There will be times when, as a writer, you have all the ideas you could wish for, you know where our story is going and you know what you want to say… yet suddenly you find yourself stuck and can’t go forward. It could be something simple, such as the completion of an idea, a question of dialogue or narrative.
I liken it to seeing your way across a very muddy field; you can make out the gate on the other side, but there’s no clear path for you to follow.
Sooner or later this happens to everyone, whatever their experience. Don’t panic. Some people can literally write their way out of it, ploughing forward through sheer doggedness. Others aren’t so lucky and have to sit and think their way clear of the jam. But there is another way, although to the new writer it might at first seem illogical.
You will often read of experienced writers quoting something like: ‘Tell the story. Don’t worry about the detail.’ This follows the belief that trying to put in all the colour and detail of a story as you go simply slows you down, and it's better to go back later to flesh things out and complete whatever editing may be necessary.
It sounds simple enough, and there’s a lot of practical sense to it. It’s what we do as writers, isn’t it? We tell the story. And like any story, we start at the beginning and plod on until we reach the end. QED, as my old maths master used to say. Quite easily done.
But let us assume you've reached a point in your writing where you have a clear idea of the general plot; you may have sketched out in your mind the next couple of chapters or scenes, but suddenly you’re struggling to put down the next move. Every time you begin to write, you dry up, at a loss for the next piece of action or dialogue.
This is where the ‘Tell the story’ bit comes in. And, like crossing a muddy field, you either work your way round an obstacle or you jump over it.
Let’s go for the second option, if only because working our way round a large muddy patch takes too long. Jumping over is far more direct.
But where’s the logic to this, you might say? Surely we’ll lose the thread. How can we keep the sense of the piece unless we take each step in order, as it happens? Isn’t that how we’re supposed to write?
Well, not really. Nobody ever said you have to write in strict chronological or sequential order. Sure, it’s nice if you can, but not always feasible.
By jumping ahead, you're diverting your mind away from a sticking point (the muddy patch) and concentrating on something where your thinking (the ground on the other side) may be a lot clearer.
Let us assume for a second that the sticking point is a scene where your central character (X) has discovered a body. The plan dictated that X, being a resourceful lone hero, will expose the killer sooner or later through the careful uncovering of clues. But, for reasons of dramatic tension, you don’t want that to happen yet. Does X go to the police with his discovery (thereby being a wimp and shortening the story)? Does he study the scene and uncover the clues? Does he run? Call a friend? Ask the audience? Have a cup of tea and a sticky bun? What?
Rather than staring helplessly across your muddy field, why not jump ahead and worry about it later? This is writing - you’re allowed to do what you want, as long as it gets the job done.
Think ahead. You may, for example, have in mind a later scene where X is interviewed by the police and accused of the murder. This will be a powerful scene, full of tension and verbal interplay. You are relishing creating the strong characters to match the situation, with the possible outcome for X looking bleak until you spring the way out.
So why not write this scene instead? This is part of the ‘Tell the story’ advice. You’d planned on the police interview, anyway, so instead of fretting over a part of the plot you can’t quite visualise, concentrate on a more vivid - but just as important - piece instead. Be careful, of course, not to introduce changes of timing, location or detail which may impact on the earlier passage.
Once you step back from a writing problem, it’s surprising how often you find that it ceases to be one. Then you can return with a fresh mind-set to the scene you had been struggling with before.
You might find this method of writing-in-reverse springs other ideas and plot-lines. If it also brings an added twist or surprise to your writing… well, if it surprises you, think what it will do for the reader.
TOP TIPS· Treat each obstacle as a challenge to overcome.
· Gloss over a sticky patch – you can always come back to it later.
· Write something you can see, rather than struggling with something you can't.
· Concentrate on writing something – anything – and new ideas will emerge.
Originally published in Writing Magazine, this article also appears in 'Write On! - The Writer's Help Book' - available in paperback and ebook: