Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Blocking Manoeuvre

Ok, here I go, being contrary again. This post isn't really about NaNoWriMo, but I wanted to discuss one of the techniques they advocate, the so-called Plot Ninja. The idea of this is that you introduce some bizarre event to your story - such as the characters being attacked by ninjas - that unblocks your writing and spins you off in another direction. And I guess that when you're on such a tight schedule, it's necessary to come up with radical ways of getting words down on the page, even if they do result in a subplot that you're bound to delete in the second draft. Because writers' blocks are always bad.

Aren't they?

What if there were certain situations in which a writer's block could actually be a positive thing? I know that sounds counterintuitive to anyone currently trapped in one, but bear with me for a minute here.

I think there are a number of things that cause writer's block, and they can happen singularly or in combination.
  1. Fear and Doubt - This is the most debilitating kind of block, the one where your brain tells you that you can never write a word of even mediocre quality ever again. I get these a lot! And perhaps the Plot Ninja can help here, like 200 joules to the chest. But I also wonder about the deeper meaning of these kind of blocks and what they say about me as a person. Isn't the crippling self-doubt about more than just writing? Anyway, I'm working on this one and maybe I have the block to thank for alerting me to it.

  2. Plot Snafu - This one is where you somehow drive the plot into a corner and have literally nowhere to go. The old locked-room mystery, except you don't have a key or anywhere you can get one cut. One way to get out of this kind of block is to back up and try a different route, but sometimes the way you've steered the plot is so perfect, except for that pesky problem of where to go next. What's interesting about this one, is that some writers deliberately paint themselves into a corner as a plot technique - the Farrelly Brothers (of There's Something About Mary fame), for instance. Here's a quote by Peter Farrelly from William Goldman's excellent screenwriting book Which Lie Did I Tell:
    If we can go into a corner where there's no way out, and then we take a week or a few days or a month even, and find a reasonable way out without making it absurd, then nobody in the audience is going to sit there and get it within a minute and get ahead of us.
  3. Boredom - Actually, this one's pretty bad too. I've gone over my novel so many times that I'm starting to get bored of it, which is of course no fun for me or the reader. I certainly can't unleash a Plot Ninja, because I'm writing to a deadline and I've agreed the whole plot with my editor. So what is this kind of block trying to tell me? My interpretation is that it's about innovating with the small things, the clever turns of phrase or dialogue, deepening the characters and making them really breathe. With so many excellent books out there looking for a publisher, it's only by being unique and eye-catching that my work can stand out. Of course, achieving that may be a different matter...


  1. I thought I didn't have WB until today, when I had the sensation while writing of walking up a steep hill, carrying a heavy load, in the wrong direction. Instead of trying to fight through this, I had a lightbulb moment. I realised writer's block was a good thing, as you suggest, as it was telling me something was not working!
    Thanks for your post!

  2. I can't think that plot ninjas do anything other than steer the plot way off course? I always used to think writer's block didn't exist; that it was more writer's avoidance. But perhaps I fall into category 2. I've come to realise that when the words won't come, it's because the plot needs more work and often if I go back a revise, I can move forward.