This entry is part 6 in the series Breaking Through Writer's Block

We all suffer from the occasional bout of writer’s block. This series started with the premise that different types of content meant different kinds of writer’s block, and needed different solutions to the problem. The immediate success of listing so many different solutions while outlining the article showed the validity of the approach; so far, no less than eighty solutions to thirteen types of writer’s block have been delivered, and this article is going to add sixteen-plus and seven to those tallies!

A quick recap:
Content can be thought of as consisting of layers, each layer providing a means of execution and development of the layer above it. From overall plot to specific scene, from specific scene to the setting in which the scene takes place, to the persona required, or to the narrative or dialogue required to achieve a specific outcome that propels this scene into the next, following the path dictated by the overall plot, writers sometimes have trouble translating known content from one layer into the next layer down (in fact, as the diagram in part 5 showed, the real situation is a little more complicated, but let’s not get bogged down). These types of problem are called Translation Writer’s Blocks, and there are lots of them.

If you have plenty of time, the solutions described for generating content for each layer independently (the Primary types of Writer’s block) can usually do a better job of solving the problem. But when you need a solution in a hurry, or just want a quick answer to get your mental gears unstuck, these problem usually take on added dimensions, and that’s where the solutions currently being discussed enter the picture.

Translation: Specific to Dialogue

Quite often, the only reason for two characters to have a scene together is to permit character A to give some information (or misinformation) to character B. This type of writer’s block occurs When you know what the dialogue is to convey but it sounds forced or unnatural.

Solution 1: Small Talk

People rarely get right to the point. Find a subject about which the character can make small talk and look for a way to segue into the information you want to convey. Don’t try to force the phraseology; use the small talk to find the natural voice of the character, then use that voice to convey the information in the dialogue. If you’re writing rather than improvising at the game table, you can even write and then delete this small talk, entering the scene at the point where things get interesting, but having found that character’s personal voice and mode of expression – though I would argue that in most cases, the extra verisimilitude and definition of the character’s personality that results from keeping it in is usually worth the price.

An exception is usually found in military and emergency services during an actual emergency or official report, in which case there’s no problem with it sounding forced, just be careful to have the character’s intelligence and expertise (or lack thereof) correctly portrayed within the dialogue.

Solution 2: Cut the jargon, cut the slang

One of the chief reasons for dialogue to sound forced is because the mode of expression you are using to surround the dialogue is forced. Don’t use jargon unless you know what it means and how it is naturally used by the type of person doing the speaking – in which case, it should sound natural.

Don’t use slang unless you can make it sound realistic. And be especially careful when it comes to profanity – uncensored it can become more important than the substance of what you are trying to deliver, poorly-censored it can just become muddy and confusing.

If you have to, cut these elements and use plain English. This sacrifices verisimilitude for clarity – sometimes a necessary evil.

Solution 3: A Third Party

An excellent solution is to introduce a third party who needs to have the jargon translated into plain English. After the first serving of jargon, to establish the primary speaker’s manner of speaking, focus on the translation as though the translator was the person delivering the dialogue. “If we maximize the over-under delivery of reducables the 702s will be executed with minimal losses within the context of retroactive split-board trading shares” – means absolutely nothing because there’s way too much jargon and assumed knowledge, but it establishes what the primary speaker is saying and how. The meaningful part of the dialogue is the translation.

Solution 4: Use Accents and selected phonetics sparingly

Writers often spell accented words phonetically to ensure that the audience hears the accent of the speaker. It’s easy to go way overboard on this stuff, and the more there is of it, the harder it is to execute it ‘cleanly’. Each phonetically-spelled intrusion of accent sacrifices a little clarity for verisimilitude and risks making the delivery seem unnatural – so be sparing. Accent the first word in a line of dialogue or the last, and perhaps one key word, and that will usually be enough. As the dialogue progresses, accent even less frequently than that. It can often be useful to insert or append a word or phrase that is essentially irrelevant to the content of the line of dialogue that can carry the accent – starting a line with “Mon Ami,” or “Mademoiselle,” immediately delivers a French accent; “Oh, I Say!” does the same for a British accent. The more of these stock phrases you have on tap, the more choice you have for utilizing this technique. The same trick also works for slang, but usually fails when it comes to jargon. If your dialogue is sounding unrealistic, try cutting some or all of the accents and phonetics.

Whenever I have a passage of dialogue that is to be delivered by an accented character, I always try to write it in plain English first and then insert the accent selectively. It saves a lot of wasted effort.

Sidebar: Foreign Language Text
In olden days, it was very difficult to render anything in a foreign language unless you happened to speak that particular language. These days, internet translation can deliver what sounds, to lay ears, like a reasonable rendition of text in a foreign language. For anything permanent, these translations are worth the paper they are printed on – when they are viewed on a screen. No internet translation will ever be as polished or successful as the real thing. But you can fake it. Here’s the first line of this paragraph in a selection of languages, generated using Google Translate (I’ve replaced characters that wouldn’t display with something visually equivalent):

  • French: Dans les temps anciens, il était très difficile de rendre quelque chose dans une langue étrangère à moins que vous arrivé à parler cette langue en particulier.
  • German: In alten Zeiten war es sehr schwierig, etwas in einer fremden Sprache zu machen, wenn Sie auf die jeweilige Sprache sprechen passiert.
  • Hungarian: A régi idokben, nagyon nehéz volt, hogy tegyék valami idegen nyelven, ha nem történt, beszélni az adott nyelvet.
  • Polish: W dawnych czasach, to bylo bardzo trudne, aby uczynic cos w obcym jezyku, chyba ze sie mówic, ze dany jezyk.
  • Swedish: Förr i tiden var det mycket svårt att göra något på ett främmande språk om du råkade tala om att visst språk.
  • Turkish: Eski günlerde, bu söz konusu dili konusan oldu sürece yabanci dilde bir sey islemek için çok zor oldu.

I could stumble my way through most of these, no doubt mispronouncing horribly, without practice; but given a few minutes advance warning (and having a prepared phrase in the required language prepared for use) and a little practice at speaking it aloud, I could do a much better job of mangling whatever language was needed. Proof of the mangling? Try reverse-translating the above back into English. The French comes close, but the German totally inverts the meaning by offering “In ancient times it was very difficult to make something in a foreign language if you happen to speak the language”. The Polish is near-perfect, but the others contain fundamental problems of various magnitudes. My favorite is the Turkish, which manages to be almost lyrical in its failure to deliver the meaning of the original sentence: “In olden days, it was out of the question unless you speak the language, foreign language, something that was very difficult to handle.”

In a nutshell: DON’T use an internet translator for any foreign-language material that is to be published, you’ll only embarrass yourself with anyone who actually speaks the language (individual words may be OK); and if you’re in a spoken-dialogue situation (at the game table) where the goal is to capture the flavor of the language without saying anything that you don’t mind being garbled in translation, try to practice in advance.

Translation: Specific to Narrative

Narrative text is used to describe something. It could be a place, an environment, a machine, a special effect, a state of mind, a perception of reality – anything from metaphysics through to the most objective of realities. Most of these are relatively straightforward, but there are times when nuance or context appears to get lost.

When you know what the situational context is but can’t describe it clearly, the problem is defined as a Specific-to-Narrative translation block. In effect, the meaning of the situation is getting lost, or your descriptions of that situation are confusing or inadequate. This can be amongst the most frustrating forms of Writer’s Block, and is amongst the most frequent in an RPG; but it can also be a blessing in disguise because it is often caused by muddled or vague thinking, or by trying to tell and not show.

Fortunately, it’s also a problem with a bucketload of solutions.

Solution 1: Through The Eyes

Pick an NPC (or a PC) and examine the scene through his eyes. What does he see? What does it mean? Why is it happening?

Solution 2: Mouthpiece

If you are trying to convey some insight into what’s been happening, or some implication or understanding that has escaped the players, pick an NPC who might be able to make that observation and put the words into his mouth as dialogue.

Solution 3: Personal Revelation

If there are no NPCs capable of having that insight, take a player aside and let his PC have a private revelation – in writing, so that it can be accurately conveyed to the other players. Make your choice based on the character most likely to have the insight, rejecting any who have already committed themselves to one specific interpretation of events because they will color the information you provide with that interpretation. That often means giving it to the player who has had the least screen time in the last few minutes, which is a side-benefit.

Solution 4: A public voice

A great standby is to have a reporter show up (or town cryer if that’s more appropriate for the era) and let them describe events – incorporating the situational context that you’re having trouble conveying.

Solution 5: Clarity

If none of these solutions work, the problem is most likely to be muddled or vague thinking. There’s a gap in your thinking that you have instinctively or intuitively jumped over, and when you are trying to communicate that thought process, you keep running up against that gap. What’s worse, running over it multiple times in your head often gets your thoughts stuck in a well-worn rut – straight to that chasm.

To solve this problem, you need to stop and take five. Dscribe the situation to a non-participant and explain the contextual point that you want to make; often you will identify the gap and plug it yourself, but if you don’t, your sounding board will usually be able to set you straight.

Solution 6: Live to fight another day

And if that doesn’t work, leave it unsaid and find a way to make the context clear in retrospect by showing the consequences in a later adventure or scene.

Translation: Specific to Narrative

A second form of this type of writer’s block occurs when you are attempting to describe some effect or image that you know is taking place, but which you are having trouble seeing in your own head. “The two realities intersect.” “Space and time begin to shred.” “A glorious sunset is unnaturally calming.” “The overlocking frammistat begins to tear itself apart.” Knowing in an abstract way what is happening doesn’t automatically mean that you can describe it in literal, non-abstract, terms.

This is also a very common problem. Actually, it’s several different specific problems, each exemplified by one of the examples offered, and – once again – each has a slightly different solution.

Metaphysical impacts on the Physical world

“The two realities intersect.” Something metaphysical is happening, and you need to describe what is being perceived by a witness, real or hypothetical. The key to this is the selection of the frame of reference; you would use very different narrative if describing this from the point of view of a witness within one of the realities instead of from outside observer looking on.

In the first case, you have to translate the metaphysical protrusion into the reality being observed; the solution here is to use terminology appropriate to actions that could normally take place in the normal reality. Use physical terms like “stretch”, “distort”, “ripple”, “swirling”, and/or “spinning”; use physical forms to depict the intersection like “a point growing”, or “a perfect ellipse in midair”; use physically transformative phenomena such as “boiling”, “condensing”, or “splintering”. Above all, keep the description dynamic and not static; you aren’t trying to describe the phenomenon, you are describing the transformations caused by the phenomenon. Identifying the phenomenon itself is an act of interpretation, and that should be conveyed either in the first person by the thoughts of the witness in the course of the narrative, or conveyed in dialogue at the end. If we’re talking about an RPG situation, interpretation should be left to the player; let him make skill checks against whatever skills he thinks appropriate in order for the character to interpret the phenomenon.

From the outside observer’s perspective, abstractions and symbolic representations are the order of the day. Identify some way of symbolizing a “reality” and then use that to describe two of them joining, fusing, blending or intersecting. Keep the language more impersonal and remote; personal and subjective reactions should be conveyed separately. In an RPG, it might be necessary to fuel the fire – “[character name] can’t help imagining what it must feel like to those poor souls who feel the fabric of their existence being mangled and twisted; you can’t see how any unprepared mind could experience such shock and remain entirely rational and sane” – but make sure that any such prompts are appropriate to the character to whom they are directed.

It is often helpful to find some real physical-world process that can be used as the foundation of such a narrative. The sudden condensing of a cloud of vapor where nothing was visible; the effect when ink-drops fall into a glass of water; the time-lapse growing of a plant or a crystal; animations of cell colony growth; even camera wipes – any would make a suitable metaphors apon which to base a description of the example phenomenon.

Physical impacts on a Metaphysical reality

“Space and time begin to shred.” Here we have a defined physical transformation – “shred” – being applied to a metaphysical or emotional object. “As the words penetrated, his heart turned to ground glass in his chest” is another reasonable example from an entirely different context. The key here is abstracting the metaphysical reality or object into something physical that can serve as a metaphor, and that can be subjected to the transformation.

This is a useful technique because the abstraction-to-reality effect of the metaphor is subconsciously and emotionally balanced by an unstated reality-to-abstraction effect symbolized by the physical transformation. The trick is making sure that all of these elements work in harmony with each other – if the metaphoric object is not symbolic enough of what it is supposed to represent, or if the physical action is not in keeping with the physical transformation (“the marshmallow shatters”?) then the whole thing will fall flat. If you’re having trouble employing such a narrative technique, it’s almost certainly because one of the elements that you’re employing is out of synch with the others. Where the metaphor is common enough, you might be able to get away with it (we’ve all heard of a heart shattering or being broken, and that’s why the second example works, even though hearts don’t physically transform into ground glass), but it may still feel just a little clumsy.

One word of warning regarding this narrative technique: many abstraction-to-reality metaphors are pretty universally understood, but some may be culturally-derived and meaningless to those from a different culture. Be careful you don’t get too clever.

Deliberately choosing an unlikely metaphor can be a great way of symbolizing an alien perspective – so long as you can find a way for it to make sense in the context of the society, personality, etc of the alien in question. “My minor heart soared with hope, but my major heart was still solidly grounded in the real world” works as an alien symbol of pessimism, for example.

Induced Emotional Context

“A glorious sunset is unnaturally calming.” “The sounds of nature are unusually disturbing.” Narrative often exists to induce an emotional reaction or convey an emotional context. Some come easily, others are difficult, because they are extreme or unnatural. The usual problem that people have in writing ordinary narrative is that it is easy to slip into cliché, and that is solved by finding some original metaphor that can be used to connect the perspective with the emotion that is to be induced.

The cause of most problems when attempting to induce an unnatural or extreme emotion is getting too quickly to the emotional point that they are trying to make; the result seems forced because it is. To solve this problem, the narrative needs to start with an emotional association that is reasonable for the perception and then develop or transform, step-by-step, into the distorted emotional context that is to be conveyed.

The first example is about an unnatural extreme. To make such narrative successful, start with a reasonable emotional tone and continue to layer appropriate descriptive terms until the accumulation becomes entirely too overwhelming to be natural. “The sunset is glorious, full of the promise of a new day and the optimism of hope. Golds and Reds and Purples wrap themselves around the landscape like silk sheets. The breeze is warm and pleasant and clings like honey. A faintly saccharine tinge colors the scent of flowers that fills the air; even the cesspool smells sweet, perfumed, perfect. You have never felt so sheltered, so calm, so safe and secure.” By which point the reader – or the player – is feeling anything but sheltered, calm, and secure. “Caged” probably comes closer, because they have gone on a journey from a reasonable emotional tone to something so extreme as to be unnatural – and that means that someone has done or is doing this to them, and the reality will bear little or no resemblance to the perception. If I had stopped at “warm and pleasant”, the description could have been taken at face value; “clings like honey” is the point at which the description goes just a little too far, and each phrase thereafter carries the reader further into discomfort. The payoff is the four-fold statement of emotional reaction; again, any one of these placed just after “warm and pleasant” would be utterly plausible, but the final statement that exists goes entirely too far to be accepted. If I were to use this in a game, every time the character tried to do something, I would mention “a wave of comfortable drowsiness” that had to be overcome, or something similar; by the third or fourth time, at the very latest, the character’s confinement would be a confirmed if unstated fact in the player’s mind.

Taking the reader on a trip to an unusual emotional destination is a little harder. Start with a general overview and a normal emotional context; then focus on details that can be associated with the desired destination emotion, and describe them in a neutral tone. Next, move to exaggerated details – things the character could not possibly sense – again with a mainly neutral tone with at most just a tinge of the desired emotional end-point. Finally, deliver the reader/audience to that endpoint, having layed the foundations through the earlier parts of the narrative. “The sounds of nature surround you; the burble of a brook, the whisper of a waterfall, the song of the birds, and the whistle of the wind surround you and make you feel intimately connected to world, vital and alive. Carried on the breeze comes the sound of a lion gnawing on a fallen zebra, while jackals circle impatiently waiting for the leftovers. Elsewhere, a great cat stalks its prey, the soft sound of its shallow breaths a barely perceptible presage to the bloodletting to come. Two dogs fight over a bone. Insects scream their outrage as each races to deny the others of its kind their share of the abundant food. One of the dogs bites the other, the whimper of pain melding with the angry growls of the aggressor. Even the waterfall and brook grind inexorably at the rock, slowly devouring it. Everywhere is the sound of one life seeking the destruction of another for its own gain, and the spilling of blood, and you feel a sudden wave of revulsion at the savagery and horror that surrounds you as you realize that everything that exists is a predator at heart, filled with violence and need.” The idea that the sounds of nature are a compounding of the violence and inflicted pain and misery of everything around the person is the perspective-shift needed to go from feeling a “part of nature” to being emotionally disturbed by the horror implied by the elements of that compounding. If I were to visit a Druid’s grove and had this description read to me, I would have a very different view of the druid in question afterwards! (PS: This is a very toned-down version, I could have been far more graphic and extreme!)

Ill-defined physical reality

“The overlocking frammistat begins to tear itself apart.” The problem here is probably that the GM/author has no clear idea of what an “overlocking frammistat” looks like when it’s NOT tearing itself apart. Picturing the device whole, and then what it looks like in proper operation, is an essential requirement for being able to describe the parts flying off as it disassembles itself. I can describe a spectacular engine failure because I know what an engine looks like, I can imagine the parts moving inside it, and so on.

Of course, form follows function; in order to be able to describe that form, I need at least some notion of the way the thing is supposed to work.

Another trap that a lot of writers fall into is describing a machine in isolation. Cables and pipes and hoses tearing loose do a great job of enabling the description to be more dynamic and engaging. And never forget the showers of sparks!

Translation: Scene to Action

All of which provides the perfect segue into our next category, which is all about dynamism. When the location and the action don’t seem to gel, you have the Scene to Action Translation wrong. Trying to set a barroom brawl in a china shop doesn’t work. The “bystanders” don’t fit, and the action you want to take place doesn’t fit.


Presuming that it’s too late now to change the setting, what you need to do is to modify the action to have it interact with the environment, and modify the participants other than the protagonists of the action scene to make them appropriate to the setting. Instead of breaking mugs over people’s heads, have someone start throwing china. Which immediately suggests a shrieking housewife, maybe armed with a broom. Have the people who should be there chase out the ones that don’t fit, then have them turn on the PCs – who also (presumably) don’t fit the environment, either.

Translation: Action to Narrative

Describing Action scenes is an art unto itself. Some people can do it fluently and effortlessly, others struggle. I naturally have one foot on the dividing line and the other firmly planted in the “difficult” category. When you can see the action in your head but can’t describe it fluently, you have an Action to Narrative Block.

Solution 1: Game Aids

The best solution to this problem is usually to use some sort of game aid to take some of the descriptive burden off your hands, enabling you to focus on the rest. This doesn’t have to be miniatures and a battlemap; it could be a photograph or piece of art that you’ve found on the net, or it could be a quickly-sketched map on scrap paper. There are times when I’ll dig out “Orbit War” for its counters and game board, or 2038, or some other board game. Fancy contact plastic or stick-on kitchen-surface coating or even scraps of unused wallpaper or carpet can all assume radically different meanings when miniatures are placed on them (green shag-pile for jungle, anyone?)

Solution 2: Divide and conquer

Sometimes it can be helpful to break one big action sequence into several smaller ones, and describe each separately. In an RPG, you don’t really want to focus on one participant for that length of time while excluding the other players, though, so this is an approach that’s better used in writing fiction.

Solution 3: Strobe Light

The final technique is to strobe-light it into a series of freeze-frames. A game aid can be especially helpful in providing continuity to the description.

The ‘Divide and Conquer’ procedure can be extended to permit the recombination of separate action sequences into one massive sequence.

  1. Divide scrap paper into as many columns as you have separate action sequences.
  2. In the first column, break the events in that combat/action sequence down into discrete actions, reactions, and consequences. Choose the one that is most likely to have a disruptive impact on the environment.
  3. In the second column, break the events of the next combat/action sequence down into discrete actions, reactions, and consequences. Take due account of any environmental changes and distractions resulting from the first combat.
  4. Ditto the third column, and so on.
  5. Locate the shortest column. As soon as that action sequence is complete, any participants not rendered inactive are free to join another action sequence, which will need to be revised from that point on.
  6. Compare the recovery time for each character rendered inactive with the remaining steps in the longest combat sequence. It’s possible that they might reenter the action, starting a new combat sequence at the point of their recovery. Or they might be able to escape while everyone’s distracted.
  7. Now comes the recombination: going across the page, describe the first action/reaction/consequence set from the first battle, then the first from the second, then the first from the third, and so on.
  8. Repeat for the second, then the third, and so on.
  9. Or you can use an intermediate arrangement: describe one action sequence up to the point where it influences a second. Then describe that second one up to that point. By flagging or highlighting the points at which one sequence influences another, you identify the natural break-points in the narrative. Crossing off those that have been reintegrated makes sure that you don’t miss any.

Sidebar: The Strobe-light technique in RPGs
Although it might not seem so, an analogous technique can be very useful in an RPG. When the party are divided, and one has a battle or action sequence, make sure that they ALL do (even if these events are not occurring simultaneously). Then you can run each as one big combat taking place in multiple locations at the same time, giving everyone their normal combat screen time. Trust me, it works. The key to success is take each character’s independent plotline to the point where they are about to enter an action sequence and then switching attention to the next plotline. Rapid interchanges between plotlines in a non-combat mode (I try for 2-3 minutes a plotline, 5 minutes at most) achieve the same function outside of an action sequence. Use a stopwatch or egg-timer if you have to. Don’t be afraid to split conversations in the middle. As soon as the end of allocated time begins to approach, look to get that plotline to a point where it can be interrupted. The time required to achieve that is the source of the variability.

Translation: Persona to Dialogue

The drunken cowboy bellied up to the bar and announced, “Proton decay in the antimatter sheath. Should’ve seen it coming,” and burped noisily, reaching for the whiskey bottle. The space pilot opened his comm. channel to home base and solemnly announced, “The fairy queen marches beneath a banner of blood surrounded by fell magiks.” The high priest fell to his knees and prayed loudly to his god, “Why howdy, partners. Who’s got a deck of cards? I got me a powerful itch to play me some poker.”

Smile; you’ve just been bitten by the Persona to Dialogue Translation Block, where the dialogue doesn’t seem right coming from the character speaking. Okay, so these are extreme (and extremely unlikely and obvious) examples.

This type of problem occurs when you have a character saying something that the plot requires be said – but the character is all wrong for the dialogue. Marginally more subtle examples might be a sociopath offering a victim’s perspective, a hard-nosed cop discussing the poetic allusions in Byron, or a bumpkin offering a cogent mathematical arguement. A still more realistic offering might be someone offering a helpful suggestion to a person with whom they have a blood feud.

There are multiple solutions.

Solutions 1-4: Massage the dialogue

The same as described above under “Translation: Specific to dialogue” at the start of this article.

Solution 5: Someone Said

Have the character doing the speaking quote the parts that don’t seem appropriate as having been said by someone else.

Solution 6: Party for three

Introduce another character (who probably has some connection to the character doing the speaking) who can offer the dialogue that doesn’t fit the first character. Depending on the circumstances, this could be a wife, a family member, a friend, a lawyer, whatever. Try to pick someone appropriate to the information that you want the ill-fitting dialogue to convey.

Solution 7: Emphasize the incongruity

One final solution to consider is making the character more complex. This won’t always work, but a policeman who’s useless at interpersonal relations and generally incompetent – except at deducing the events at a crime scene – can be an entertaining character. Just make sure that their personal and professional lives carry the scars of their failures.

Crowding: too many ideas

It’s happened to most creative people at least once – you have so many ideas that by the time you’ve finished articulating one, another that was there has completely evaporated.

Solution Part 1: A Quick Synopsis

When you have an idea, jot it down somewhere as quickly and succinctly as possible. Try not to expand on the original premise too much. More than a line or two is probably too much, unless you can set aside whatever you’re doing and devote time to the idea. More to the point, when you have several ideas, write them down as quickly as possible before you get distracted; you can always discard rubbish ones later.

Try to limit the development time you spend on an idea until you intend to use it. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve had an idea and spent time developing it, only to throw all that development away when a completely different need came to light for which the original, undeveloped idea would provide a perfectly acceptable solution.

I keep a file of plot ideas for each campaign that I run. Despite the vast number of plots already integrated into my current superhero campaign, I have already amassed 15 more that I have on standby. Some I might integrate into the main plot where my current planning simply tells me I have a metaplot development that needs a plot to happen in, others might never be used. And note that I’m not actively trying to come up with ideas for the campaign, it’s already pretty chock-full.

Once you have the idea written down somewhere, try to connect it with other ideas you might have. Don’t actually put the two together, simply note the possibility of a connection. While you’re at it, list anything else that the new idea might be good for. That’s because some of the ideas that I have had are extremely incomplete, and this new idea might be exactly what I need to plug one of the gaps.

It’s useful to code and number the ideas. That gives you a means of referring to the idea without replicating the whole thing.

Solution Part 2: Consequences, connections, metaplots, and ulterior motives

When you come to the conclusion that you need an idea from your ideas file, for example as a plot vehicle to introduce a new NPC, what you really need is a means of choosing the best idea for the job from amongst those on file – or rejecting all of them and beginning to hunt for something new.

For example, let’s say that I need an adventure to introduce a new high-tech villain. I have a name and a profile for the villain, but no idea what he is up to. I go through my ideas file looking for ideas that have the right sort of consequences and connections. I need the plot idea to integrate with the overall metaplot and to address any ulterior motives that I might have for the adventure. I might come across an idea “stress fractures in the supercooled memory cores of super-computers giving wrong answers”. The team’s base relies on an AI running on just such a supercomputer. So do a couple of high-tech research facilities, and a global security oversight computer. Maybe the latter develops rationality flaws due to this problem and begins inserting a fictitious villain that it has created for systems testing into the live records as though he really exists; his autonomic functions then detect the intruder and sound security alarms, to which it responds by focusing conscious attention on the scene, distracting him from the delusion and causing the ‘intruder’ to vanish into thin air. So, no crime has taken place, no living person has ever seen the villain, no-one knows who they are or what they are up to – but there is ‘incontrovertible proof’ that he exists. Attempting to rationalize and understand what is going on, as its systems degenerate, the AI begins ‘uncovering’ criminal acts that were not noticed on first analysis. These start off being credible, but become more and more unlikely, and the team come to realize that the whole thing is a computer-generated fiction. Why? Who’s behind it? Is someone testing the defenses? Is someone tampering with the AI? And then, more or less at the same time, an accident of some sort downloads the fictitious criminal “identity” into an android body at the same time as a genuine criminal decides to take advantage of the hype and paranoia being generated by this mysterious identity and adopts it for himself – leading to a conflict over who really is the owner of the criminal identity, and to the team being embarrassed when the ‘computer glitch’ shows up somewhere in real life.

I would probably never run this adventure; I don’t want the PCs to mistrust the AI at the Knightly Building, their base of operations. But his combines five mini-ideas: “Virtual criminal in cyberspace”, “AI inadvertently downloaded into android”, “AI has delusions”, “two criminals claim the same identity”, and the original, “stress fractures in the supercooled memory cores of super-computers giving wrong answers”. Instead, I would probably go with the notion that the criminal was somehow inducing these fractures for his own benefit, so that this becomes a plot about a potential threat to an ally of the team – the AI at the Knightly Building.

Crowding: the fallacy of memory

Inevitably, when you look at an idea snippet that you jotted down months or years earlier, sometimes it will be just a cryptic jumble – you’ve forgotten what it means.

When this occurs, you have two options:

  • Try to recapture the meaning, or
  • Ignore the original meaning.

What might the idea mean? Clues may be offered by considering the idea just before it, or by considering any connections or consequences noted. Any of the terms mentioned might be the key to recapturing the original thought. But, if you try all these, and still can’t remember what you meant by “Gilgamesh the Serpents” or something equally strange, you can move to option B:

Ignore the original meaning

If you can’t remember what you meant, and have failed to recapture the original idea, take what you have as a suggestive phrase and try to construct a new interpretation. On rare occasions, this will actually permit the recapture of the original notion – giving you a choice of interpretations. If that doesn’t happen, there are still two outcomes possible: success or failure.

A meaning is found

Regardless of whether the interpretation you come up with is the original or a new idea inspired by the cryptic phrase, the first thing to do is to add a add a contextual keyword or phrase to avoid the problem next time. If you are lucky enough to now have two interpretations, put them both down. Expand and clarify.


Discard the idea by crossing it out or color-coding it, NOT by deleting it. The answer might come to you hours or days later, or next time you look through the ideas file.

The End Of The Road

That’s almost it for the article series. But I have some parting advice to conclude the series:

When All Else Fails

The ultimate solution to writer’s block, when everything else suggested has failed to solve your problem is this: Retreat a step, change something, and try to go forward again. It’s better to take one step back for three steps forward than it is to be stuck.

Above all, don’t stop working on it for any length of time. There’s always more going on in your head than the part that’s giving you trouble; if you stop, all that will get lost. I’ve occasionally had success by ignoring the problem and starting work on the next section, having made a note about the problem. Sometimes you can work backwards from a future point to solve the problem – and break through your writer’s block.

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