Writing Yourself Out of a Corner

You know how it goes… Your creative juices are flowing, you’re in The Zone™, writing your little heart out and getting so much done! Your fingers fly across the keyboard, your mind races, it feels great!

And then, WHAM!

You realize you’ve written yourself into a corner. There’s no way out unless you back up completely, and then you’ll have lost all that wonderful progress!

What do you do?

I think I can safely say that all writers, at some point, have experienced something similar. Writer’s block, lack of motivation, frustration, or self doubt. And all writers have written themselves into something they couldn’t easily get out of. Maybe you thought your story was going one way, but the characters took you to another? Perhaps you’re a pantser who pantsed yourself somewhere without a clue how to get back to the main storyline? Or maybe you plotted the story completely but missed some holes or armor that you’re now stuck in? It happens to the best of us (myself VERY included) but it’s not impossible to escape. It will just take some time, effort, and possibly some redirection.

Photo by Rayson Tan on Unsplash

The best way to know how to get OUT, is to know how you got IN!

One suggestion is to re-read what you’ve written, even if you’re the type who usually avoids revisions until the whole novel is complete.
Go back at least a few chapters to the point where you were last sure you had a solid plot point or scene. It could be a few paragraphs back or a few chapters. Heck, it could even be the whole book and this is a “scrap and redo” situation (but hopefully not!).

Find where you were in your groove and the story was flowing beautifully. Identify the place where you can easily see where the story was supposed to go, and then you have got a great starting point.

From there, I want you to go through the following questions:

  • What about this scene/section worked well?
  • Where was the novel supposed to go afterwards?
  • What is the next big plot point you were supposed to hit?
  • How was your story supposed to end, and can you get to the same ending from this point on?

Fellow Motley Writers Guild member, Dylan West, suggested these additional questions:

  • Would your character do this?
  • Is this interesting?
  • Does this create plot holes or fix them?
  • Does this add to your protagonists agency?
  • Is this option so complicated it might confuse readers?

These are all excellent things to consider, and you could get your inspiration from them alone!

What if you’ve pantsed your way into a corner?

Some people write by the seat of their pants (also known as “pantsers”). Some plan every part of their book (“plotters”). Others, like me, are a mixture of pantsing and plotting (“plantsers”). (Check out our blog post about the Pantser/Plotter spectrum!)

If you start writing your novels without a plan, you may be more likely to write yourself into a corner. The twists and turns your story and characters take you on could be unexpected and so could those pesky corners. Because you won’t already have a specific outline or plan in place, it may be more difficult to find the areas you’ve written that you should go back to when you get stuck.

In those cases, I recommend trying our worksheet, downloadable HERE. Page 3 is the MWG “Emergency Preparedness Questions” that you can print off and fill out. This might help you solve your way out of the corner you wrote yourself into.

On it, you can ask yourself these questions if you find yourself somewhere you can’t write your way out of…

  • Completely outlandish ideas to be used only if absolutely necessary.
  • What’s the scenes you know your story needs to be complete?
  • What does your character need right now?
  • What’s the worst possible thing you could do to a character right now?

That last question is surprisingly important. It’s the key to how I’ve gotten myself out of many corners. I identify the worst thing I could do to my character. Then I do it. I know that sounds scary, but it works like a charm to move the plot forward and open up a lot of motivation, conflict, and scene progression possibilities. Even just as a “for fun” exercise, I recommend you try this next time you’ve got writers block. You may find it’s a great thought experiment!

Check out our blog post about the Dreaded Writer’s Block!

Photo by Leo Foureaux on Unsplash

Visualize your options

If you’re having trouble finding where you went “wrong” (I use that word delicately, because I don’t believe there’s a “right” or “wrong” way to write, or storytell), and you can’t answer the questions above, then you can try to play the story out in your head or on paper using visualizing techniques.

Picture the scene you’re stuck on (hopefully you don’t have Aphantasia, “the inability to create a mental image”), or you could write it down in list format, or storyboard it by drawing it out. Try to play it through like a movie, how your readers would picture it and what the characters might be going through in this particular scene.

Then, try to picture the natural progression of the scene.

Does that lead you anywhere useful?

If yes: YAY! You’re done!

If no: THAT’S OKAY, we can still help!

If you can’t picture the natural progression of the scene, try picturing many different options. In improv, there’s a rule called “yes, and”, where scene partners play on each others ideas by always answering “yes, and…..” then coming up with another idea. Try the same thing with your story. You’ve got the visual in your head (or on paper), so ask yourself, “What would it be like if _____ happened?”. Try to follow that thread of an idea to its natural progression. You can get as normal or outlandish as you like, and then see where it takes you. Does it complete the scene and get your characters to the next plot point? Does it bring you back on track to where you should be going?

Keep asking yourself “what would it be like if ______ happened?” until you get an answer you like. Then, write it!

Make a list

If you’ve come up with a bunch of different options that might work but can’t chose which one to go with, then you can make a pros and cons list for each of them.

I recommend you narrow it down to your top 3 or top 5, otherwise you will spend way too long on lists when you could be writing your novel!

If you’re the analytical type, you could ask yourself deeper questions that relate to the issue. Do you have any uncertainties about the characters, history, or worldbuilding that could be answered in this scene? What about plot holes you’re already aware of that could be filled by this space you’ve written yourself into?

Write it all out in simple, easy to digest bits so you can see at a glance which option has the most pros and the most cons.

Even just writing it out might help you to realize that you like one option better than the others, or you’ve answered your own questions already and you can move on from there.

Image by Zhugher

Take a break

Put your story away for a while. Sometimes noodling on something will only make it worse, and it’s best to just give it a rest. Go for a walk. Sleep on it. Take a much needed break from your own writing and then return to it later on.

When you return to your project, try to utilize the questions and techniques I’ve already suggested, and you will hopefully find it easier to move forward after some time and reflection!

Skip to the next scene

If you can’t figure this one out, then just move on and return to it later! Write the next scene or chapter that you know needs to happen, and worry about that pesky issue at a different time. Who knows? When you return to it, you may have found that you’ve solved your own problem later in the story.

If all else fails…ask a friend!

Do you have a trusted critique partner or friend you can bounce ideas off of?

Are there any writer’s spaces you can reach out to to get feedback?

Can you research anything with a person or AI that might give you the insight you need?

Sometimes other people can be the key to our own success, so don’t think you have to do it alone!

Image by Mint Chip Designs

IF you’re really stuck and you have no one you can ask…

Try contacting one of the Motley Writers Guild members on social media! You can tag us in your Twitter posts or message us directly if there’s someone in particular you want to talk to. My inbox is always open to new writer friends, and I love chatting about peoples’ projects, so don’t be afraid to reach out if you want.

No matter what, don’t give up!

I know the urge to just throw in the towel might be strong, but please don’t! Your story is worth writing, and you can do it. You just need persistence, a different point of view, or perhaps a little help from your friends.

Image by StockSnap

Have you downloaded our worksheet before? What do you do when you get stuck? Have you never written yourself into a corner but found this post helpful anyways?

Tell us in the comments below, or tag us on social media #MotleyWritersGuild or via our individual author handles (mine is @EmVanMoore on all socials).

The Motley Writers Guild’s – Em Van Moore

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