Monday, June 21, 2010


It happens to all of us, the hot-hot-hot idea we’ve been so excited about fizzles like a leftover firecracker. The words that should follow the brilliant prose we’ve already committed to paper/electrons are lost in the black hole of nowheresville.

What to do?

Solutions are as varied as writers. Speaking for myself, I have two methods that give me a leg up and out of trouble. One is to deepen characterization and the other is to George Costanza the reaction.


If I’m at a loss with what the character should do or how they should feel, oftentimes I don’t know enough about my character. It seems like every writing instructor or writing book has some sort of sheet that you can fill out about your characters. I’ve been known to write extensive notations about each character, which comes in darn handy when you get stuck. For example, a very confident heroine who doesn’t know how to swim will have a strong reaction when she’s plunged into water.

Sheets of paper eventually get misfiled in my office, so I have invented several short cuts for the furthering characterization means of getting unstuck. A diary entry, written in first person by your main character, will deal with their feelings and reactions to events in their lives. All those various research threads you’ve crammed into your head oftentimes come out in this type of freestyle writing, and I often learn more about my characters when I switch from the third person POV of the story to the first person POV of the diary entry. Another thing I’ve been known to do in a tight spot is to write down a list of twenty things I didn’t already know about my character. That list may never have anything to do with your story, but it gets your thought process going in a different direction, which I’ve found helpful.


Any Seinfeld fans out there? George was one of my favorite characters on this program. He had strong feelings about a lot of things and they oftentimes got him into trouble. After a particularly long run of trouble in his dating life and career, his pal Jerry suggested he do the opposite of his natural inclination. For instance, whenever he would normally say no to something, he would instead say yes. Almost immediately, he landed a girlfriend and a job with the Yankees. Turning the situation upside down opened new horizons for George, and it can do wonders for your characters too.

If my main character has gone along docilely with the flow in the last scene I wrote, the scene before I got stuck, then I go back and rewrite that scene with her reacting exactly the opposite. Possibilities for the next scene start humming along as soon as this new level of conflict is introduced. Or, if the expected reaction is that she will explode at a certain turn of events, you can switch that 180 degrees by having her be uncharacteristically agreeable because it furthers a hidden agenda she has which will now come to light. Just something small like that can launch the story forward.

Those are my thoughts about getting my story unstuck from a writing corner. I’d love to hear how you extricate yourself from a similar tough spot.

Maggie Toussaint


  1. Maggie, I love your ideas for finding out about your characters. I've done bios, wrote short stories, and "cast" character to help me figure them out. While these techinques are time consuming, they really pay off in the long run.


  2. Brilliant, Maggie--so far, I have no such neat tricks to get myself unstuck. You'd know that if you could see how many unfinished, in fact, barely begun, mss I have in my document files. The only thing I've been able to come up with is to let it sit and rise, you know, like a lump of yeast dough. It does nothing for a while, but if you walk away and return 30 minutes later, it's swelled and plumped to something workable and desirable. Then, I work it into submission, and somehow, it may be ready to cook. Now, I'll go to your website to read about Muddy Waters. Celia

  3. Too funny, Celia walks away to let the WIP rest and marinate and I keep writing, even if I know the pages will never make it past the first draft. When I continue to write and explore different options, eventually I find a way out of the corner. On the other hand, I excise many, many pages when I edit.

  4. Great ideas, Maggie. I often think of this George episode :) but haven't ever applied it when getting stuck. Thank you!

    Celia and VR, I employ both these methods often because I rarely know what in the world to do next. :)

  5. Excellent idea, that George Costanza! And how clever of you to apply it to your writing!


  6. Hey Steph! Thanks for stopping by. Your ideas are super, as usual.

    Celia, I like your marination/bread dough rising method. Even when it feels like your stuck, your brain is still working on what comes next.

    Hi VR, Sometimes I write around things a bit too. I find its much easier to edit something out than to try to figure out what I was thinking when I originally wrote the scene.

    Mary, Thanks for stopping by. Your books seem so well thought out and full of life. And each scene flows seamlessly into the next one. Whatever you're doing, I'd say its working!

    Hey Liana, Thanks for embracing the George method of opposites. You just never know when it will come in handy.

    Thanks for the good vibes one and all!

  7. Excellent post!

    I especially liked this: "For instance, whenever he would normally say no to something, he would instead say yes."

    I'm trying hard to make my protagonist not-so-nice (at the moment she's a "Yes, I'll be glad to" -girl), so I'll just replace the he in the above sentence with she :).

    Regards from Finland

  8. I too love the George Constanza idea, Maggie. Brilliant.

  9. :) Love the topic! If I can't figure out my issue by reading up, normally, I call another writer and brainstorm. Have a fabulous weekend!


  10. Hi Maggie,

    Thanks for some great ideas! I've grown to realise that my characters quit talking to me when I'm pointing them in the wrong direction.
    I see them like obstinate children all standing around with their arms crossed and their chins stuck in the air.
    That's when I heave a big sigh and say, okay, coming in... I close my eyes and put myself in the character's head, try to think like they would and usually about half an hour later I can smack myself on the forehead and say duh!
    I love these moments and can usually be found all alone, chuckling. My family have stopped getting that 'look' when I do this now. I'm not sure but for a while I think they had the little white coated men on speed dial.
    So nice to share with fellow-writers who understand!

  11. Saying thanks for the folks who have posted more comments. Thanks for the love and the ideas, Valerie, Diane, Diana, and Katt.


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