This entry is part 5 in the series Breaking Through Writer's Block

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So far, I’ve looked at what I’ve defined as the primary types of writer’s block – initial ideas, detailed plots, settings, actions, character personalities, and narrative – and offered an absolute treasure-trove of solutions. Sixty-five solutions to six types of writer’s block, and few if any of them that can transfer to a different type of problem.

But that’s just the beginning. In that first part, I also proposed the concept of Translation Blocks, and that’s an entire subject that still has to be explored, and solutions presented.

Translation Blocks in General

A reminder: what are translation blocks?

Translation blocks are all about moving from one level or layer of the story that you’re telling to the next. You already have a road mapped out of where you are going, and you already know where you are coming from, but trying to make a seamless connection from point A to B seems to escape you.

The relationships between elements in a scene, any of which can be the subject of writer's block.

The relationships between elements in a scene, any of which can be the subject of writer’s block.

I realize that speaking in generalities isn’t very helpful, so here’s a more concrete and realistic example: You know the plot situation, you have just introduced a new character into the story. You know what that character’s personality is going to be, and you know what information that character has to impart with his dialogue. What needs doing is to express that personality in description and perhaps initial activity while setting the scene, and then use the personality to shape the dialogue so that the information being presented is saturated, or perhaps you would prefer suffused, with that personality. In other words, you have the elements, but you need to bind them together into a seamless whole. This is an example of three different translation blocks in succession: Specific to Narrative, Action to Narrative, and Persona to Dialogue.

The diagram above illustrates the ways in which the elements of a scene relate to each other. Each of these lines represents a translation of what is known, or has been decided, about a scene, to the next thing that is to be presented in the scene. Not all scenes will have all elements, and “Action” can be considered a special form of narrative in literature.

Causes of Translation Block

There are three general causes of Translation Block:

  • Inadequate Foundations,
  • Technical & Process problems, and
  • Transitional Issues.
Inadequate Foundations

Nothing creates writer’s block faster than not having your prep done properly. Any inadequacies in any single element contaminate every connection between that element and the rest of your writing. How can you get the dialogue right if you don’t know who the character doing the speaking is? How can you get the action right if you don’t see how the character’s capabilities can react to the existing situation? How can the character decide what to do in order to advance their goals if you don’t know what the character’s goals are, or what opportunities exist within the current situation for the advancement of the character’s agenda?

In every scene, a writer needs to be able to explain to himself why the scene is present, what its purpose is, who is participating, where it is taking place, what is supposed to happen – and how it will lead to the next step in the overall plotline. Any weakness in any of these foundations can manifest as writer’s block and frustration.

The solution to this type of writer’s block is relatively simple: identify the area of inadequate preparation and generate the missing detail. Invent it out of whole cloth, if you have to, then think about how it will fit – and then change it if the fit is not good enough. The previous parts of this series should give you all the tools that you need – if you have the time to employ them.

Technical & Process problems

It’s one thing being able to come up with ideas. It can be quite another to present them in a clear and concise manner. The more writing you do, the more skilled and polished you become. Writer’s block can be a manifestation of the writer simply not having the technical skills to achieve his objectives. This is the hardest type of writer’s block to overcome quickly, but is the easiest type of writer’s block to resolve in the long term; the cure is to read books on writing, attend workshops, and/or write something else; repeat until you achieve the necessary proficiency.

In the meantime, fake it. There are no new problems in writing, and therefore someone else has confronted this issue and solved it before. Spend a few minutes thinking about all the books that you’ve read, trying to identify the single sequence in one that is closest to the situation you have before you, then look at how it was solved by that author. Outline a rough draft of that solution, then polish it using your character names and personalities and situation. The solution used by the author won’t be an exact match to your situation, so it will need to be modified, line by line and word by word, until it solves your problem. Once you have done all that, and have that solution clearly in mind, delete it from your text and write, from scratch, using your own phrases, style, and vernacular, that solution. This eliminates any potential problems over plagiarism.

But this solution, though it is an immediate way out of the creative bottleneck, takes time. What do you do if you don’t have that time?

Hold that thought, and I’ll get back to you in just a moment.

Transitional Issues

These occur when you discover a hole in your planning. A plotting analogy should make this source clearer: you know that you need to move your plot from “A” to “C”, which logically implies a scene in the middle, “B”, to do just that – but have no idea what should be in that scene.

The same thing can occur internally within a scene. You can have a setting, and a character, and something that you want that character to say or do – but no idea of how to passage seamlessly from your description of the setting to the dialogue. Simply describing the physical appearance of the character reads too much like writing by numbers (the equivalent of painting with numbers) – it looks artificial or sounds forced, or – worse yet – fills the page with dull narrative that does nothing but tread water without moving the story forward.

Most of these problems can be dealt with by employing the solutions offered for the type of content that you are trying to create within the scene. Again, the solutions already provided hold the answers you need – if there’s plenty of time to implement them.

Improvising solutions

It’s when there’s no time that you need a different technique – that of improvising a solution. That doesn’t happen very often in most forms of literature, but it’s all too common in an RPG.

I should start by referring the reader to

my previous articles on improvisation at the game table. These can solve a lot of problems, especially when it comes to the Plot Phase, or the need to create a quick character for a one-off encounter.

If you count up the links leading into, or present within, the Scene Phase, you will find there to be eleven of them. I have solutions for nine of these eleven – not because the others were unworthy, but because they can usually be solved by “backtracking” and taking a different path to where it is that you need to go within the scene. I have also added a ringer from the Plot Phase. These ten problems, and one or more solutions to each (plus a few additional specific problem-and-solution ringers here and there in sidebars) comprise the remainder of this series.

I should stress that there is no reason why these solutions won’t work for literary writers; they have been excerpted and extracted because they are problems to which GMs of RPGs often need to improvise ad-hoc solutions. These solutions are probably not going to be quite as refined or pretty as those resulting from long hours sweating over the word processor, but they have the advantage of answering the need, “I-need-it-right-now!”.

Translation: Conceptual to Specific

I’m starting with a deliberate ringer. This type of writer’s block is defined as when you know what you want to do in general but don’t know how to get there from here. It can occur when the players make an unexpected choice and you have to improv a scene on the spot – hopefully one that will get the overall adventure back on track, if that’s necessary.

Solution #1 (if blockage is due to an unexpected PC choice):

The Best Thing That You Can Do is to admit, “I didn’t think of that, give me a minute to work out what will happen.” Then let the players high-five each other while you think.

The Worst Thing That You Can Do is to say, “No, you can’t do that.” Even if they can’t.

The Second-Worst Thing That You Can Do is to get too attached to the original plotline.

So start by jettisoning that and seeing what will happen as a consequence. Here’s a checklist of questions – work through them, answering each.
 

  1. Will their action solve their problem?
  • Is there anything they already know that their solution overlooks and that will invalidate it?
  • Is there anything they don’t know that will invalidate their solution?
  • Are they making a false assumption?

 

  1. If they are overlooking something:
  • What is the last possible moment at which they can be reminded of that something that leaves them time to solve the problem?
  • Will their solution actually make it impossible to solve the problem? In this case, and in this case only, the GM is justified in employing some more heavy-handed solution like a dice roll to “remember” the forgotten detail, or having an NPC point out “There’s something you’re overlooking.” And if there are no NPCs present, have one arrive who can demand to be brought up to date – then make the “There’s something you’re overlooking” speech.
  • Is there a natural way in which they can be reminded of what they are overlooking prior to that point in time?
  • Is there a point at which it will become obvious from the lack of results that their solution is not working? Insert a scene with an NPC at that point and have him voice the obvious: “It’s not working, you must have overlooked something”, then let the PCs try to figure out what the something was (with the GM’s assistance).

 

  1. If there is something they don’t know that will invalidate their solution:
  • What is the last possible moment at which they can discover that something which still leaves them time to solve the problem?
  • Will their solution actually make it impossible to solve the problem? If so, what is the last possible moment at which they can discover this fact that avoids this difficulty?
  • Is there a point at which it will become obvious that their solution is not working?
  • Is there a natural way in which their actions will lead to the discovery of the missing information prior to the earliest of these points in time? If not, you will have to orchestrate one – or let the PCs live with the consequences of failure.

 

  1. If they are making a false assumption:
  • What is the last possible moment at which they can discover their error that leaves them time to solve the problem?
  • Will their mistake actually make it impossible to solve the problem? If so, what is the last possible moment at which they can discover this fact that will avoid this difficulty?
  • Is there a point at which it will become obvious that they have made a mistake?
  • Is there a natural way in which they can discover their mistake prior to the earliest of these points in time? If not, you will have to orchestrate one – or let the PCs live with the consequences of failure.

 

  1. What will the immediate consequences of the PCs choice be?
  • What plot elements – setting, characters, etc – will you need to roleplay the scene?
  • In general terms, what will happen after that, and after that, and after that, and so on?

Sidebar:
These question follow four key principles that are worth enunciating:

  • Never, ever, start a plotline without thinking about what will happen if the PCs fail, and how you can recover the campaign from that point.
  • Always let the PCs follow their own course until the point where the campaign/adventure is about to become unsalvageable, while watching for opportunities to get things back on track if necessary.
  • Never say “No”; find a way for the players to decide to change what they are doing of their own volition.
  • Where there is one solution to a problem, there’s usually more than one. If the PCs find a working solution you hadn’t thought of, it’s up to you to accept it, and adapt the rest of the adventure to accommodate it.
Solution #2 (if blockage is NOT due to an unexpected PC choice):

Which brings me to the general solution: Determine how the general plot to this point will interact with the everyday life or lives of the PCs/protagonists and start with the roleplaying/writing of that everyday life, then introduce the interactions. Fiction writers have more scope, as they can use the impact on a minor character.

If you’re desperate and there isn’t an immediate impact on the ordinary life of the PCs/Protagonists, let an NPC feel the impact and roleplay a scene where they meet the PC/Protagonist and tell them their story.

This solution works by casting everything that happens prior to the PCs becoming aware of the situation into the past. This makes the situation established historical fact that can be described far more succinctly and propels the characters straight into the search for a solution, bypassing the scene with the problem. Nothing matters until it affects a PC.

Translation: Specific to Scene

This type of writer’s block is defined as knowing what the next part of the story is but don’t know how to manifest it in a scene.

Solution:

Choose an unrelated setting and let the PCs roleplay something that has nothing to do with the main plot, or is tangental to it. It could be as simple as briefing someone else about the situation. This scene exists purely to stall the action. Use the additional time to (mentally) review where each of the primary characters are and what they are doing. Look for a way to connect those activities with the next part of the plot.

At the end of the stalling scene, touch base with each of the PCs and roleplay their current activities for a minute or two, scheduling whichever one best connects with the next part of the plot, last. Use that connection to lead into the next part of the story.

Translation: Specific to Setting

There are two subtypes to this type of Translation Block.

Needing a location

When you know what is to happen next but can’t find the right location in which to have the events unfold.

Solution:

Identify the key characteristic that the location is going to bring to the story. That’s usually either resources for the protagonists to use, resources that the antagonist has used or stolen, or a particular tone or mood. Then try to encapsulate the resources, tone, or mood into a specific location – choosing with logic in the first case and emotion in the second.

Having an incongruent location

When you know what is to happen next but the location where the characters are doesn’t seem right for it.

Three Solutions:

This usually means that the tone of the story and the logic of the situation are in conflict. If you can change the scene without completely fouling up the story, that’s usually the better solution; but more often than not, you will need to transition the setting to convey the tone of the story, or possibly even set the scene in a completely different location, inserting a scene transiting from one location to the other. A third solution is to play up the incongruity between location and tone.
 

Sidebar:
A shortcut that I sometimes employ when in desperate need is to pick one key adjective, think of a location that encapsulates or matches that adjective, and use that as my starting point for a location. For a variation, try for a location that would normally contradict the adjective. “Sterile” or “Antiseptic” would normally suggest a hospital or doctor’s office. A family home is usually the last place to which such a description would apply – but using it as a starting point conjures a fairly vivid image.

 

Translation: Specific to Action

When you know what is to happen but can’t describe the action.

This type of translation block has two possible causes, and each requires different solutions. The first possible cause is conceptual – you can’t visualize what’s going on in your imagination, so you have trouble describing it. The second is trying to compress or abstract the action too much.

Solution 1 to cause 1:

Simplify the problem. Picture one thing that’s going on, then add each of the other effects or activities one at a time until you can visualize the whole. Sometimes it’s better to imagine the scene as a freeze-frame or a painting, other times it’s easier to get one dynamic process in mind and view it as an imaginary animated sequence. Whenever possible, use the second of these approaches; the first can solve the immediate problem only to have it recur a few seconds later when the PCs respond and react.

Solution 2 to cause 1:

Sometimes there’s a specific reason why you’re having trouble conceptualizing a specific effect, and it’s usually because you are trying too hard to be unique or original. Almost everything in the way of visual effects that can be done has been done by someone, and trying to avoid the ‘classic’ appearance of an effect can become a real mental block.

The best solution to this version of the problem is to start from a “classic” form of the visual effect, then tweak it. Make the energy beam narrower, or phase it in and out of visibility, or have it pulse, or change the color, or something. Think about the ancillary effects that Hollywood often neglects – the thunderclap caused by heating of the air, the red shift caused by the gravitational field of extremely concentrated energy – it takes a lot less energy to shift colors. If you can emphasize these secondary consequences, or make them unique, you can solve your problem indirectly.

And if you really want to stretch your imagination, read some of the classic Dr Strange by Steve Ditko.

Solution to cause 2:

Slow it down, take it step by step. If you have to, break the action into second-by-second components, or even smaller. If you have to, look at the action from one character’s point of view at a time.

General note:

This situation is where game aids like miniatures or even just hand-drawn quick maps come into their own. They take some of the work out of visualizing the action by doing part of the job for you. A lot of writers of literary fiction might find that using miniatures to plot out their action sequences makes them a lot easier, too.

One of these days I’ll get around to an article on some tips and tricks I’ve developed to extend the usefulness of minis in describing a particular scene.

Translation: Specific to Persona

When you know what is to happen but can’t visualize who is to do it.

Solution:

The key to this problem is motive. What is the individual to do, why are they going to do it, and what do they think they are accomplishing? Once you have that, you have a generic profile of the required character. From there, the techniques offered in By The Seat Of The Pants: The Three Minute (or less) NPC will do the rest.

Sidebar
You can sometimes solve persona questions by taking the same adjectives that you’ve used to describe the setting and applying them to a person. They may require reinterpretation, but it almost automatically makes the person you’re describing fit their environment. Then rephrase.

 

Five Translation Blocks down, five to go.

I commented in the previous article (when explaining the trials and tribulations I had experienced in trying to get the next part of the Orcs And Elves series, “When it rains, it pours”. Well, sometimes when it pours, it can be a deluge. In this case, a massive power failure affecting 60,000 homes in Sydney, including mine (a substation exploded, I think), left me with a lot less time to write this article than I expected or anticipated. It’s all there, but it might be a little less fulsome and explanatory than it would otherwise have been. There’s only one part left of this series, but in September I’m committed to hosting the Blog Carnival here at Campaign Mastery – so look for the final article in this series to appear as part of a double-post next week!

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