in the first place. It follows that if YOU grab a book at random off your bookshelves, it will almost certainly be on a subject that you know something about, and can therefore write about.

And, if you come up dry with the line or paragraph that you selected? Pick another source, and choose another line. The objective is to stimulate your creativity with a topic or situation, a starting point.

Cure 4: What’s the first thing you can remember right now?

There are three factors that make a memory more accessible: routine, recency or personal significance. Skip the trivial – “I remember staring at this blank page”, “I remember making a cup of coffee”, and so on; pick a memory that is less immediate. My first ones were “My mother phoned to tell me she and my stepfather are back from their Holiday in England, where they met a whole bunch of long-lost relatives”; and of my Grandmother, cooking.

Why is it significant to you? Go beyond those three factors and keep asking “why” until you have the core truth of that memory nailed down.

What might someone else find significant for the same reason? Write about that something else as a way of introducing someone who cares about it.

If that doesn’t get you started, write about someone else’s memory of the same thing as a way of introducing a character, and their backstory. “I remember my grandmother’s cooking…” is a perfect way of starting a story – and because it’s a memory that YOU care about, that passion should make its way onto the page with conviction that sells the story and compels the reader to keep reading. – because they will associate the scene with their own memories and personal history. You engage their emotions. Where you take those emotions from there is up to you.

Cure 5: Maintain an ideas stockpile

I talked about this technique when I wrote One Word At A Time: How I (usually) Write A Blog Post, and have mentioned it in passing on a number of other occasions. I’m not actually going to go into it in any detail here; I’m saving it for a detailed discussion in the “too many ideas” section, which will be in Part 5 of the series. Suffice it to say that if you have a list of ideas that you add to whenever you think of a new one, and only draw from when you need to, you will soon have ample ideas for a long time to come. Pick one and start writing!

A Brief Word About Fear and Doubt

By far the biggest writer’s block is fear and self-doubt. Writers continually agonize over the quality of their work, and whether or not it is worth reading; every negative comment is a razor that cuts deeply into the creative soul. Non-authors often think that these nerves will ease over time, especially if that time is filled with a profusion of successes; it doesn’t work that way. The longer a streak of success continues, the greater the pressure to maintain that streak; in time, you either find yourself compromising your creativity to maintain an increasingly bland popularity (playing it safe) or you maintain your artistic (literary) integrity and continue doing the best job that you can – taking the risk that others will find it less appealing because it’s not just “more of the same”. A lot of authors have one successful book or story and become paralyzed by the question “can I do it again?” – and don’t try, for fear of failure.

Some writers are able to value positive feedback in equal measure to the negative; others can dismiss the negative with “everyone’s entitled to their opinion, and I don’t happen to agree with that one”, while others devalue positive feedback while agonizing over those who are more critical. Writers tend to be a neurotic lot – especially after they have been writing for a while. In my case, I value positive feedback more highly, but find it has a more fleeting effect than negative comments, which tend to fester for a while. And I’m sometimes extremely defensive toward negative comments because of that.

It’s especially easy to concede defeat by fear and doubt when you’ve been working on something for a while and hit a dry spell, where everything you write seems rubbish to you, or when you discover (in a non-fiction item especially) some fundamental error that requires throwing away a lot of work. Sometimes, the sheer scope of trying to pick up the thread of where you were up to before a forced interruption can be enough of a handicap to induce writer’s block. I suffer from that last problem all the time – that’s one reason why I have so many unfinished RPG books, and so many unfinished article series here at Campaign Mastery.

The cure for these problems is the same: archive where you were up to, and then – just write.

If it’s rubbish, you can throw it away. People will respect you a lot more for saying “I wrote an article for this week but it turned out to be rubbish and not worth publishing” than they will if you make an excuse (“I was too busy”) or simply don’t post anything. Save those excuses for when they are the gods-honest truth, and you will be forgiven – if you don’t make a habit of it. The respect comes from being self-critical.

Better yet, if it’s rubbish – publish it anyway, with a caveat. Not all people have the same taste, and your “rubbish” might appeal to a whole new market. By showing that even a successful writer gets it wrong some of the time, you encourage others by presenting an achievable standard – and they might well be better at it than they think (that’s their self-doubt coming into play). And you can never tell when someone will read it and think, “there’s the germ of a good idea in there, but I can do better than this with it” and be inspired.

I once read somewhere that no-one can truly evaluate the quality or significance of their own work, only the level of their satisfaction at having written it – and the two have nothing to do with each other. It’s something I happen to agree with, so don’t let fear or self-doubt stand in your way.

Empty Page Syndrome: Isolated

When you’re writing a series, or adventures for an RPG, this form of writer’s block is more common than that of the previous type. This is when you have some known ingredients, but they exist in isolation; you have no idea what to do with them.

The following cures for this problem are presented in addition to the techniques presented in “Been There, Done That, Doing It Again: The Sequel Campaign” (Part One, ‘Adventure Seeds‘ , Part Two, Sprouts and Saplings).

Cure 1: Find something relevant and describe it

The tricky part of employing this solution is that annoying word, “relevant”. A character might be relevant; so might a personality, or a single personality trait, or a relationship, or a location. It all depends on what the raw ingredients are that you have to work with. Whatever you choose is likely to become the focus of the adventure or plotline, so it is probably best if it is something that has not had a great deal of exposure so far, and preferably something for which you currently have no plans for future exposure. If two characters have a personality trait in common but don’t know it yet, that’s a great foundation to work from – but not if you already have plans for that particular revelation.

A useful variant involves “finding something relevant” using the internet. When you do this, “relevant” includes “symbolic”, which is not always the case – the term is usually meant more literally. For example, one of the characters in the pulp campaign is a sea captain, ex Royal Australian Navy; plugging “sea captain mystery” or “sea captain controversy” into Google and looking at the first couple of web results, or plugging it into an image search and finding an image that’s inspiring, can get you started on a fresh plotline.

Another source is music, and especially song lyrics. Again, the trick is to find something that’s relevant. The Split Enz song “6 months in a leaky boat” always comes to mind when I think about ships and music, a core part of the chorus reads “I spent six months in a leaky boat, lucky just to keep afloat”. This is from the album “Time and Tide” – perhaps an adventure relating to tides within the time-stream? Another song on the album is “Dirty Creature” – that might have something to do with why the character in the song spent “six months in a leaky boat”. Free associate with related elements until you have some starting point; even if you subsequently throw out those initial thoughts, once you have a beginning, other ideas will start to flow.

Cure 2: Describe something you DO know in a different way or from a different perspective

An example of the first: How might a circuit board look to an electron travelling through it?

An example of the second: “History is written by the winners”. Assume that a past event or adventure (that the PCs appeared to win) was actually a win for the antagonist without changing the outcome – then figure out why that might have been so – and why no-one in the campaign has noticed until now.

A second example: “3010” is “666” in base six, and looks suspiciously like a date. Computers work in bytes, and there are 8 bytes in a bit, and 666 in base 8 is 1232 – which also looks like a date. Does that mean that the apocalypse for computers was in 1232? Or that it will come 1232 years after the first one was created? That would be 1941+1232=3173, which is 63 years after 3010 – does that mean an automated post-apocalyptic paradise for thinking machines after the human apocalypse? If all this seems half-baked, it makes as much sense as the “2010 Mayan calendar end-of-the-world” – or at least 100 previous predictions of the apocalypse. Don’t believe me? Check this long list of predicted apocalyptic dates – I draw your attention in particular to the one for 500 CE, i.e. the year 500. Now the fun part: find a way to use the idea. A cult that believes it, for example, and wants to destroy all computers to prevent it, thinking that 3010 is the date the computers will revolt against humanity. Or maybe an AI that believes it.

Again – once you have an idea, it will get you started. Once you get started, you can throw that idea away if something better comes to mind.

Cure 3: Look for a context in which the something is incorrect or out-of-place – then describe it

We all make mistakes. Logic mistakes; rules interpretation mistakes; personal mistakes. Well, that last one is of no real help using this solution (but it is useful in a variant, which I’ll get to in a moment); so let’s focus on the first two. Pick a mistake, then figure out what would have been necessary for the call / decision that was made to be correct, even if that reason’s basis wasn’t noticed at the time. In other words, retcon history to show that you didn’t make a mistake, but find a way to do so that doesn’t invalidate the subsequent game play; then have the consequences lob up in the new story.

The best example I can offer of this technique was the “Emperor Of China” which I described in “My biggest mistakes: A slip of the tongue” back in September of ’09.

Put your mistakes to work on your behalf, and they won’t seem quite so bad. They certainly aren’t doing anything positive for you until you do!

Cure 3A: Personal Mistakes

These yield a story when you have someone else make the same mistake. You have two choices: A PC has made this mistake without realizing it, or an NPC has/will make this mistake in the course of the adventure/story that you are about to write.

Just be aware that the story of your personal mistake, and its consequences, is very likely to come out in the course of play, and this can be embarrassing or worse (depending on the nature of the mistake).

Be very careful about using a personal mistake by someone else, especially one of your players – this can be perceived as being judgmental, and of revealing secrets, and remind people of things that they would like to forget.

Quite often, the things we regret are the formative experiences that make us the people we are. Use that.

Cure 4: Start with an unknown

There’s not much more stimulating than to realize that there’s something you don’t know – and then fill that gap. I didn’t know how the Orcish Clan Wars were going to play out in the “Orcs and Elves” series – I just knew that I started with one set of circumstances and that a war between the three major clans ended in another set of circumstances. I don’t know how the specific insecticide in my can works – but maybe there’s a plotline there when I find out. I don’t know how Tesla’s bladeless turbine works – but it sounds a bit like the bladeless fans that you can buy these days, and maybe there’s a story there. What could be done to the Solar Wind using a larger-scale version of that technology? I don’t know but the idea is reminiscent of E.E. “Doc” Smith’s “Sunbeam” (in the Lensman series). I don’t know how Bulgarian politics work (to pick a country at random) – but maybe there’s a story there.

Find something you don’t know, invent the answer (doing appropriate research) – then work the result into a story or adventure.

Cure 5: Start with a relevant question

This is very similar to the previous cure, but it is more focused. You’ve got six basic questions to work with: Who, What, Where, When, How, and Why. The question should relate to the past campaign or to one of the known elements. Can the laws of similarity and contagion be used (in a sufficiently flexible magic system) to connect a video recording of an object with the object itself to sharpen the image of that object on the video screen? This was a question that was posed in the most recent Zenith-3 scenario by an NPC to the PC Mage (who was absent that day, unfortunately). The answer was ‘yes’. What are the limits of this new capability? Those remain to be discovered – but there are some reasonable limits that I have put in place within the campaign. Is any of this covered by the rules? Not really.

Cure 6: Start with a relevant opinion

Finally, I’m going to return to the place where the solutions to this particular major type of writer’s block began: opinions. Pick an opinion about something – it could be yours, or someone else’s. You can either support it, counter it, or change it.

Supporting it works well if the opinion is that of one of your players or his character, but that accord leaves little room for conflict, and its the conflict that is usually at the heart of a good story. Having someone (an NPC) agree with the character’s opinion and using it to justify actions that the character can’t support is more interesting.

Opposing it works well if the opinion is that of one of your players or his character, because it automatically creates the conflict; just put that opinion into the hands of an antagonist, and start bringing the two together.

Changing it works well in some cases, especially where the opinion is related to some element within the game or background. “Character Type X is boring” you say? Okay, change that. Reshape that character type to make them non-boring. “Orcs are primitives”? Give them a culture. Do some research on “primitive” cultures and you will quickly find that their societies can be just as complex as our own. When I started GMing, Orcs were barbarians barely above the level of cavemen. The Clan-wars installments of “Orcs and Elves” show how radically that opinion of mine has changed. That made Bugbears savage primitives – until I started writing about their culture in that series, and suddenly they became deep and complex.

Next Time: In part 2, I tackle three of the Primary types of writer’s block: Concepts, Specific Events, and Settings for those events to occur in. But that might be in two weeks; I’m currently thinking of staggering entries in this series a fortnight apart to make room for other subjects.

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