The One-Off Theme for Writer’s Block

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June 2, 2018 by bradcharlesbeals

Looking for a temporary theme or motif can be a good way of grounding the narrative within a narrow span such as a chapter or even a scene within a chapter. This doesn’t have to be anything overarching. It can be a one-off, something unique to the section in which you’re working.

I did this recently as a means of both revision and of pushing through a block. Half way through a recent chapter, I had two characters rendezvousing in a remote town. They met, they furtively arranged another meeting, and that was as far as I’d gotten. I was a little vague on where it would go next, but I did see that what I had so far lacked the unity of any grounding image. So I looked closely at what I had and noticed that several simple actions were narrated so that the characters were using things: one wrestled a tombstone into the back of a wagon, ate a pear with a knife, and drank a bottle of milk; another occupied a rocking chair and scratched his head with his pipe stem. The focus of the chapter to this point seemed to be on things acting instead of people. And that made some sense because these two characters were things themselves more than they were human.

So I ran with that.

I built in another few examples: Big Jake throws the pear core. I moved their resting feet to street level and in the dust instead of up on a front porch. I made them of the earth and then held that filter in front of me as I wrote the rest of the chapter. I looked for things to guide me.

The take-away for me was that I had come up with the chapter’s “theme” (you could call lit a motif, too) without knowing it. I had written it accidentally. That’s fine. Who knows where it really came from, but there it was in front of me, and now I could pick it up and let it guide me through to the next chapter.  

Better to hang the passage on something solid than simply stumble through it for the sake of advancing the plot.

At least I think it’s better.

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