If you took each box of the various types of Excedrin—headache, backache, muscle ache, and so on—and turn them over and looked at the ingredients labels, you’d discover they all had identical ingredients. It’s not the contents but the labels and the marketing that are different.
It’s not surprising then to discover that the thousands of self-help books deliver pretty much the same messages. They merely use different covers, labels, and anecdotal evidence to support the success of some alleged new approach to resolve some previously unidentified life stresses.
Writers are not immune from this marketing technique and writer magazines and digests are full of articles with remedies for that special and most dreaded affliction from which writers sometimes suffer—writer’s block. We’ve all had times when our idea well has seemingly run dry and we panic at the thought that we might have finally drained the creative pond of our brain, or, for some unexplained reason, it has dried up, evaporated.
Journalists with daily deadlines run into the feeling more often than novelists because they have daily obligations to come up with the best lead and quickly produce a story. To the journalist, the lead kicks off the story. I remember years ago the experience shared by a fellow staffer. An L.A. County jury had just returned a not-guilty verdict against a women and her son, as I recall, on a multi-count indictment for allegedly abusing children in their daycare center. “You mean to tell me,” said other staffer who stopped by my friend’s desk where his writer’s blocked fingers were close to cramping up waiting for inspiration, “that the county spent eight million dollars, invested six months in a trial, and came up with bupkis?” Bingo! His lead was written.
I spent probably two weeks writing and reworking the opening few paragraph of The Mystery of Santa’s Watch and I’m still not sure I like them. Monet, it is said, was caught trying to do a little touch up of one of his works as it hung on a French museum’s wall. Creative people are perpetually plagued with never quite getting “it” started right, or finished ideally. But not coming up with an idea to even start with in the first place is a frightening feeling, like a silver cross to a vampire.
I’m sure there are a zillion theories and not a few psychological realities that lie behind what we call writer’s block. But likely much of the time the problem is pea sized in reality and grows into a mountain of discomfort in much the same way as in “The Princess and the Pea.”
Or, like the parched desert traveler, apparently dying of thirst, when he ran across an old water pump and note left in the old bakin’ powder can by Desert Pete. You might remember the Kingston Trio’s song about the cowboy “travelin’ West of Buckskin on his way to a cattle run.” There’s a jar of water and the note gives the cowboy a choice. Drink the water in the jar or pour it down the well to wet the leathers and prime the pump. Pete’s directions were pretty clear. After pouring the water down the well you have to “work that handle likes there’s a fire”:
You’ve got to prime the pump; you must have faith and belief
You’ve got to give of yourself ‘fore you’re worthy to receive
Drink all the water you can hold, wash your face, cool your feet
Leave the bottle full for others, thank you kindly, Desert Pete
So here’s the message I leave in my jar for the idea-thirsty writer: If you want to find out just how much you don’t know about a subject, write about it. Writer’s block is such a subject. I think writers are prone not to want to discuss out of superstition that they might catch it. A little web research turns up an interesting insight: those who do write about writer’s block tend to prefer giving you lists of remedies. The number varies. In chronological order, here are the solutions from my Yahoo search: 5, 12, 36, 27, and 3. Most of them involve some form of writing prompts. Like the water to prime Pete’s well. The longest list appears in the July/August 2014 edition of the “Writer’s Digest.” The cover announces that this is “The Creativity Issue” and the article touted to “Flex your creativity with a collection of exercises designed to stretch every muscle in your writerly mind” (an euphemism for cures for writer’s block) is entitled “50 Writing Prompts for Every Part of Your Brain.”
Here’s an example from the list:
“Choose a country you’ve never been to and spend some time researching it. Now use your research to write a scene or short story set in this country.”
Yes, a great question upon which to base a writing assignment in history or geography perhaps, but if you were going to write about a place, you might want to minimally include an accurate description of its people and culture. Even a travelogue does that much. The question is: will this “assignment” generate a short story or novel or poem or just some words on paper? How can it do otherwise? There are no characters. You might just as well sit down and practice writing a paragraph of narrative description. But the best of those are frequently told through a character’s eyes.
Of course, something in that process might prick the creative region of your brain and you’re off running to chase down a worthwhile idea. But the example gives you a scene. Hands it to you on a platter. It would be better if the list’s author handed you the platter and asked: “Think there’s a story you could make from this?” That’s what starts the creative process, heats up the creative juices at their core. Think what might happen if you flipped the platter over and found a silversmith’s mark and some scratched note of prior ownership by a Jewish family lost to the Holocaust. How did it get into your great aunt’s silver collection? Now you might have something to work with.
In short, the best prompts leave 99 percent of the effort to the writer.
Setting, which the above prompt deals with, is the environment where characters interact, and the action takes place. It can help set the mood and define the characters. Think of Bogart in “The Treasure of Sierra Madre.” The place was not a character, but it shaped them and their actions. It’s the forces of nature that shape most characters in outside adventure stories, like the desert in “The Flight of the Phoenix.” The environment takes on certain aspects of an antagonist—promising certain death if the protagonists take no action—but the characters played by Jimmy Stewart and the other actors are what brings the story to life in the desert setting where they crashed. The characters interact with the challenges of their environment, and with each other’s conflicting personalities. Story needs conflict and conflict needs characters.
Characters drive story; place shapes and drives the characters. Place may well play a key role in a story, but unlikely will it ever rise to the level of being a character, and only rarely would you develop a character out of a setting (although arguably Dickens did); rather it’s where you place your character(s) to provide credibility to them and a location from which to tell their story and to help bring them alive through conflict. Story always needs a stage. Place is the stage.
Another sample from the “Writer’s Digest” article:
“Begin a story with the following setting: an abandoned city that is quiet and clean—but completely devoid of human life.”
Unless you’re talking androids or aliens, a story without human life, i.e., characters, has nowhere to go and it will get there fast. “The place was empty; stayed that way; the end.” The prompt might better serve as another exercise in writing a scene description. Use of the words “completely devoid” limit the potential for story. How about: “You’re left in a city, dead quiet and very clean, and at first seemingly void of human life.” See how the imagination is pricked and puts you at the edge of a scene with the details left to you? The promise of tension and conflict suddenly appears, especially if it’s starting to get dark and silly you have nothing but a cell phone with a dead battery and a tire iron you discovered on the ground two blocks back next to an abandoned automobile with its flat tire unchanged.
Writer prompts tend to spoon-feed story ideas as opposed to giving a writer something to chew on and process. The creative process starts with a grain that is expanded into a boulder by a writer adding layers of detail. The creative brain is capable of gleaning a speck from a pile of observations and thoughts and then polishing it with a mixture of who, what, when, where, why and how. A word, a sight, or sound, or smell gets the brain’s creative juices flowing. That is the difference between completing somebody else’s idea and coming up with an original one of your own. Writer’s block likely is not cured by doing such exercises, whether one or 50, but by getting a little closer to the fundamentals of the writing process and practicing their application.
Here’s a list you can sink your literary teeth into—Kurt Vonnegut’s eight tips on how to write a great story. Vonnegut doesn’t spoon-feed story ideas, but instead reminds you of the key elements that make for a good story. Note how most of them relate to character:
1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
3. Every character should want something, even it is only a glass of water.
4. Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.
5. Start as close to the end as possible.
6. Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.
The last paragraph creates an interesting visual, but I’m not sure I totally agree with Vonnegut’s view on suspense. I think readers love it as much as they love trying to figure out the who in a who done it. Agatha Christie likely would have been in total disagreement with Vonnegut on this count. But what Vonnegut’s list does is leave to the writer the application of these structural concepts to the germ of a story. That’s like putting oil in an engine with an empty crankcase. It will start and run considerably longer with lubrication.
Now for a set of lists that can truly help a writer prime his or her pump because they make you think like a writer. They’re in Ronald B. Tobias’ book 20 Master Plots. Tobias doesn’t deliver specific story ideas but instead identifies features of various types of plot structures that he posits are the bases of all stories.
Mr. Tobias’ book will not teach you how to write, but will give you opportunities to discover the tools that will help you become a better writer. He merely reminds us of the basic ingredients of story that have been with us since the Iliad and the Odyssey. His book is a guide for the newer writer and a review of key basic literary concepts for the more experienced one. Each list is like the jar of water Desert Pete left to prime the old pump. Tobias classifies basic plots and then discusses the elements that distinguish them. What a cool relief.
Take just one of those people walking by you as you sit there on the stoop. What’s his or her story? With Tobias’s lists you minimally have at least twenty times twenty, times nineteen, and so on of potential plots. Put rescue (4) with love (14) and mix in a little underdog (9) and you have the ingredients to create something uniquely yours.
What Mr. Tobias has done is not just thrown together a list of meaningless and narrowly scoped scenes to write or respond to, but gives you real prompts that you can run with in endless directions. Take the rescue plot (#4). In this chapter he discusses the protagonist, antagonist, victim, and structure. His checklist includes:
1. The rescue plot relies more on action than on development of characterization.
2. Your character triangle should consist of a hero, a villain and a victim. The hero should rescue the victim from the villain.
3. The moral argument of the rescue plot tends to be black and white.
4. The focus of your story should be on the hero’s pursuit of the villain.
5. Your hero should go out into the world to pursue the villain, and usually must contend with the villain on the villain’s turf.
6. Your hero should be defined by her relationship with the villain.
7. Use your antagonist as a device whose purpose is to deprive the hero of what he believes is rightfully his.
8. Make sure the antagonist constantly interfaces with the hero’s progress.
9. The victim is generally the weakest of the three characters and serves mainly as a mechanism to force the hero to confront the antagonist.
10. Develop the three dramatic phases of separation, pursuit, and confrontation and reunion.
As you read his list, lots of fuzzy images of stories should have sparked to life in your mind. Tobias didn’t feed you a story idea; he primed your literary pump. However, were you to follow his listed suggestions too strictly, you might end up writing something that comes across as a bit hackneyed or worn and tired and way too familiar with the dozens of TV shows that follow this basic plotting. That is why such lists are of greatest value, not for what they tell you to do, but for giving you the basic rules to creatively bend and break in order to write something uniquely yours. That process should unblock most mental intestinal obstructions.
Let’s play. You’re sitting on your stoop, watching people go by and you spot this incredibly beautiful girl coming up the walk. (Flip the genders if you want.) That’s it.
Now stir in a few options. She’s not from the neighborhood. You fall instantly in love. Then you notice she’s walking a bit faster than the others around her, and she’s constantly glancing over her shoulder. You get this silly notion that maybe somebody bad is pursuing her and you slip into your Walter Mitty mode and instantly imagine yourself rescuing her. Suddenly she’s there, in front of you. She looks down the street in the direction from where she came, quickly sheds her jacket and shoves it into the bag she’s carrying and from which she pulls a battered cap that she slips on her head and tucks her beautiful auburn hair under and out of sight. You’re mesmerized. She’s staring at you. Why? She glances down the street again and the next thing you know she’s sitting next to you on the step, closing the gap between you as she slips her bag behind the two of you. She leans in and says, “Kiss me. Kiss me like you mean it.” What’s a guy to do? So you follow her instructions. Her lips are soft . . . delectable. You peek and catch her glimpsing down the street and when you go to look she pulls your face back. “Can I trust you?” she whispers. “What?” you respond dumfounded, lost in the emotions ignited by the kiss. “Can I trust you?” What can you say? “I guess so,” you respond. “You live here?” You nod. “Let’s go inside.” The next thing you know you are running up the stairs. You start to say, “My apartment in on the fourth . . .” but she yells “Roof.” “Keep going,” you respond, breathlessly by now racing up the stairs after her. Two shots ring out and something whizzes past your right ear and splinters the baluster ahead of you and another whizzes by your left ear and plows into the riser two steps up. You hesitate. “Don’t stop!” she yells. Suddenly there you are, crashing open the roof access door. You spill out onto the roof. She pulls you in the direction of the front of the building, spins and drops to her knees. The pursuer, dressed in a (insert a description here) charges through the door and you hear two pops and see two red blotches form on the his chest and you can hear the sickening sound of the bullets as they plow through his body and he falls forward and face down, hard, into the gravel, gun in hand. “What the hell!” you stammer, but she’s ignoring you as she glances over the edge, her own smoking gun in hand. “They usually come in pairs.” Gasp!
How many different alternatives lie ahead from this point forward? Who is going to be the protagonist, the antagonist, the victim(s)? What’s the plot?
Let’s follow along a bit farther:
“This way,” you hear yourself yelling, surprised that you suddenly have the courage to assume take charge. You pull her in the direction of the far left backside of the roof. “Can you jump very far?”
“Track star,” she says, as she looks at the six-foot gap between yours and the neighboring building’s roof. “You?”
“Firefighter,” you say.
You both back up and run at the edge of the roof, just as the sound of the crashing access door reaches your ears.
Just a few additional facts have added clarity, but you, the reader, is hooked, and want more, not because the plot is predictable, but because it is unpredictable. You’re not being fed pabulum but something hot and spicy. It’s character driven and pulls you in. At this point, how important is details about the scene? Not much. The neighborhood, your stoop, the stairs, the roof and that gap between the buildings are vivid in your imagination. You have taken Mr. Tobias’ checklist and started making your own way just by using a few of his plot concepts. You have poured the jar of water down your well and you’re pumping like hell.
Left open is whether the story works best in the first, second or third person format. There are names and places and explanations to write and a plot to develop and follow, but the mental doors have opened to other hallways and alleys to follow. The seed has sprouted and is ready for you to nurse into full bloom. Narrow writing prompts, like composition assignments, don’t often let you do that. But that is precisely what writers must do. Blow up the world, follow the shrapnel and fragments. Writers construct, contemplate, act, and react. They reconstruct, re-contemplate, and explore alternative actions. The writer’s brain does this best when set free from the confines of some narrow and meaningless, predesigned and predigested directives. The best prompts give the writer a seed, not a potted plant.
So is there such a thing as writer’s block or is it mostly a product of misunderstanding of how the creative mind works and what it needs to open its flow? Writer’s block just might be the symptom of a constipated mind? You know what they say is the best cure for constipation. Fluid and exercise. You can pour the jar down the well and pump harder or use it to wash down some Excedrin for Writer’s Block.