Killing Characters (The Right Way)

Have you ever read a book where an important character died, and you felt completely crushed by that death, as though you had lost someone real? Now, have you ever read the death of a character and felt…nothing? The big build-up led to that moment, and you just couldn’t muster anything but indifference?

Killing characters is in vogue these days, but there are good reasons and bad reasons to do it. When characters die in service to the story, the impact can be huge. It can be a moment that your readers will remember forever. When characters die for the wrong reasons, you’ll be lucky if your reader only feels indifference and not outright irritation.

The Wrong Reasons

There are plenty of questionable justifications for charactericide. Let’s start with a few reasons to not kill your characters.

First — to “spice up” the story, or make it more edgy. Some authors assume that adding more sex or violence automatically makes their story more mature. But just because it contains “mature content” doesn’t automatically make it better. In fact gratuitous mature content that’s not integral to the story can easily come off as juvenile.

Second — to show that your villain is evil. Don’t get me wrong, a villain killing key characters as they advance their agenda can be important story beats. The problem is more when murder is used as a substitute for characterization. Does the villain kill for a reason? Do they have a personality beyond “that crazy guy who’s always indiscriminately killing?” If not, you may end up with a dangerous character who still manages to be flat and uninteresting.

Finally — to make your life, as the author, easier. You may find yourself deep in the slog of the second act, absolutely despising one of your characters. Maybe their personality developed in a really annoying way. Maybe they just want to do things that push the story in a direction you don’t want to go. It’s tempting to just “get rid” of them. But that doesn’t really solve the problem. Chances are, that character didn’t get a nice, meaningful arc.

What you really have to do is decide if you want to keep that character at all. Maybe they don’t belong in this particular book. They might need a big personality adjustment. Fix the character, adjust the plot, or pull them out of the story. It’s a bad idea to just knock a character dead in a random spot, even if it might be cathartic for the author.

With those out of the way, let’s talk about some good reasons to kill a character.

An Inciting Incident

At the root of each story is an inciting incident. This is the moment when the protagonist’s world changes. It’s the moment that introduces the major conflict or tension that will drive the story. You can be sure that your protagonist losing someone close to them will turn their world upside down and throw them into conflict.

As a well-worn example, look at the beginning of Star Wars. Luke Skywalker’s old life is over when his aunt and uncle are killed and his home is burned down by the Empire. He has nothing left to tie him to his former home, and he has a whole new reason to want to fight the Empire, something he was already considering.

This kind of character death isn’t without dangers. To be an effective inciting incident, it has to happen early. That means the reader is still getting to know your protagonist, and they’re very unlikely to have any strong feelings toward the character(s) you’re killing off. They need to see how those deaths hurt your protagonist, but their empathy is naturally going to be limited. Even among crazed Star Wars fans, you’ll be hard-pressed to find someone who really loves Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru.

Developing a Character

The middle of a story may be the most interesting time to kill off a character. The reader has had a good amount of time to learn about your characters, to understand them, and to empathize with them. The middle of the story is also when you’re deep into the conflicts and tension that drive the story. That dead character is going to leave others behind, and their death can and should influence how the remaining characters move forward.

The death of one character may reveal more about another character who lives. In Ender’s Game, we discover two-thirds of the way through the book that the protagonist has killed two people. We watched him fight those people, but never knew the outcomes. Ender himself isn’t told that he has killed, because the people manipulating him know that the knowledge might destroy him. As readers, we understand that he doesn’t want to be a killer. He hates the very idea. But people around him have learned how to manipulate him into killing, for their own purposes.

Sometimes, death reveals more about a why a character is the way they are. Sometimes, it shows just what they’re willing to do. In the Hellblazer comics, John Constantine watches the people close to him die. People he trusts and loves. He learns that letting people get close is dangerous. It leads to pain. That’s why he does his best to be a sarcastic asshole: so he can hold everyone important at a safe distance — for them, and for himself. But, of course, he doesn’t always succeed. People get close, and suffer the consequences.

John Constantine is a complicated character though. He’s far from the typical goody-two-shoes superhero. In fact, he’s often the anti-hero, and perhaps occasionally the villain. He kills. Sometimes for the right reasons, sometimes for his own selfish reasons. Sometimes because he just doesn’t care. He can be cruel and manipulative as much as he can be soft-hearted.

Sometimes, death can reveal secrets. Perhaps the dead character has been hiding things, and those secrets can only come out once that character is no longer there to protect them. One character killing another may also reveal an animosity that was kept under wraps. In The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains, we believe that the protagonist is seeking treasure and riches. It is only when he ends up in a fight to the death with the other major character that his true intentions are revealed. Little bits of carefully parceled back-story take on entirely new meaning as the twist unfolds.

Resolving an Arc

If the middle of the story is the most complicated time to kill a character, the end of the story is probably the simplest, although it’s not without its challenges. The end of the story is when the reader knows the most about your characters. They ‘ve been with them, through thick and thin. They empathize with the good guys, and they’re hoping against hope that the bad guys will lose.

In a traditional tragedy, the hero dies at the end. Their mistakes or failures catch up with them. They may go down swinging, or they may realize the error of their ways. In a more modern take, the hero may save the day, but sacrifice themselves in the process. No matter what leads to their death, it should mean something. Back in our Star-Wars example, Darth Vader is an exemplar of this. He is an important villain throughout the original Star Wars trilogy, and only at the very end does he realize his true feelings, saving the day and his son.

Of course, many villains think they’re in the right all the way to the end. They go down swinging. But their death typically ends the main conflict, and often resolves one or more characters’ arcs. These other characters probably have strong feelings about this, to be explored before bringing the story to a close.

The Takeaway

When you feel tempted to kill a character, ask what it accomplishes. How does it affect the characters who are left behind? Does it move the story forward?

Put yourself in the shoes of your reader. Will they be excited? Heartbroken? Or bored and irritated? It’s surprisingly easy to kill a character. What’s hard is killing them the right way.

Writing Microfiction

I’ve been feeling the itch to write short fiction lately. It’s something I haven’t done much in the last couple years. I don’t really have the bandwidth to work on another novel alongside Razor Mountain, so something shorter was really appealing.

I came up with a little project: an anthology of micro-fiction. Not just flash fiction (usually 1500 words or less). Not even a drabble (exactly 100 words).

It’s obvious what short-form writing actually defines our modern age: Twitter. Since 2018, each tweet provides a whopping 280 characters to work with. In my experience, that’s about 45 words, depending on your punctuation, white space and trendy hashtags. Is it even possible to write a coherent or interesting story in that tiny space?

Well, I tried the experiment. I wrote twenty-one micro-stories. I’ll let you judge whether the experiment was a success or failure. Every day for the next couple weeks, I’m going to tweet a new micro-story on @DeferredWords. I’ll also collect them into mid-week posts here on the blog.

What’s the Point?

Why bother doing this? The simple answer is “for fun, to see if I could.” It helped rev up my short story brain after a bit of a hiatus. But I was also hoping to learn something in the process. In fact, I learned a few things.

Don’t Be Precious

When you’ve written a story that’s barely a story and you need to trim ten more letters to get below your limit, you are forced to trim things that feel essential. That adjective or adverb feels so good, but is it really needed? What about those commas? Do you really need any articles, ever? Maybe that seven-letter name should be a three-letter name.

The limit is harsh, and it demands harsh sacrifices. I went through this exercise over and over again, and it turned out that the story was often better when I rewrote it around that one or two word edit. It made me think harder about the cuts I should be making in longer projects.

The Barest Bones of a Story

I keep long lists of little brainstorming ideas, which gave me lots of fodder for micro-fiction. When you actually try to write an idea out as the smallest possible story, it becomes apparent very quickly whether an idea has “good bones,” or just a setting or character without arc or resolution. This is a really good exercise to go through for a short story or novel idea, to prove that the concept is solid and to nail down the core of the story.

Form Follows Function

When I started writing these micro-stories, I assumed that any authorial voice would fly right out the window. In some ways, it does. I definitely had stories with phrases that I really liked but had to throw away, because they wouldn’t work in these tight constraints. However, as I wrote and revised more stories, I discovered that even in 45 words, there is space for humor, weirdness, and sometimes even an extra word here or there to achieve a particular effect. Voice is the sum of the choices you make within your chosen constraints.

Variety is Valuable

I’m a firm believer that every story, every book, every writing project teaches you something. As authors, everything we write is influenced by what we wrote before it, and what we learned along the way.

Granted, you can only learn so much from a tweet-length story, but I was able to write a lot of these in the amount of time it would have taken to write one “proper” short story. Each little story with its own fun. Each with its own challenges.

Join In

You can get in on the fun too. Try writing a micro-story in 280 characters. All you need is a little idea. No outline. Put it out on Twitter, possibly with #microfiction. Ping me or send me a DM. Let me know if you learned anything interesting.

Learning from Great Hooks

The “hook” is the opening of a story: the handful of sentences where a reader is willing to completely suspend judgement and open themselves up to a new world. It’s called a hook because it’s the author’s opportunity to reel the reader in. To grab hold of them and refuse to let them go until the story is done.

Hooks are among the most daunting things to write. A hook needs to pull the reader in, but it’s also a promise of what’s to come. If the hook captures the reader’s interest, but does it in a way that’s at-odds with the rest of the story, it will feel like a betrayal. A bait-and-switch.

Today, I want to look at hooks from a few books I like and see what I can learn from them. How are they structured? As a reader, how do these introductory sentences pull me in? What do they promise about the story to come?

Travel Light, by Naomi Mitchison

It is said that when the new Queen saw the old Queen’s baby daughter, she told the King that the brat must be got rid of at once. And the King, who by now had almost forgotten the old Queen and had scarcely looked at the baby, agreed and thought no more about it. And that would have been the end of that baby girl, but that her nurse, Matulli, came to hear of it. Now this nurse was from Finmark, and, like many another from thereabouts, was apt to take on the shape of an animal from time to time. So she turned herself into a black bear then and there, and picked up the baby in her mouth, blanket and all, and growled her way out of the Bower at the back of the King’s hall, and padded out through the light spring snow that had melted already hear the hall, and through the birch woods and the pine woods into the deep dark woods where the rest of the bears were waking up from their winter sleep.

This lovely rush of words is only five sentences. Most of them start with conjunctions, making it feel like one long, breathless run. So much is happening.

It’s clear from the first few words that this is going to be a fairy tale, and that’s further confirmed when we see that being able to turn into an animal is treated as no particularly impressive feat. We can also tell that this is no light and fluffy fairy tale. It begins with the almost casual cruelty of the king and queen.

This opening also makes it clear that this girl is the protagonist, and she will not be living a normal life. In this single paragraph, we see her lose her birthright, saved by a bear-woman and brought to live in the woods. It’s hard not to be curious about what will happen next.

The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains, by Neil Gaiman

You ask me if I can forgive myself? I can forgive myself for many things. For where I left him. For what I did. But I will not forgive myself for the year that I hated my daughter, when I believed her to have run away, perhaps to the city. During that year I forbade her name to be mentioned, and if her name entered my prayers when I prayed, it was to ask that she would one day learn the meaning of what she had done, of the dishonour that she had brought to my family, of the red that ringed her mother’s eyes.

I hate myself for that, and nothing will ease that, not even what happened that night, on the side of the mountain.

This opening starts in the second person, drawing the reader in by including them in what seems to be conversation in progress. A conversation with us.

We start with a few fragmented sentences, already waist-deep in mysteries. Where did you leave him? Who is he? What did you do? The daughter clearly didn’t run away to the city, so what happened to her?

The viewpoint character is already being defined here. He’s someone with strong emotions – a fierce temper that more or less caused him to disown his daughter, and his shame when he discovers this still unexplained truth of what really happened to her.

Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card

“I’ve watched through his eyes, I’ve listened through his ears, and I tell you he’s the one. Or at least as close as we’re going to get.”

“That’s what you said about the brother.”

“The brother tested out impossible. For other reasons. Nothing to do with his ability.”

“Same with the sister. And there are doubts about him. He’s too malleable. Too willing to submerge himself in someone else’s will.”

“Not if the other person is his enemy.”

“So what do we do? Surround him with enemies all the time?”

“If we have to.”

“I thought you said you liked this kid.”

“If the buggers get him, they’ll make me look like his favorite uncle.”

“All right. We’re saving the world, after all. Take him.”

Starting with dialogue puts us in the action immediately. It also tells us that whoever these two disembodied voices are talking about is probably important to the story. Dialogue like this, without tags attributing it to a character, is a dangerous choice because it can be disorienting to the reader. In this case, it works because we don’t have to care about these two speakers, only the information they’re conveying really matters.

The first sentence sounds like standard Messiah fare, but it’s immediately subverted. We understand that the target of this discussion is being observed and tested (in a very invasive way), and his brother and sister were subjected to this treatment as well. These voices are willing to be cruel to him if it’s required to make him into this messianic figure and save the world. The stakes of the story are already being established on the first page.

There is a little mystery here as well. What are the buggers, and why does the world need to be saved?

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams

Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun.

Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-eight million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue-green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.

This planet has — or rather had — a problem, which was this: most of the people living on it were unhappy for pretty much of the time. Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were largely concerned with the movements of small green pieces of paper, which is odd because on the whole it wasn’t the small green pieces of paper that were unhappy.

It goes on like this for another page and a half of prologue, which meanders right into the first chapter. I found it hard to pick a cut-off point.

To me, this is the most interesting example we’ll look at today. It doesn’t introduce any of the main characters, or anything about the situation or setting (beyond Earth in general).

It does tell us that it’s science fiction, it’s not going to take itself seriously, and it’s going to be looking at everything from a rather skewed and unexpected viewpoint. In fact, what it’s really introducing is the the author’s incredibly distinctive voice and tone. If you’ve read Douglas Adams, you’ll know that his narrative voice is almost a character in its own right (even if it isn’t from an actual character’s perspective). This series includes plenty of chapter-length digressions and asides, and is undoubtedly better for it.

In short, the story can afford to wait a bit, because it’s so damn entertaining to just listen to what Adams has to say.

Give it a Try!

I’d encourage every writer to do this exercise with some favorite books. One of the wonderful things you’ll discover is the sheer variety of forms that a hook can take. You don’t need to feel forced into a formula — there are a plethora of ways to pull readers into a story. By analyzing the hooks of stories you love, you might discover some great ideas you can apply to your own stories.

Cliffhangers, Resolutions, and Tension

Last time, I discussed conflict as the engine that drives a story forward. Conflict is one of the primary ways to create tension in a story.

Tension not only makes the reader want to find out what happens next, it is a valuable tool to direct pacing — how fast or slow the story feels.

Chapters Follow Tension

We are so used to seeing chapters that it’s easy to just accept them as the normal unit of construction for a novel. However, chapters are a choice. Some books eschew them entirely. The reason that they’re so common is that they’re useful for breaking the story into discrete sections.

The length of chapters can influence pacing, with shorter chapters tending to feel faster, and longer chapters tending to feel slower. However, it’s a little more complicated than that, and the complication has to do with tension.

Tension ebbs and flows throughout a story, and tends to follow an arc. The conflict, mystery, or other source of tension is introduced, then the tension increases to a peak where it is most problematic or concerning to the characters. Finally, the tension proceeds to a resolution where it stops being relevant.

Chapters tend to feel like good units of story when they follow one of these arcs of tension.

Resolutions or Cliffhangers?

Looking at the way tension ramps up and down, an obvious chapter structure is to start with the introduction of a source of tension and end with its resolution.  This structure provides a feeling of satisfaction and completeness. It makes the chapter feel like a little self-contained story within the larger narrative.

An alternate structure utilizes cliffhangers. A chapter with a cliffhanger ends at the peak of the arc of tension. This is a critical moment when the characters are really struggling, and there is no resolution yet in sight.

If several cliffhanger chapters follow one after another, it results in a structure where the chapters are offset against the tension. The middle of the chapter is where arcs start and end, and the end of the chapter is where the tension peaks.

Ending a chapter on a cliffhanger like this creates the maximum impetus to the reader to keep reading. This style of chapter is often used in fast-paced thrillers to achieve that heightened feeling of action and suspense.

Balance

Pacing is a tricky thing. A novel that is constantly high-tension or continually escalating tension can wear the reader out, to the point that they become inured or annoyed with the continuously high stakes. There are a variety of tropes (this, that, the other, etc.) to describe this kind of narrative, and there are a lot of potential pitfalls.

One of the ways to add variety to the narrative, and to even out the tension is to alternate between fast- and slow-paced sections. A  fast-paced chapter that ends in a cliffhanger could be followed by a chapter that ends with resolution. You may also choose to increase or decrease the tension within a sequence of chapters to follow larger arcs in the story.

With multiple characters or sources of tension, different arcs can be interleaved. One arc can be ramping up as another is resolving. Of course, this adds complexity as all the different elements play off each other.

Cliffhangers and Consequences

Tension plays a major role in pacing, and the structure of chapters is closely related to that. When sections feel too fast or slow, adjusting chapter breaks or the arcs of tension within chapters can help. Tension in each chapter also contributes to the larger arcs of the story.

It may feel comfortable to always end your chapters with a clean resolution, or always go for the cliffhanger, but it’s worth understanding both options and keeping them as tools in your writer’s toolbox. The choice to end a chapter on a cliffhanger or a resolution is a relatively small one, but the consequences go beyond that chapter, across the rest of the story.

Types of Conflict in Fiction

Read any book about writing fiction, and it will probably have something to say about conflict. Conflict is the engine that drives characters to action, and it’s the force that drives readers to keep turning pages in order to find out what happens next. When a story lacks forward momentum, or it feels like the characters are being pushed around by the plot rather than pushing their own agendas, I find that it’s often due to a lack of conflict.

Conflict provides two vital services. First, it makes outcomes uncertain. Characters aren’t going to get what they want easily. They’re going to face hardship. The reader doesn’t know what will happen next. Second, it lets the reader gain a stake in the outcome and invest in the story. As social creatures, we naturally form bonds, even with fictional characters. We will latch onto a character and root for them to win. We will worry if it looks like they won’t succeed, and we’ll share in their joy when they do. We will empathize with them.

Mechanics of Conflict

Despite all of the attention conflict gets as a vital component of a story’s plot, the actual mechanics of creating conflict are frequently glossed over. How does an author create conflict and use it to drive the story?

If you do a quick search for “types of conflict,” you’ll see lists of varying sizes. Are there eight types of conflict? Four? Five? This is one of those topics where you can split hairs as much or as little as you like. The categorizations are somewhat arbitrary. For this article, I’m going to discuss three broad types of conflict, and some ways they can be implemented.

  1. Antagonistic Conflict, or character vs. character
  2. Internal Conflict, or character vs. self
  3. Situational Conflict, or character vs. nature/fate/God

Antagonistic conflict is when characters conflict with one another. As the name suggests, this often takes the form of a protagonist and an antagonist. This form of conflict has the advantage that the conflict is fully embodied in the characters. Many readers love a villain they can root against as much as they want a hero they can root for.

Internal conflict is when a character is uncertain or conflicted about what to think, say, or do. This can be more challenging to depict in a dramatic way, since the conflict is really inside the character’s head. The inner conflict often needs to be “externalized” as dialogue or action to really be understandable and compelling.

Situational conflict provides some external force for the character to fight against. The danger with this type of conflict is that the force is too amorphous or lacks the personality of an antagonist. Some authors would suggest that the situation or force is an antagonist, but I personally don’t feel obligated to personify something like a natural disaster.

It’s important to understand that these different types of conflicts can and do overlap. A character may have the situational conflict of being in prison for a crime they didn’t commit, overlapping antagonistic conflicts with the warden, guards, or other inmates.

Examples

From these three types of conflict, let’s dig down into some common examples. Try to correlate these examples to some experience you’ve had in your own life. We may not encounter such extreme conflicts as we see sometimes in fiction, but we all experience challenges. It’s often easier to understand and write these situations by relating our own, everyday conflicts to those of our characters.

Character wants or needs something that’s hard to get.

I like to think of this as a sort of default conflict for any character. We all have things we want and need, and some of those desires will be unfulfilled. Goals are simply wanting something and taking action to get it.

This basic conflict could describe a heist to steal some valuable artifact, or a romance where one character seeks to win over another.

Several characters want something they can’t all have.

This is almost always antagonistic conflict, pitting characters against one another for something each one wants. It can sometimes be connected to an internal conflict, where one of the characters decides that they don’t actually want to compete for a shallow goal, and turns to a more deeply fulfilling goal.

Examples of this are coworkers competing for a promotion, or a love triangle where two characters compete for the affection of a third. It could also take the form of a Hunger Games-style battle for survival.

Character wants two incompatible things.

This is usually an internal conflict. The character has two or more mutually exclusive desires. Usually this comes down to a choice, where the character has to pick one thing and let go of the others. Sometimes it may turn out to be a false dichotomy, and they manage to figure out a way to get everything. It might put the character in a position where their survival depends on violating their moral convictions or beliefs. They can stay true to themselves to the bitter end, or give something up to fight another day.

Examples include the workaholic who has to decide between wealth and success in business and a fulfilling family life; or a teen whose divorced parents move apart figuratively and literally, leaving her wondering where and how to live her life.

Character’s core belief is challenged.

This is often situational and internal conflict. An event or situation forces the character to rethink something vital to their personality.

The classic example of this is the priest who has a crisis of faith. It could also be the hotshot surgeon who gives up medicine after an important surgery goes awry. It might even be the parent whose child commits some offense that puts them at odds with the rest of the family.

Characters with incompatible personalities are forced to work together.

This tends to be mostly antagonistic, as different personalities butt heads, but you may also have situational elements pushing together people who would otherwise stay far away from each other.

This style of conflict is the basis for some classic genres like the buddy cop story, and many romantic comedies where the couple hate each others’ guts…right up until they don’t.

And many more…

These are just a few patterns of conflict. To discover more, a good exercise is to go through some of your favorite books, movies and TV shows, and try to briefly summarize every conflict you can spot.

Driving the Story

We’ve covered these three types of conflict — antagonistic, internal, and situational. We’ve skimmed the surface of how they can be deployed among characters. What good is it? If conflict is a tool, what do we want to achieve with it?

Conflict springs from the wants and needs of characters. It drives them to action, advancing the plot. It keeps the reader invested and gives them a means to measure the success or failure of the characters.

A short story may only have a single conflict that drives it, but longer forms tend to deploy multiple conflicts throughout the story. A series of conflicts may be chained together sequentially, but they can also overlap across different time scales.

In The Lord of the Rings, the ultimate conflict is the Fellowship and their allies against Sauron and his armies. They need to destroy the Ring of Power before Sauron’s forces march across Middle-Earth.

Within that vast conflict, there are dozens of smaller conflicts that play out within and across chapters. The hobbits hiding from the Black Riders on the road to Bree. The battles for Helm’s Deep and Gondor. The interplay of Sam, Frodo, and Gollum as Sam tries to protect his master, Frodo tries to reform Gollum, and Gollum schemes to steal the ring for himself.

Similarly, if you look at most modern episodic TV dramas, you’ll see some ongoing conflicts, perhaps across the entire run of the show. Then there will be smaller conflicts in each episode, across multiple episodes, and perhaps from season to season.

Chaining and overlapping conflicts in this way provides multiple threads to pull the reader along. Resolving smaller conflicts is also satisfying. There is a sense of closure, and of the story moving forward.

Resolving conflicts is also a central part of character arcs. An arc just tracks how a character changes over time, and resolving conflict inevitably makes characters change. If the character got what they wanted, then they’re no longer motivated to chase that thing. Perhaps they’ll pick a new goal. Similarly, if they failed in their quest, that will change their behavior. They might seek revenge, or turn toward a new goal.

The end of a conflict also often marks the end of a character’s involvement in a story. A beaten antagonist may be dead or irrelevant. A character who resolved their inner conflict may no longer be interesting for the plot to follow.

It’s also informative to look at where conflicts get resolved, and where new conflicts are created or ramped up. Looking at the example of buddy cop movies, you’ll often see that the conflict between cops is resolved just in time for them to work together to stop the real big antagonist. In those romantic comedies, the two leads frequently realize their true love around the end of Act II, only to have some additional complication come between them, providing the conflict to finish off the story.

Writing With Conflict

The next time you write a story, try doing a pass through it and noting all of the conflicts, the characters involved, and their resolutions. Look for chapters that feel weak, or characters that lack motivation. Is there enough conflict, and is it pushing the characters in the right directions? Is it resolved in a satisfying way? Does new conflict pick up the slack when other conflicts end?

Conflict is the engine that pushes a story forward. By evaluating stories as a series of conflicts, you’ll gain an amazing set of tools for creating action, suspense, and excitement.

Writing Lessons from Dungeons and Dragons

I recently wrapped up a Dungeons and Dragons campaign that I’ve been running for over a year. This is the longest that I’ve run a group, and it’s been a fun experience with a lot of lessons learned along the way.

Many of those lessons are specific to D&D and to table-top role-playing games in general, but I think there are a few that apply to writing fiction.

What’s this D&D Thing?

Even if you’ve never played Dungeons and Dragons, you may be at least vaguely familiar with it through the various ways it has popped into the broader cultural consciousness over the years: the 80s cartoon, the references in Stranger Things, or the myriad video games that draw from it directly or indirectly.

If you’re not familiar, D&D may seem obscure and confusing. It’s often portrayed in pop media as the sort of thing that obsessive nerds obsess over (and they certainly can be, on occasion). But these games really aren’t as cryptic or complicated as they’re often made out to be.

Dungeons and Dragons is the most popular table-top RPG. Table-top RPGs (or TTRPGs) are simply games where players collaborate to create a shared fiction, with rules. Depending on the game, the rules may be extremely complex or very simple. They may or may not have some element of chance — usually involving dice. Ultimately, a TTRPG is about creating a story with some friends.

Many TTRPGs have a special position: a player who runs or otherwise facilitates the game. In D&D, she’s called the “Dungeon Master,” in other games it’s often the “Game Master.” It’s often the responsibility of this person to provide the setting and the scenario, while the other players bring characters who will move about and interact in that scenario.

Now that we have a baseline understanding, I want to talk about what I learned playing these games that can be applied to writing fiction.

Lesson #1 — Give Your Audience What They Want

Dungeons and Dragons is typically played in Tolkien-esque high-fantasy settings, but there are other settings you can use, and TTRPGs in pretty much every genre. The campaign I just finished is called “Curse of Strahd,” and it’s based on classic monster horror: vampires, werewolves, witches, ghosts, and even a sort of Frankenstein’s monster.

However, it’s important to realize that genre goes beyond these “which-shelf-is-it-on” kind of classifications. In TTRPGs, many groups focus on combat and the rules-heavy play of slinging spells and swinging swords. But you can also craft scenarios where the players are solving mysteries, or perhaps socializing with the movers and shakers of the world, trying to convince them to take particular action. Some groups may be interested in romance or sex in their fiction (while others will be vehemently uninterested).

Of course, few groups want only one thing, like pure combat or nothing but puzzles or social encounters. Furthermore, each of your players are likely to have different preferences. You have to balance everyone’s needs and provide a variety of experiences to keep everyone happy.

For a game master, talking with your group of players and understanding what they want to get out of the game makes a big difference when trying to craft a setting and scenario that they’ll enjoy playing.

For an author, you have to know your audience. Know what you like, and make sure you’re writing something you enjoy. Beyond that, who are you writing for? Can you imagine an “ideal reader” of your story — the theoretical person for whom the story is perfect? Can you distill a small list of things that you’re trying to give your audience?

Lesson #2 — The World is Always in Motion

An RPG called Dungeon World introduced me to the idea of “fronts.” They’re like the story version of weather fronts — something that blows in periodically and ushers in change. Fronts are a way to keep track of the things that are happening in the background of a game world.

For example, maybe the players are content to hang out in a comfy town for a few days, carousing and spending their treasure. Meanwhile, you know that the northern kingdom is preparing to invade the southern kingdom, and the king of the dragons is awakening from his thousand-year sleep deep under the mountain.

In a TTRPG, you may be the game master, but you do not control the players or their characters. Still, the world around them is a living, breathing thing. Stuff happens, whether they’re involved or not. So when they take their week-long vacation, the northern kingdom may be marching their armies. Perhaps Dragon Peak erupts, and the great dragon king takes flight, turning green valleys and hamlets into scorched wasteland.

There is a cost to inaction. Further, there may be no “right” choice for your characters. If they do one thing, their inaction elsewhere will still have a cost.

In your fiction, your characters may not cooperate, just like those players in your table-top game. Characters have to have agency in the world and make choices in keeping with their personality. If characters are forced into a plot where they have to do things that they don’t “naturally” want to do, you end up with soap-opera plots where the characters are just dolls being shoved around in predestined sequences of events.

Sometimes this can work to your advantage. The character can ignore their noble destiny and go do what they want. The world won’t wait for them though, and those fronts keep on moving. Villains have their own agendas, and aren’t about to accommodate the good guys. Whenever your characters are doing something in the foreground, things should still be happening in the background.

Lesson #3 — Good Ideas Can Come Out of Improv

TTRPGs are, in many ways, improv games. The GM can prepare and plan, but only so long as they can guess what the players might do. Inevitably, players will come up with unexpected and often creative solutions to problems that the GM couldn’t prepare for.

Likewise, the players may know the setting, but they don’t know the scenario like the GM does. They get only the information they can glean from the GM’s description and perhaps some lucky die rolls. Then they have to act on that information as best they can.

Often, the best and most memorable moments will come from a player doing something completely unexpected and off-the wall in a tense situation. As a GM, sometimes you just have to smile and throw away all your plans, because a player thought of something better.

When it comes to writing fiction, I’m an unabashed planner, but even the most organized and prepared of us have to do some improvisation sooner or later. If a scene feels wrong, we sometimes have to stop and ask ourselves, “is this really what that character would do?” Or perhaps we just feel there’s something missing, some spark of life. We may have to try a few different ideas to make something interesting happen, not knowing which will work out.

Lesson #4 — Feedback is Important

When running a TTRPG, it’s important to be excited by the story you’re trying to tell to your players. It’s also important to watch how those players react to that story. Are they invested, working together, trying to overcome impossible odds? Or are they distracted, disinterested, or apparently struggling to figure out how to participate?

Running a good campaign involves bringing in elements that you think your various players will enjoy. It also requires that you gauge whether those things actually worked the way you expected them to. Sometimes this is as simple as watching how they play and reading the room. Sometimes you have to explicitly ask if everyone is getting what they want out of the game.

This is the flip-side of lesson #1. As you’re writing, it helps to think about your “ideal reader,” and what will entertain your audience. Once you’ve got some draft pages, you can actually go out to that audience (at least some small bit of it) and ask what they think.

Family, friends, beta readers, writing groups or critique circles — however you can get it, feedback is vital. A book is a big project, and it’s almost inevitable that each of us will forget something, make mistakes, include a plot hole here or there. Feedback followed by careful editing can turn a good manuscript into a great book.

Interested in TTRPGs?

That’s all for the writing lessons. Perhaps in another year of running sessions I’ll find a few more to share.

If all of this talk about table-top RPGs piqued your interest, now is a great time to get into the hobby. It’s more popular today than it has ever been.

Am I Good Enough to Write This?

Malcom Gladwell’s book, Outliers, is probably best known for its assertion that the way to become great at something — anything really — is to practice it for 10,000 hours. Similarly, author David Eddings (and apparently a few others) claim that the key to becoming a good author is to write a million words, then throw them away and really start writing.

“My advice to the young writer is likely to be unpalatable in an age of instant successes and meteoric falls. I tell the neophyte: Write a million words–the absolute best you can write, then throw it all away and bravely turn your back on what you have written. At that point, you’re ready to begin.”

David Eddings

Some writers will hear these claims, crack their knuckles, and start typing with relish. They’re delighted to learn that success is as simple as aiming in the right direction and putting in the time and effort. Others (including myself) are a bit less enthusiastic. A million words equates to ten or eleven substantial novels. Ten thousand hours is 417 days-worth of writing, without sleep, meals, or bathroom breaks. Not to mention the unshakable feeling that there must be more to greatness than simply plowing forward stubbornly.

However you quantify it, we know that writing is a craft that can be refined over a lifetime. Whether you believe in innate artistic talent, practice and study do make a difference.

That’s all to say that sometimes, it can be daunting to write. It’s normal for writers to have deep insecurities about their own skill. Writers are readers too. We see the incredible feats of our favorite authors. We can cite examples of phenomenal writing, and we see every time we don’t quite measure up.

Be Afraid, but Not Too Afraid

Have you ever had an idea for a story that you loved, but you were afraid to write it because you thought you could never do it justice? Have you ever started to write what was sure to be your greatest story ever, only to have the words flow out of your brain, down to your fingers, to flop, sad and desiccated on the page; a pathetic imitation of what you saw in your imagination?

Being a writer requires a specific cognitive dissonance — the ability to believe that you are writing something brilliant, while simultaneously seeing all the flaws in that work in order to edit them into oblivion. It’s a knife’s-edge mental balancing act, and it’s awfully easy to fall off one side or the other.

“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.

F. Scott Fitzgerald

One of the traps that writers, especially inexperienced writers, can fall into is the belief that they have great ideas, but lack the skill to do them justice. They have the idea that could be the next bestseller, if only it was written by someone with more expertise. Sometimes this takes the form of a fear that they might be a one-hit-wonder, who only ever has the one great idea. It would be a terrible waste to squander it.

I call this a trap because it’s almost certainly not true.

That Idea Isn’t Special

How many awards are there for novels, poems and short stories? And how many awards are there for cool ideas?

That’s because ideas aren’t that special. We become writers because we read things that inspire us. We start coming up with our own ideas. Every writer is an idea-generating machine. You may feel like it’s a slog, but you can come up with story ideas, if you put your mind to it.

A great writer could take a downright mundane premise and create a mesmerizing story from it. Many have. Ideas only become great in the execution.

Even more dangerous is an idea that’s put on a pedestal. When you think of that idea as “the perfect idea,” the one that you may never live up to again, it’s hard to move past it. You might hold on to that idea for years. You might even obsess over it.

I know, because I’ve done it. You can wear down an idea over years, like a worry stone. You can keep adjusting it, refining it, or just tweaking it here and there. It can feel like you’re accomplishing something, but if you can’t bring yourself to translate that idea into an actual story, then all that thought and effort and obsession is useless.

That obsession also precludes other ideas. How many new ideas could you play around with in the time that’s being spent worrying about that one idea? Sometimes our minds are like a warehouse, and we need to clear out those ideas to make space for new ones. Dwelling on the old can prevent you from moving on to something better.

You’ve Got to Admit, It’s Getting Better

If you write for years with some regularity, I can easily prove to you that you’re getting better. Go back and look at something you wrote a year ago. Five years ago. Ten years ago. Those pieces will certainly be different. You may have preferences of voice and style that have changed. You’ll also notice a lot of improvements that could be made. You’re so much better at writing now.

Gladwell didn’t claim that a switch flips at the moment you hit your 10,000 hours. Every day you practice, you learn something, even if you aren’t always aware of it. It’s a slow and steady progression. You can improve your skill at dialogue, or at description. You can develop your voice, and you can learn to build deeper, more sympathetic characters.

Isn’t it strange then, to believe that you can get better at all of these things, but not at coming up with good ideas? It’s a skill like any other, and it develops through practice. Granted, if you’re brainstorming ideas, you can’t expect all of them to be amazing. But you can trust that the writer you become in five or ten years is going to be better at coming up with good ideas, just like they’ll be better at dialogue and characterization.

The ideas you come up with today are for present-you to write. Trust future-you to come up with their own great ideas to write about.

Diamonds Have to be Polished

First drafts suck. Sometimes second and third drafts suck too.

One of the times when that special brand of authorial cognitive dissonance is really tested is in writing a first draft. Ideas are like clouds. They’re soft and vague and beautiful. You can stare up into that bright blue sky and see all sorts of amazing shapes.

Words are flexible, but they’re less flexible than ideas. Those nebulous ideas seemed so good partly because you could ignore the missing bits, the conflicting bits, the bits that just plain don’t make sense or haven’t been thought through properly. When you put them down on the page, that luxury immediately goes away. They’re solidified into a rough, mangled form that will never live up to those gauzy visions in your mind.

Don’t confuse that first draft with the polished end-product it will become. Don’t compare the perfect idea to the worst form your story will ever take.

Don’t Wait

If it feels like a great idea, try writing it now. Expect your first draft to feel bad, and look forward to closing that gap between idea and execution in the revision process. If it still doesn’t work out, that’s okay too. Just consider it part of your 10,000 hours, or million words.

Trust that you’ll have better ideas and be better able to execute them in the future. Make room for those new ideas by not obsessing over the old ones.

And in case you weren’t sure, the answer is “Yes, you are good enough to write that.”

Writing Schedules and Avoiding Burnout

I struggled for years with motivation to write and periodic burnouts, and I know I’m not alone. For every author I see putting out a book every year, there are many who struggle to meet their word-count goals or lament their inability to write every day.

We want to get more done, or worse, we feel like we “ought” to get more done. When we fail to live up to that (sometimes unrealistic) standard we set for ourselves, we lose hope and even feel a lack of self-worth. Writing requires emotional energy, and when that energy is drained by these perceived failures, we can burn-out: unable to write until we refill our tanks.

Agile Writing

I’ve found that the most effective way to avoid burnout is to be honest with yourself about what you can actually accomplish. That sounds simple, but it takes some real work to figure out just how much you can do, and it’s not a static formula — it can change over time.

My day job is in software development, and I often find that writing software is similar to writing fiction. It’s not always obvious going into a project how much effort it will take. The software industry has spent decades and untold millions of dollars trying to better understand how to estimate the time and effort necessary to complete projects.

In this post, I’m going to talk about the modern Agile software development methodology, and how we can apply some of its lessons to writing.

Prioritize, Break Down, Estimate

To get things done, you have to know what things you’re doing. That sounds obvious, but it’s easy to jump into an exciting project head-first, without realizing that you don’t entirely know what the whole project entails.

Any large pieces of work get broken down into the small tasks that compose them. Having “write novel” as a task isn’t useful. Split it into individual scenes or chapters (or developing a character, etc., etc.)

Before you can work on a task, it needs to have an estimate. This is your guess as to how long it will take. You can try to estimate in real-world hours, but many agile teams find that counterproductive. They’ll often use a small set of options, like T-shirt sizes (S, M, L, XL) or nonsense units like jelly beans (1, 3, 5, 7, 10 jelly beans).

Having a limited set of options avoids wasting too much time trying to zone in exactly on a perfect estimate, because it’s unlikely any estimate will be perfectly accurate anyway. If it’s not quite an M, it’s got to be marked as an L. If it feels like four jelly beans, it needs to be marked as a 5.

Units that aren’t actual time will be useful later on, when it comes to evaluating your estimates. You might decide that a S is a day of work initially, and later come to realize that it’s more like two days of work. That’s no big deal. But if you use real-time estimates, you’ll have tasks marked 1-day that are actually 2-days of agile-time. Your estimates will get confusing quickly.

I like to use Trello for tracking my writing tasks, but there are plenty of other applications that will do the job. You can also use good old-fashioned index cards or post-its.

Sprinting

The Agile process breaks down time into “sprints,” which typically range from a week to a month. At work, I use two-week sprints. For my own work, I use one-week sprints.

At the start of a sprint, you estimate how much work you can get done. Then take tasks from the backlog and put them on the sprint until the estimates fill up the time you allocated for the sprint. If you can’t fit exactly, it’s better to go under the estimate than over. Try to be honest with your task estimates, and how much you think you’ll be able to finish.

Next comes the real work! Pick tasks and finish them. If you get them all done and you still have time left, you may want to grab another task or two from the backlog. On the other hand, if you don’t get all the tasks done, that’s okay. Think of each sprint as more than an organizational tool. It’s an experiment. The goal of the experiment is to research how much work you can typically get done in a sprint. Don’t worry or freak out if a sprint goes badly. (In fact, it’s pretty normal for a first sprint to be a bit of a mess.) Instead, get ready to evaluate your progress and make adjustments.

Reviews

The sprint is finished. It may have gone well, terribly, or about as expected. The first few sprints are more likely to be rough, as you’re learning the process and have rougher estimates. You may discover that you thought (or hoped) that you’d be able to get a lot more work done than you actually did. That’s good. The experiment yielded some meaningful results.

In the Agile process, a review is held at the end of each sprint. This is an opportunity to evaluate how things went. Look over the work that was finished. Firstly, be proud of what you accomplished. Then, spend a little time thinking about the estimates for your tasks and for the sprint as a whole.

If you were able to get everything done with ease, consider adding more estimated time to your sprints. But be wary! Sprints will naturally vary. Like all solid science, results have to be repeatedly verified before they can be taken as fact. Before you make wild changes, look for trends across multiple sprints. This will be much more reliable than a single result.

If you weren’t able to get everything done, first look at individual issues. Did some take longer than estimated? Sometimes this happens when tasks aren’t broken down well enough, or aren’t clearly defined. You’ll find pretty quickly that smaller tasks are easier to estimate accurately than larger ones. It’s easier for bad assumptions or unexpected snags to throw a large task off-course than a little one. You might also find that a task ended up being harder than expected, in a way that was difficult to foresee. Don’t stress too much about it.

In software, there are two things that most teams work constantly to improve: breakdown of large tasks into small ones, and accurately estimating those small tasks. But there are other problems that can mess up a sprint. Sometimes the real world steals away your writing time — your in-laws decide to stay for a week, you have a family emergency to work out, or a broken furnace needs your attention immediately. Consider the circumstances around your sprint. It’s normal that you’d get less done in that kind of situation. You can take solace in a new sprint and a fresh start.

What’s the Point?

When Agile started getting popular in software, a lot of teams balked at it. Some still do. Why do all that obnoxious estimating and review? It’s more time in meetings when the “real” work could be getting done. You might feel the same way at first. Try sticking with it for a while.

Firstly, the planning and review that feels so onerous when you’re starting out becomes easier and even satisfying with practice. Breaking down tasks becomes second nature.

More importantly, this is a way to evaluate your expectations, your actual output, and why they might not be aligned. If burnout happens because we expect more from ourselves than we can deliver, then we need to come to grips with the gap between those two things.

Your sprints may show that you finish 75% as much task-time each week as you first expected. Your sprint reviews might make it clear that you’re consistently under-estimating how much time chapters take to write. They might tell you that you have an outside interruption almost every week that keeps taking time away from your writing. Understanding these problems is the first step in addressing them.

Ultimately, you may find (as I did) that you just can’t get as much done in a week as you wanted to. That can be okay too. I have a regular 9–5 job and children. I’m an inveterate planner who doesn’t write that quickly. I have to accept that I can’t write at Stephen King pace. And that’s okay.

Story Seeds

This post was inspired by Lucy Mitchell, who recently asked “Does your story require more cooking time?” She talks about how we often get so excited about an idea that we want to write it immediately. But many of these ideas are half-baked – they’re missing something, maybe several things. That excitement to write runs into a brick wall, and the story has to be thrown away or shelved.

These problems take many different forms. The story might start strong, only to fade early in the first draft. It might seem great in your head, but feel flat and dull on the page. You might find yourself in a very cool setting with no characters to populate it, or have an amazing character who just doesn’t fit into the world. You might have a story where the characters go through the motions, pushed around by the plot.

In response to Lucy’s post, I’m going to dig into how early story ideas can transform into a full-blown story. You’ll never have everything figured out when you first put down words; there are always problems to solve along the way. So how do you know that your ideas are detailed enough to support you as you write? How can you tell if an idea needs more cooking time?

Seeds and Stars

Each story is unique, and each has some collection of elements that connect in a unique way. They usually don’t start fully-formed. Little ideas eventually lead to other ideas and begin to glom together. A character may start out as an idea for the clothes they wear, an ability they have, or some event that shaped them. A setting might start from a single image (real or imagined), or a place fit to a specific purpose.

I like to call these little bits “story seeds.” Like a tree, they grow and branch out in unpredictable ways. A story is like a forest grown from many of these seeds.

You could also think of these ideas like tiny bits of debris in space. Eventually, they stick to each other. Finally, they become so dense that they collapse to form a star. When a story fails to come together, it’s often because it doesn’t have that density. The ideas aren’t enough to support all the necessary parts of a story.

Do Your Seeds Meet Your Needs?

Writing fiction is amazing because you can do almost anything. There are always new books coming out with voices, characters and ideas that are so fresh and different that they change the way we see the world. Despite that, there are also a relatively small set of elements – characters, settings, scenes, viewpoints – that we can identify in almost every story. Granted, you can find avant-garde stories that lack one of these key building blocks, but if it works, you can bet that the author was very much aware of the limitations they were working under.

Stories thrive on cross-pollination. It takes many seeds to become a forest. It’s easy to get excited by a shiny, cool idea. Keep that excitement up! It may be the centerpiece that ties everything together. You just need to make sure that there are enough other ideas to fill out a complete story.

Before you start the story proper, evaluate your story seeds. Write down all the exciting ideas you have. Write down anything important that you think you know about the story. Then think about structure, and those standard story elements. What sets the story in motion? Do you have characters with some kind of goal and some kind of conflict making things difficult? Do you have settings for those characters to populate? Do you have some ideas for the journey they could go on (a.k.a. the plot) and do you have an idea of how they might grow or change as a result? Where does the story end?

If your story seeds don’t at least give you some options to explore for each of these things, you may have some rough times ahead. You can write for a while, but eventually you will run into a part of the story where you need to know that missing thing. You’ll be forced to stop and figure it out, or muddle on until it becomes apparent that something is dreadfully wrong.

If you’re not sure, try some simple outlining or summaries. Don’t let this scare you if you’re the sort of writer who prefers to write by the seat of your pants. You don’t have to be a full-on planner. Try to write a sentence or two about the beginning, middle and end; or try to describe the inciting incident, some complications, and the resolution. Can you describe your characters in a couple sentences? What do they want? What do they worry about?

Cultivating

One of the most important habits you can develop to grow ideas into stories is to write those story seeds down. Every time you think of a fun bit of plot, an interesting character quirk, or a scrap of dialogue, write it down. I’ve used an “idea notebook” for this in the past, but I now use a OneNote file that gets synced between my phone and computer.

Once you have an idea file, make the most of it. Read through it occasionally, and especially when you’re thinking about what to write next. This is like watering those sprouts. Different things will pop out at you at different times, and you may suddenly see a connection between two previously independent ideas. If you have a day where you just can’t write, open the idea file and try brainstorming. See if you can add a couple new ideas to the list. You might find it easier to come up with random thoughts for the future than it was to work on that manuscript. You could even find some inspiration in the file for the project you’re procrastinating over.

Letting it Grow

Some stories just need time, and you may decide that the critical mass of ideas just isn’t there yet. That’s fine. We all have an amazing secret weapon in the subconscious. Spend time thinking about your proto-story, and then mentally put it back in the cooking pot. Even when your conscious mind is busy with other things, those ideas will continue bubbling away. Eventually, you’ll come back to it, and and give it another taste, asking those same questions about character, setting and plot, and it’ll be so good you won’t be able to resist it any more.

6 Ways to Beat Writer’s Block

The phrase “writer’s block” gets tossed around a lot, to the point that it has become a trope or boogie-man in the modern mythology of what it’s like to be a writer. The truth is that there’s no one thing that stops us from writing. Like any other job, writing is harder some days than others. Sometimes we have good reasons that the words aren’t coming. Other times, it’s a mystery why the muse has abandoned us.

Likewise, there’s no single formula to overcoming writer’s block. Everyone writes differently. Some find a routine and stick with it throughout their lives. Others have to catch a few words here and there, or need variety to stimulate their creativity.

Here are a few strategies that have worked for me. Next time you find yourself staring at the blank page or the blinking cursor, give one a try.

A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.

Thomas Mann

1. The Jump-Start

I discovered something about myself a few years ago. I’m often pretty bad about chores like cleaning, laundry, and dishes. What I realized was that all I needed to do was get myself started. I’d enter the kitchen, notice some crumbs on the counter, and decide to wipe it down. Then I’d clean the little island counter. Then the stove. Before I knew it, I was doing dishes or cleaning half the kitchen.

Getting started on a task is often the hardest part, especially when it feels big or unpleasant. It’s like diving into cool water. The initial plunge is the hard part, and then you get acclimated and comfortable. It’s easy to agonize over the opening of a new book, or even the first few words in a regular writing session. If I can get myself into the middle of a sentence or paragraph, I’m much more compelled to keep going.

Make a deal with yourself. Instead of thinking “I have to finish this chapter,” or “I need to write 2000 words today,” just tell yourself to write something small: a sentence, a paragraph, or perhaps a few lines of dialogue. Sometimes your writing session just needs a jump-start to get the engine running.

If you find this works for you, you might even want to end your writing sessions mid-sentence, even if you know how the sentence should end. It will give you something you can immediately start writing the next time.

2. The Deadline

“I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.”

Douglas Adams

Trying to be creative while up against the clock might seem unappealing at first, but deadlines can be a tool. When unlimited possibilities are overwhelming, it can be hard to come up with something concrete. Deadlines enforce limits. If you want to get your writing done within a time limit, you have to stop thinking, stop planning, and start putting words on the page.

Self-imposed deadlines can take many forms, but to really be effective, they need some sort of external accountability. You’re more likely to get it done if the alternative is telling someone that you failed.

If you’re working on a rough draft, you might hold yourself accountable to beta readers, friends, or a writing circle. If you’re writing short fiction or poetry, you might be able to find a fitting contest, anthology, or magazine that has a limited window for submissions.

You may not need a particular person to hold you accountable. Committing to a schedule, participating in challenges like NaNoWriMo, or writing daily or weekly blog posts or serial fiction might be enough of a push to keep you going.

3. The Speed Demon

Sometimes you’ve got an idea, but you just can’t find the right words or place to start. Well, it turns out that’s a problem for future you! Here in the present, all you have to do is write a pile of words that sorta, kinda get the point across. Write fast, and let that poor sucker, “future you,” worry about editing that hot mess into a beautiful manuscript.

How do you force yourself to write fast when you’re already struggling to write anything at all? You could try applications like Write or Die, The Most Dangerous Writing App, or Flowstate. These apps can play angry noises, flash, or even start to delete your words if you stop writing for too long, helping you learn how to write fast and stop worrying about the quality of the content.

If these tech solutions don’t appeal to you, you can still go old-school. Challenge a fellow writer to a word-count race. Put on a your favorite speed metal playlist and try to write a hundred words by the end of each song. The important thing is to get those words out. You can make them better later.

4. The Prompt

Creative cross-pollination is a real thing. A story that’s floundering may be missing some vital idea that will make all the disparate pieces fit into place. It can help to get away from the story, especially if you bring something new back when you return to it.

One of the best ways to reset the writing brain is with prompts. If you aren’t aware, writing prompts are popular. They’re everywhere. You can find hundreds with a quick internet search. If you prefer something physical, there are writing prompt journals, books, calendars, and cards.

If you prefer higher stakes, try looking for a themed contest. Many contests require a specific genre, setting, or topic. Find one in your wheelhouse, or try something you’ve never written before. You might even turn your writer’s block into a cash prize.

5. The Spike

Stuck trying to get a story from point A to point B? Not sure where the story is going? Too many possibilities, or no way forward? Try a spike.

I blogged about writing spikes in a previous post. In short, a writing spike is a little writing experiment to figure out where a story should go and how it might get there by trying different possibilities. Spikes are designed to be thrown away, so there’s no pressure to make them perfect.

6. The Great Outdoors

Do you always write in the same place? Use the same computer or the same notebook? Write at the same time of day or week? Routine can be grounding, and it can help to carve out time when schedules are tight. Routines can also become dull and stale.

A change of scenery, a different time of day, a switch from pen to keyboard or vice versa – all of these can help break that block.

If at First You Don’t Succeed…

Try, and try again. Ultimately, overcoming writer’s block requires trust that more words will come. Sometimes just eking out a few words leads to a flood. Sometimes the words have to be bad so they can be made better later. Sometimes it takes external motivation or a change in scenery to make writing feel fresh and new again. And what you thought was terrible may turn out to be pretty good on re-read.

Do you have any favorite tricks to help you get past writer’s block? Let me know in the comments.