I don't often experience writer's block these days. Instead I struggle with a different sort of impediment in my writing: I call it Possibility Paralysis.

I have to quickly acknowledge that this is not strictly a writing issue but more of a personality or character flaw of mine. For instance (pardon the cliche) I still don't know what I want to be I grow up.

But my writing process suffers dearly for it. I have so many stories I want to tell, so many perspectives I'd like to tell them from, that I find I scarcely settle myself on one plot, thread or idea before another, sometimes completely contradictory one pops up, screaming for attention.

I suppose the root of all this indecision is likely fear -- the fear of going the "wrong" way, and being unable to back out again. The fear of sticking with it -- of determining that I will slog down the chosen path no matter what, even if another, totally amazing idea comes along. Even if the idea I've chosen leads me down a road to flavorless characters or a hopelessly broken plot. Even if it "ruins" the work, and I never get to tell the story I really wanted to tell in the first place, because it's not engaging enough for anyone to want to read it.

That said, there is also a sense of wanting to "slow" the creative funnel at the broad end, and let only the useful ideas filter through. It's sort of like a firehose some days, and I just can't deal with the scattered volume. I need focus.

Has anyone else dealt with this? How do I break out of the endless cycles of false starts and self-doubt of possibility paralysis? How do I 'slow the flow' and focus on the ideas that matter?

up vote 12 down vote accepted

Welcome to Possibility Paralysis Anonymous! My name is Henry and I suffer from having too many ideas...

You are correct in identifying that this is more than a writing issue but perhaps a little too tough on yourself in calling it a personality flaw. ( ...and since integrity is of highest value, definitely too tough when you call it a character flaw. )

You have been gifted with a creative mind, which for a writer is a treasure of unparalleled value. Nothing good ever got written without first being seeded by a great idea. Since you can come up with great ideas, you are already half way home to writing great stories.

All that is missing is discipline.

Unfortunately, discipline is pretty scarce among us shaved monkeys. I opened with the Anonymous analogy because just as with other addictions, new idea addiction cannot be cured through discipline alone. If we could just decide not to let new ideas intrude, there wouldn't be a problem. But human minds lack on/off switches, so an absolute solutions to these kinds of problems are not easy to find.

Here is how my partial solution works...

Despite loving the feel of new ideas pouring out on to page in real time, I have found that I cannot be productive writing freestyle.

First, in the most free-form portion of my writing process, I put on the personality of each of my characters and allow them to drive the pen for a while, telling their life stories, giving their opinions on the world and each other, and sharing their plans for the coming adventure. None of what I write at this phase is meant for publication. It is just my way of getting to know my characters so that they are real and flavorful to me, right from the start.

Then I design the story with several layers of increasingly detailed outlines. I only consider the story design complete when I have at least a few sentences on every scene in the story. It is at this point that I set the transition points between the various story threads and work out any pre-resolution interactions and conflicts between them. Along the way, I identify the scenes which are going to be fun to write and mark them with a star. These are my candy bars, which will be important later in the process.

Finally, I start the writing, one scene at a time, with absolute obedience to the notes I created for each scene during the outlining process. If I get the urge to change something in the middle of the scene, I scribble a few notes about the change onto a notepad that I keep near by. Then I get back to writing the scene as I originally planned it.

When an change idea just won't shut up, no matter how many notes I scribble down about it, I pull out the heavy artillery. Remember those candy bars I mentioned earlier, the scenes which will be most fun to write. Under normal circumstances, I would only get to write those scenes after I had written everything which precedes them in the story. But if I have a really nasty change idea that needs to be squashed, I stop scribbling down notes and promise myself... "Finish this current scene, and I will let you write a candy bar scene next." That is usually enough to help me escape the allure of the new idea.

Another thing that helps is that scribbling down the new ideas is not just a token appeasement to my overly-creative mind. Everything that gets scribbled down will be read and considered during the editing/revising step in my writing process. If a change idea is really worth it, I am happy to go back and change everything necessary to integrate it into the story. But none of that begins until the last page of the first draft is completely written. Every idea gets its chance to be a part of the story, but those which arrive late to the party need to overcome the weight of all of the finished writing, to be considered for inclusion.

Despite my best efforts during the design phase, there is always one or two new ideas which manage to justify making significant changes to the finished manuscript. But only the best of the new ideas cause such changes, and those changes, being surgically made to an otherwise finished work, are much easier and are completed much quicker than they would be if they were allowed to disturb the first draft process.

Keep Writing!

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    I love this answer. You seem to really get what I'm talking about. Thanks for detailing your process so thoroughly, I am going to try out several of these ideas. I also really like the Possibility Paralytics Anonymous bit (PossiParAnon??) -- the addiction comparison does hold a lot of water here for me! "Hello. I am powerless over my creative mind, and my writing has become unmanageable! My name is Brian, and I'm a Possibility Paralytic!" – Brian Lacy Aug 3 at 4:38

Anchor Yourself.

I would say, adopt a discovery writing paradigm, and focus on a character. Most of my stories begin with a character that has some rare (and interesting) real-world ability. I find a matching thing she sucks at it. I pick an age and start writing about her, deciding things about her, maybe she has a love life, maybe she doesn't, maybe she has a sex life, maybe she doesn't. Who are her friends? How did they meet?

I am really writing about her, I'm not talking about notes or a profile. I am making scenes for her, in class, or at work, or at home, on a date. I don't care if I keep them, in the end I usually am not keeping the first several scenes I wrote. I want to give her a problem and see how she solves it. I rewrite these scenes several times, trying to make them better. Then I may discard them and come up with a different problem for her to solve. Heck, I've even changed her setting, from modern to medieval!

But she is ONE character, my main character, and all the other characters are peripheral, and this story is about her, and in some way (even if she is forty) a story of how her life was transformed in some way. How she discovered she had power, or graduated college and found her place in the working world, how she met and married a spouse, how she learned she was gay, or perhaps in college how she decided to become a lawyer or doctor.

In the beginning she is malleable, I can give her strengths or weaknesses, or take them away, or reverse them. She's good at math. Nah, she sucks at math, but she won't let that stop her! Or she's capable of self-defense, and I want her to prove it, so I have a scene for that.

These scenes can be disjoint, forget about a plot. Pick scenes from her past, maybe even scenes from her future; long after the story setting. Write to show her character, do not write a character outline with a bunch of dry telling about who she is, write scenes that show who she is. Write anything that occurs to you, if it occurs to you then it likely serves some purpose in your creative process of delineating her character. You can always toss it if you don't want anybody else to read it!

Why.

For me, the advantage of this approach is that I fall in love with my character. That's it. If I write enough about her, and think of enough scenes, sooner or later I come up with the "big problem" she is about to face in her life. After that, I can choose the setting and her age and I am writing about my MC in her normal world (easy after all that exercise, although it might involve a bit of research), and we start in on her discovering her big problem, whatever is disrupting her normal world that she must do something about. This could be saving her world, or just she's lonely and sick of it.

I don't plot, exactly. My character does what she does, always facing some difficulty or another (sometimes of her own making), and I know her and I am getting to know her better, as she navigates these hurdles.

I DO typically have a resolution for her big problem in mind, I write a sketch of that (not prose, just how the final scenes will go). I am not married to it, except that if my character does anything that makes that ending no longer viable, I have to come up with a new and better ending, or I have to reverse course in my writing and undo the scene or scenes until I get back to a place where I can plausibly have her make a different choice that doesn't kill the ending. 3 times out of 4, I can think of a better ending and let my girl have her way, with little or not rewriting. I prefer that.

Much of what you write makes me think you should be a discovery writer, not a plotter.

The reason I am a discovery writer is because plotting a story ruins it for me; it feels like I have already told it, and when I am writing it feels like a straight-jacket, I can't do what seems like the obvious thing my character would do, and then she feels artificial and puppetized. I can't stand it.

I discover the story as I go, and if I think of something brilliant, I will think about it, figure out where it would go, and either salvage or scrap what I need to tell a more brilliant story. I suggest frequent time-stamped and separate backups; mine are backup up hourly (if their last-written time has changed).

The point here is to give yourself an anchor. You are writing a story about this one character you have imagined and developed. Don't worry about the plot points so much, don't worry about the villain (if there even is one), just give yourself a character that feels real to you, with a more-or-less inevitable life-change coming that feels real to you, and keep writing that character, and giving them obstacles, and do what feels right to you for this character you developed.

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    Great Answer! You and I couldn't be more different in how we focus a story but I can see how your approach would work if I shared your dislike of hardened plot outlines. Hopefully between the two of us, we have given the OP an answer which will work for them. +1 – Henry Taylor Aug 2 at 22:26
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    This is great advice. Discovery writing does help. One of the most effective tools for me, both in discovering my character and in actually writing my scenes and dialogue, is to take my protag, drop him into a particular situation or environment, and "see" what he does. – Brian Lacy Aug 3 at 4:46
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    (Cont'd) Although, by the time I'm knee-deep in that I've already had two more ideas for situations i think would be fascinating to see him confront! One thing that might help though is doing the same exercise for my top supporting characters and especially my villain. I've heard it said that it is most often the villain, not the hero, that drives the story. That makes sense to me. I've done a lot of work on my protag -- maybe it's time to start focusing on "discovering" the opposition! – Brian Lacy Aug 3 at 4:57
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    @BrianLacy A personified villain is not a necessity of a story at all; e.g. Tom Hanks in Castaway. All he has is problems, but nobody caused them out of any animus or greed, there is nobody to defeat, just a long chain of problems to solve. Even with another person, they may not be so villainous but self-interested. To the reader a spouse fighting for visitation rights in a divorce, or to prevent his former wife from leaving the State with his kid, can be sympathetic, he thinks he has a right to be in their lives, even if it would prevent her from taking an excellent job 1000 miles away. – Amadeus Aug 3 at 10:02
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    @BrianLacy (Cont'd) So yeah you could discover your opposition if you have some, especially if they are not exactly "evil". The truly evil tend to be sociopathic and after money and / or power to wreak evil with impunity, the power of kings; they get off on sadism and causing fear, they feel this somehow elevates them. There is a little to explore there, but personally, I like the no-particular-villain stories; impending armageddon by asteroid, rupture of the San Andreas fault, even Jurassic Park could have been a no-villain story, a plane crashes into a gate, lightning strikes, etc. – Amadeus Aug 3 at 10:14

In any life, there are moments when you can turn one way or another. With fictional characters, largely untrammeled by the cares of real people about where they are going to sleep or what they are going to eat or when they will run out of money, there are more and bigger moments at which they can turn one way or another.

The ability of the writer's mind to generate ideas for such turning points is essential. But it is too easy to get caught up in the mere act of invention, to start merely recording an imaginary history based on all the possible twists and turns you can invent.

But the facility of inventing twists and turns is not given to the novelist for the sake of inventing complex imaginary histories. It is given to them as a necessary tool for forcing a character into a box canyon where they are forced to make the difficult choice of values that they are trying to avoid making.

Chess programs apply a tree-pruning algorithm to the list of potential moves that the program generates, cutting off investigation of the possibilities that don't seem to be leading towards checkmate. A writer needs a similar tree pruning algorithm for their powers of invention. The writer is trying to get the character to checkmate -- the point where they can no longer avoid the choice that they don't want to make. The filter to be applied to possibilities, therefore, is, quite simply, is this twist of events getting my character neared to checkmate? As soon as it becomes clear that a possibility is releasing tension on the character rather than increasing it, that it is leading the character towards a different crisis from the one intended, cut it off.

To put my answer into perspective, I am a new writer. I'm only 12000 words into my first novel. Let's say I am a month and a half in. I have a plot, I know where I want to go, I know where I am starting from, I don't really know how I am going to get there, but so far so good and things seem to be flowing.

I, too, am suffering from everything you have mentioned in your question.

I have an idea, but stemming from this idea are a hundred more. From these hundred ideas there are a further 100 spin-off ideas. Those ideas, too, get more ideas... it can be never ending.

I deal with this by having 1 IDEAS DOCUMENT of NOTES FROM THE MIND and one document that is my story only. I have both of these open at all times when writing.

Every time I am writing I keep my current story thought thread going on the story document. When a new idea that is NOT related to the current thread comes into my mind, I whack it down onto the IDEAS DOCUMENT, but only when I don't break my story thread. This ideas document is then saved and I go back to my main story to finish what I was thinking.

When my current story thread has finished and has hit a natural pause I review my ideas document. What is applicable to my current story? What can I use next? Do I have any good ideas? If so I will explore those in my story.

If I am writing about stone age cowboys, but my ideas document has ideas about space aliens, I can discount it and that won't go into my current story. If I have an idea about a horse shoe falling off my horse and hitting a neanderthal in the head starting a race war between humans and neanderthals that ultimately ends up being the cause of prehistoric man being wiped out I will investigate that and see what that story can do within the current thread of my story. If it works I keep it in, if it does not then I might save it to a further document, which I call "ideas for future books".

Once this current novel is complete I will open my ideas for future books and will use that as a basis for creating book 2.

Your story is like modelling clay. You can shape your clay any way you like. If you are not happy with the direction it is taking or what it looks like, squash the parts you don't like and then carry on from the part you do like. You are in control and you can do what you want with it.

Unless you are a famous author with tight deadlines to hit before publication, you have all the time in the world in order to write your book. You can explore and test news ideas within the book and then you can think to yourself "does this help or hinder my end goal or distract from my plot?".

When writing a story I just let my head take me on the journey. I am experiencing this book as the writer, just like the reader is going to experience this as the reader. If I was a reader what would I want to read in my book? If I can take myself on a journey then I am surely going to take the reader on one, too.

Failing the above: have you thought about writing a book from person A perspective, but then write the same book from Person B perspective?

This would allow you to explore both sides of the story and allows you to explore the two contrasting views and ideas that you have on the same story. There may be books like this out there but I personally don't know of any and I haven't read one myself.

But all in all, make sure you are malleable in writing. You might think you want to go from A to B via C, but if at some point while getting to B you suddenly think of D, which is far better than C ever would have been, would you want to miss out on that possibility?

This is how I manage a deluge of ideas and I find that it allows me to keep on top of everything and not feel overwhelmed.

  • @Secespitus thank you for fixing my laziness, being at work right now precludes me from being as thorough as I would have otherwise been :) – idontneedadisplayname Aug 3 at 13:29
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    No problem. Welcome to Writing.SE by the way! If you have a moment please take the tour and visit the help center to learn more about the site. Have fun! – Secespitus Aug 3 at 13:31

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