10 Tools for Writer’s Block


March 27, 2018 by bradcharlesbeals

A car not starting is a car problem requiring a car solution. I understand that that’s stupidly obvious, but still, just keep it in mind. 

Last week, my car wouldn’t start, so I worked through the likely solutions…

  1. Jump-started it — Didn’t work.
  2. Replaced the spark plugs — No luck.
  3. Switched out the coil packs (they give the plugs their spark) — Nothing.
  4. Installed a new fuel pump* —  Vrooom!


Writer’s block is like that for me. When the engine won’t start, I know that it’s just a matter of working through the remedies. Sometimes things get rolling on the first try, and sometimes it takes a lot of time under the hood.

But what I don’t do – not with my car, not with my fiction – is try to fix the problem by waiting or by calling on my various muses or by doing anything other than reaching for my tools and getting to work. And that means actually writing to fix the problem because…

Writer’s block is a writing problem requiring a writing solution.** 

Below are ten tools, ten writing solutions for pushing through writer’s block. I’ve used them all. I’ve tried to arrange them according to degree of invasiveness, with jump-starting the car, a pretty simple task, at the beginning and putting in a new fuel pump at the end.

Here we go…

  1. Push it. Without worrying about direction or purpose, put your characters into motion. Randomly choose some action verbs, attach them to your characters (the subjects), add a direct object and a few modifiers, and see what happens. Seriously. It’s just that elementary. Make sentences that have your characters doing stuff. When you’re done, there will likely be much to cut, but remember, you’re only looking for that one sequence to get you over the gap, then you’re off.  VROOOM
  2. Skip it. Skip the next chapter(s) and jump ahead to where you know the story will pick up. (This only works for those pieces with a fairly developed arc). Yes, you’re just buying time, but sometimes that’s all it takes. By writing past the block now, you’ll come back to it later with more material, more perspective, and more momentum for writing through it. The important thing is that you’re dealing with the block by writing.
  3. Theme it. This one’s my personal favorite and my first go-to (I plan to use it later today, in fact, as I find myself a little stalled between chapters). Shakespeare never lost sight of his central themes. It’s as though he put on theme-colored glasses whenever he sat down to write. Be like Shakespeare (insofar as a mortal is able). Instead of looking for particular plot solutions, try writing out the demonstration of a theme in plot. For example, in Macbeth, Shakespeare begins each act by demonstrating the theme of equivocation through his characters. Was he trying to work his way through a writer’s block? Of course not. He was Shakespeare. But clearly he was shaping plot to theme. For mortals like you and me, the plot events themselves might seem forced, but at the very least they’ll be connected to our writing. And at their best they’ll carry us past the block. 
  4. Oblique it. Write the last chapter from another character’s point of view. Looking at something obliquely rather than straight on may be all the nudge you need in order to see where things need to go next. It can also open up insight into your characterization.  
  5. Dream it. This is two methods, actually. First, the dream journal. Graham Greene used this method extensively, not just for writing fiction but for looking at his own internal (and not quite conscious) discourse. Some think that our dreams tap into our subconscious. I tend to think they just produce stuff to play with, and that’s the point of any of these methods — to produce material. The second dream method is to have a character dream. It’s not dependent on where you are in the plot. You are temporarily freed from whatever restraints you may have accepted: pov, voice, mood, style, whatever. All bets are off in a dream.
  6. Sketch it. Make as much of your story as visual as you can. Map it, draw it, abstract it. The more varied the input the better. There’s a point in the novel I’m working on now where different groups of people are converging geographically, so visualizing where they literally are on a map has been helpful. I’ve also used a critical path planning model that my dad used to use when coordinating the construction phases of a building. Instead of “concrete” and “plumbing” and “electrical” my parallel paths would be labeled “John Roy” and “Louisa” and “Hazen Most.” There have been times when having a broad overview of my story at one glance made the next steps obvious, and I was able to push right past the block.
  7. Subtitle it. Give each chapter (or any size chunk) a clear title. It’s not important what the title is, but it should immediately bring to mind its contents. Put each one on a card or post-it and lay it out. Look for different ways to arrange the plot. Obviously, this won’t work for some narration, but it should work for any 3rd person POV that follows more than one narrative and that’s not strictly chronological.
  8. Journal it. Get into the head of a character by journaling the events to that point. Use a peripheral character first (their perspective tends to be farthest from the center and thereby the least derivative of it), then move closer still by journaling the same events with a more central character. This method relies on the same shift in perspective that “Obliquing” does, but in a different form.  
  9. Wake it. Write at an entirely different time. We used to let the sun determine our sleeping hours, and it was not uncommon to wake up in the middle of the night between sleep cycles and go for a walk, read a book, do a chore. We called it second sleep. Of course today we ignore the sun so we don’t have that natural rhythm, but a shot of caffeine at 3 in the morning might do the trick.
  10. Run at it. Annie Dillard describes the daily routine of a mystery writer: After going out for breakfast, he comes home and without even taking his coat off sits at his desk and re-types from the beginning the story he’s working on. When he gets to where he left off yesterday, he adds as much as he can without stopping. Sometimes it’s a sentence. Sometimes it’s pages. When he gets stuck, when he hits his daily writer’s block, he knows he’s done, so he stops and waits to do the same thing tomorrow. Yes, this is an extreme measure. But there’s a principle here that can be followed. Who you are in the throes of actually writing is an entirely different being than who you are as the blocked writer. So the fix here involves getting back into the skin of your more productive self by re-producing the work leading up to the block. This method is about getting a running start at it. It’s about momentum.


While I can’t say that every one of these worked every time, I can say that each successful push through the block involved actual writing. So it doesn’t matter if fiction is not your thing. It’s the principle that’s at work.

Tell yourself this until it becomes stupidly obvious:

       Writer’s block is a writing problem requiring a writing solution. 

              Writer’s block is a writing problem requiring a writing solution. 

                     Writer’s block is a writing problem requiring a writing solution. 


*I started drafting this post while I was midway in the fuel pump installation. It didn’t work. I had to tow the car to a mechanic. Thinking up a good post on presumption as I write this.
** HERE I discuss our tendency to call writer’s block a disease (or some other fate that befalls us) rather than own it as something we’ve caused ourselves.


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