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Many writers eventually come to a point in their writing where they don't know what to write. They have a certain status or state of affairs that the narration has reached and another state that they need to get to in order to continue their story to the end they have envisioned (or just to get the characters out of a predicament), but they don't know how to overcome that gap in their storyline with the characters they have in the situation that they have gotten them into.

In a comment to a recent what-to-write question, @Spectrosaurus opines1 that "if you don't have a good idea for [how to overcome that gap in your narration], maybe it's not the best idea for you to explore?", and they advise the writer to "come up with something that's more interesting to you personally, so that you won't feel the need to ask others what to write!"

When a writer feels the need to ask others what to write, is that truly a sure sign that they need to change their story to something where they know what to write? Why? Does asking for and accepting story ideas from others somehow predict a lower quality to the finished text?

@Spectrosaurus' advice feels intuitively right to me, but is it actually correct?


Notes

1 @Spectrosaurus has corrected my misunderstanding of their advice in a comment here below.

  • 6
    Good question, but you're misrepresenting my opinion there a little bit. I didn't try to make a general statement that asking for ideas is always bad, I just think that people sometimes want to add elements to their story because they think they belong there, not because they actually have any inspiration or idea. If you're stuck in that mode, it can help to hear someone say "you know that you don't have to do that, right?". And the question was so broad that I thought this was the case. – PoorYorick Mar 30 at 14:38
  • 4
    @Spectrosaurus: while I can see how your idea is being mis-represented, I think it originated a very interesting question. Because, sometimes, I do think not knowing what to write means it's time to move on (whether to a new story or to a brand new take). If a 'what should I write' question can be rephrased into something less helpless, it's one thing. But if that question cannot be rephrased, then probably... yeah, move on (story or plot wise). Or think and research a bit more. – Sara Costa Mar 30 at 15:30
  • @Spectrosaurus I think I understand your comment to the other question better now. I have added a disclaimer to my question :-) – user37583 Mar 30 at 17:37
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When a writer feels the need to ask others what to write, is that truly a sure sign that they need to change their story to something where they know what to write?

No.

This is mostly a discovery writers problem; plotters can just follow their plot to the end. (Unless they have question marks in their outline; in which case, finish your outline before you start writing!) I am a discovery writer, I have no plot points, I write about my characters, things happen and they grow together.

For discovery writers, it means they need to change their story, yes. It means they have written themselves into a plot corner, or they have failed to write a strong character, or they have under-imagined a plot, or the stakes, or the MC's motivations.

It may mean that by writing 'realistically' they have prevented the MC from having any options, their story has become as boring as real life so they see no way forward. The MC has given up on their mission. That's a bad MC, MC do not give up!

The majority of stories are about somebody we like with a problem they must deal with. You get stuck when you feel like they have no options left to pursue.

It doesn't mean you have to write about something else, it means your character needs to be someone else; you need to backtrack in your story and change their decisions in a way that leads to a different outcome. You need to increase their resolve. You may need to be less "realistic", so at some pivotal point that you, as an author, knows is the last chance for the MC to win, they don't give up and actually break through.

Or earlier in the story, they get a lucky break and don't realize it; some piece of information they need to bring down the villain or conquer their problem, so when all hope is lost they recall this bit of information and pursue it as their last hope. And it pays off.

A story needs a structure. Read an earlier answer of mine, on Being a Discovery Writer.

There is a companion answer for discovery writers, on Starting a Piece of Writing, how to get through the first pages.

The most common structure is the Three Act Structure (3AS), although other structures can work, like four and five act structures, or the Hero's Journey (which fits perfectly in a 3AS, but has more specific turning points and character roles).

A summary is that a discovery writer tends to focus on a character more than a story, but their finished story must have all the beat points of the 3AS. An intro to the normal world, an inciting incident, that grows into a crisis that forces the MC out of their normal world. It must have the trials and failures, a breakthrough, a finale, and then either a return to the normal world, or the beginning of the new normal.

But it isn't necessary to plan all these points of the story first, you don't need a blueprint for the story to start writing. What you do need is some idea of who your MC is; what her big problem is going to be; and at least ONE idea for how this story could end.

In The Equalizer; Our MC hero is a retired CIA assassin. Mobsters in his neighborhood hurt one of his friends. He kills all the mobsters. The End.

That's all you need to start the story; a beginning, a middle, an end. A character, a problem, a resolution of the problem. The details can come later. You can think about the hero, and what type of person he has to be to have friends, and kill mobsters, and who his friends are, etc. Who is his friend that gets hurt? How? How to make the mobsters frightening and reviled by the audience. Who the worst of the mobsters are, so we can focus on a central villain.

But knowing the ending is like having a compass that points a direction you must travel in, for your writing. The MC is going to have to risk death, probably get hurt and go on to risk death again. He will have to be clever, and outsmart them, because he is badly outnumbered.

All of those things can be discovered as you write. If you write something that logically prevents your ending, then you need to come up with a better ending, or undo what you wrote. Backtrack until you find the decision or event that led you to your impasse, and delete starting there: You have made a momentous decision there without realizing it, and need to make it work out differently. But at least you know what to work on!

The vast majority of writers putting out stories about serial killers, rapists, mobsters, corrupt politicians, aliens, space explorers, secret agents, wizards and magicians and far future technology are not writing about "something they know." They may have done some research, but none of them have been all the characters they portray. Heck, approximately 100% of authors writing about men and women have only been one gender for their entire life. They are just guessing about one of those genders.

"Write what you know" is bad advice, it is far too limiting. Write a story that compels you, one that seems like you will have fun writing and imagining. Find a character that feels compelling to you, that you think will be cool to follow around on some adventure. Then think about them until they feel like a real person, and then you can find a problem that will compel THE CHARACTER to solve it at nearly any cost (usually because it threatens to upturn the 'normal world' you have already imagined for her). Then you have a beginning, and a middle, and all you need a a plausible way for the MC to solve the problem, and you are ready to write.

You can research what you don't know, that is what Google does. Write a story that really entertains you.

Begin your research with the 3AS (See Here and here for examples, perhaps Google it), it is straightforward and won't take you more than a few hours of reading to get the hang of it. You don't have to make a blueprint, but it helps to know where you are on the path of the story, so you don't rush things, or write conflicts out of place, and don't get bogged down or write in circles.

Besides that, just maintain a constant level of conflict in your story, it can be low, or trivial, or high life-changing conflict. By "conflict" I don't mean fighting, or even action, but there should always be a question in the reader's mind of "what happens next." How a conversation turns out, how a scene will turn out, how the chapter will turn out, how this Act will turn out, and how the book will turn out. We overlap these kinds of conflict so there is always something for the reader to be anticipating, in the short term, medium term, and long term. Wondering "what happens next" is what keeps the reader reading and turning pages, they need to find out.

So don't make everything easy for your MC; that is boring. She needs weaknesses and failures, even if there is something she is great at, she needs something she sucks at, to humanize her. Once she leaves "her normal world", you don't ever want her to rest for more than a few pages, she has to be working to fix whatever is wrong.

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I couldn't disagree more!

I almost argued in the comments but restrained myself because that would have been tangential and unproductive. Sure, asking what to write and not being able to write about something could coincide, but they aren't causally related in any way in my view.

Let's look at the question as an example. The first thing I thought when I read it was that the writer had an idea they loved. It was going to be their plot and they were going to use the rich cultural symbolism of Norse mythology to help deliver it.

The problem: They didn't know much about Norse mythology and/or ancient rituals and realistic ascension rituals/practices. Sure that could be problematic. Are writer's really never to explore things they don't know or understand??

This is the role of research in writing. The message shouldn't be to give up. Don't ditch ideas that you are inspired by because you don't have the information to explore the idea. Go get the information.

Some people will try to get that information by asking other informed individuals. In fact that is one of the best ways to get information. The fact that we have a protocol on specifically how to request information (and what information we will provide) doesn't make that question less of an information request. If the asker reapproaches the question with new verbiage and possibly takes some of the questions (because there were a lot of questions underlying that one) over to Mythology Stack Exchange they may even receive constructive answers.

If the writer is faced with a wall of lacking the information required to move forward, and are unwilling/unable/uninterested in finding it, then they should drop it until such time that they can/will.

  • 2
    The question was not "what is the typical Norse ascension ritual so that I can build my story around that", it was "I will have trials in my story, what could they be?". I didn't get the sense that there was any passion for Norse mythology behind it, and it didn't have anything to do with a lack of research either. I had the feeling the trials were something the asker thought "belonged" there even though they didn't have a good concept for them. I wanted to offer the advice that they are not bound to this idea. The "ritualized trials" trope can be restrictive and there is no need to follow it. – PoorYorick Mar 30 at 14:51
  • @Spectrosaurus you aren't entirely wrong. But asking if they might be going about things wrong and telling them that they are going about things wrong are subtly different things. OP might also just really want to write an ascension by trial story. (Rereading your comment it definitely was more question than assertion) – bruglesco Mar 30 at 18:21
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Absolutely not.

You have some great answers here but I just have to add a point or two. I am also a discovery writer and my piece is about a world I know nothing about, but I know my characters.

Sometimes a decision I made creates a problem for me. I have characters on both sides of the law and refuse to have one side be peopled by idiots. Mistakes are made, but there are times when my characters cannot escape without the other side being completely incompetent - so they get caught. I know the general direction I want my characters to go and sometimes the plot actually goes there.

In the selected question, that writer does know what he or she wants to write, but has a small problem of research. Trials for thrones are an ancient tradition in literature and that member might find some great examples of what their story needs in Greek and Norse mythology.

To suggest that because a person has a question on a plot point that the work they are writing will be inferior is ignores a simple fact. People, writers in particular, like to discuss their work with likeminded people. Writers groups are formed to help with this aspect of an otherwise solitary pursuit. Shelley had Byron and Keats to brainstorm with.

In my piece, I reach some points where I wonder am I expecting too much of my MC if he does X so should he do Y instead. Some of those questions have become questions here and received good answers. Usually, when I wonder such, it turns out I am asking a bit much of the poor sod, so he does Y.

Realism requires the writer, who is too close to be objective, to periodically ask is this reasonable? That is a valid question to ask. Immersion is risked when too many incredible things happen or - as my father used to say when a character was in trouble on a television show - don’t worry, the cameraman will help him.

Oftentimes questions are asked that seem to be asking what should I write when the question is really will this break immersion? Is this credible? Would you put the book down either due to the stupidity of the character in this situation or just because you can’t stop laughing at him?

I have likened my process to a game of billiards. My characters are there, waiting and I introduce the first stress or the first character interaction and things start happening. I choose which resulting interaction seems promising or surprising and follow that path, creating more opportunities.

When I started my novel I had two characters and a general idea of the plot (might happen in volume three) and went from there. So far, I have a rather strange and dark piece leavened with humour that two others are quite enjoying and a prequel I began when I lost much of my book (autosave is evil). I also have the distinct impression the characters are writing it - not me.

If you start out with no characters, no ideas that is a problem. Asking what you should write is different from asking if you should write about a warrior going to a far off kingdom to slay a monster (Beowulf). The I want to write about a dystopian future world, what would it be like, question would indicate that the poster had yet to consider their idea and it was still at the brainstorming stage.

4

I'm afraid that piece of advice - if you don't know what to write, then move on to something else - sounds a bit drastic to me.

In the past, I've been on that point several times, always within the same story, and I finished it nonetheless, and quite successfully too, according to my readers.

Unfortunately, "I don't know what to write" can cover a lot of situations. Sometimes it can simply mean one is having writer's block, but sometimes it can mean that one has a character with nowhere to go. Or, in other cases, the author led a character in the wrong direction and needs to realise it, then find a way to backtrack and go in the right direction.

Does asking for and accepting story ideas from others somehow predict a lower quality to the finished text?

I ask my close friends and family about the difficulties I face in some plots. Sometimes, they don't even have to say anything - just talking miraculously brings the answer up. Sometimes they ask 'but why did X happen' or 'why do you want Y to happen', and that leads me to a solution. And, occasionally, they'll say 'it would be really cool if W happened instead' and it acutally is the solution.

Discussing ideas with someone and being offered ideas is not cheating or a sign of bad quality (unless 70% of the plot was suggested by someone else, that would sound more like co-authoring). Most of the cases, I believe it helps spice up one's creativity as people help the author to open their eyes and see the possibilities they've been blind to. Besides, the story isn't just an idea, it's the execution, too. In a radical example, you can give two authors the same idea, the same exact plot even, and end up with a piece of trash next to a work of genius.

So when is 'asking what to write' a sign you should move on?

I suggest going through several steps before giving up. But keep in mind that 'what do I write next' will need to look back and see if the solution is to give up on the dead end and go back to the crossroads, or if the solution is to create a new path through the woods.

a) try to bainstorm options

b) if you don't have someone to talk to, talk to the walls (or a doll or a pet). Vent the problem and explain to them how the options you've looked at don't work . Explaining in detail why it doesn't work is important because it may help to spark a solution to a detail which will, in turn, help undo the entire problem

c) if you have someone to talk to, tell them the problem and ask them to offer solutions (but warn them in advance you're going to shoot all their solutions down - their job is to keep shooting ideas at you despite your apparent negativity)

d) make diagrams of the plot up until the point you're stuck at; if you already have the ending figured out, add it to the diagram. Then go through crazy, obviously unfit ways to bridge the gap

e) if nothing works, put the whole project in your drawer and wait for a month

f) even if you put it away, leave a summarised diagram of the plot and the problem somewhere visible but out of the way. As you walk past it day after day, a solution may come to you.

g) watch films and read books and if any has a situation similar to yours, see how they dealt with it. Or just enjoy the story and let your unconscious work in the background.

If after trying all of this, and waiting for one or two months, you're still without ideas, then put it away for one full year. If after that year, you still can't work out a solution, then it may be appropriate to move on to something else.

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