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I frequently experience a specific type of writer's block and am looking for strategies to work around it.

I lean toward discovery writing but with some need to understand my story in advance, enough to give me a general direction to head in my storywriting.

I frequently struggle with not being able to write because I don't understand what should be going on in the immediate moment. Because of this I try hard to end writing sessions in the middle of something going on in the story, so I can pick back up the thread later. Non-linear writing helps some, as does switching writing projects opportunistically, but they don't fix the underlying problem of finding myself drawing a total blank at knowing what comes immediately next in my story. I now have three stories sitting at chapter breaks, and I just can't see what comes immediately next in any of them.

Do others experience this, and, if so, how do they handle it?

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I am not a discovery writer. I am a retired software engineer who plans and plans some more. Thus, my advice might not apply to your situation.

Good engineering practice requires the engineer to look at a project from several viewpoints. What are the requirements and does the software/mechanism/building/freeway satisfy each of those requirements? How well does the application perform? Availability, reliability, usability, security, and privacy each gets their time in the spotlight? If one aspect has blocked the engineering team, other aspects will not.

A story (at least in conventional presentation) is a linear stream of words. But if it is a really good story (at least for me) the story gives me the sense that it came from a multi-dimensional world. I write science fiction and that allows me to think out loud about technology, politics, culture, art, human relationships, and so much more. If I cannot figure out the details of one of these aspects, other aspects await my attention. I do not construct the story in linear fashion. I overbuild my world and then select (as a tour guide might) the parts that will draw the reader in.

If your genre is not science fictions or fantasy, there are still multiple dimensions that you can explore. Write a detailed backstory for each of the major characters. Write detailed descriptions of locations, buildings, social movements, meals, and costumes. Write about the trivial things in this world. Write about kindness and cruelty. Rant about something silly.

Or write the last chapter. Think about what has to have happened to make that chapter believable. Then write the chapter before that chapter. Rinse! Repeat!

But write! Something. Anything. Write with the notion that you will exclude most of the writing from the final story. But write! Only then can you pick through the possibilities. Only then can you blaze a path through the world that you have constructed.

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Re-think your format:

If you keep writing 'situations' but you aren't sure where they are suppose to go next, maybe the situation itself is the story, and it's better suited for a short-format that explores that moment, leaving the possibilities open for the reader to imagine.

This doesn't sound like what you want, but maybe you are a great short-story writer who isn't benefiting from the rules of a longer format. Maybe there are other formats that better suit your writing (episodic, for instance).

Re-think your outline

I wouldn't attempt to write any narrative without knowing the major characters' arcs, for me that is the story, the 'plot' is just stuff that happens to help push them along their arcs.

If I know my main character is on a negative arc, their timeline is a series of small positive steps followed by a big drop. 3 or 4 of those up-up-up-DOWN patterns and that character's arc is more or less solid. I know whether their next scene is about lifting their hopes or crushing their spirit.

See Kurt Vonnegut's Shape of Stories lecture, and Robert McKee's Do Your Scenes Turn for well-known examples.

Break Away

With 2 or more main characters – each with their own complete arc – you can have A-Plot/B-Plot, used in TV and film. Break away to another location, and another concurrent story – related or not, maybe even a complete tonal shift.

Sub-plots are a step down from that extreme. A sub-plot is a different story happening to the same characters. It gets updated in spurts, usually during the lull of the main plot. Again it doesn't have to be related or the same tone. The stakes can actually be a counterpoint to the main plot.

A step below that are the slice of life situations that provide worldbuilding and context. Greek Chorus and Maid and Butler dialog use simple, undefined characters for exposition, but they can also provide the broader viewpoints of the world that your main characters wouldn't know or discuss. Watchmen uses vignettes of very ordinary people to show the humanity that is lacking in the main characters.

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What do you define as a good story? For me it’s something that delivers a satisfying overarching plot as well as each main character having a satisfying arc and the story having a set of themes that are explored from different angles throughout the story, via everything: plot, monologue, dialogue, descriptions of setting, everything.

If that is the definition of a good story and you’re writing a novel (50,000+ words), then a good story simply is not written without good planning.

Planning is the solution to the question you’re asking.

I don’t think planning has to be as elaborate or detailed as some people think. I don’t like to over plan because then it doesn’t leave me room to feel free to be creative when I actually write. So I focus on just planning the main plot points—for the main plot and the character arcs..

When I write, I use my own slightly personalized version of the snowflake method:

  1. First write your story in one sentence (difficult, yes, but I’ve found it to be rewarding)
  2. Then write your story in three sentences
  3. Three paragraphs
  4. Five to seven paragraphs
  5. All the paragraphs

At step five I have a paragraph for every chunk of my story. (Usually each chunk ends up being one scene, but there are exceptions, such as if I decide to tell two different threads back and forth for a while.)

At this point, when I sit down to write a scene, I already have a paragraph that outlines what needs to happen in this scene to move forward character arcs and the plot. However I still have tons of freedom! There are a billion ways to write a scene that does those three or four things. So for me this method works.

In my opinion the key is balancing planning, so you know what basic things need to happen in each scene, but not over-planning to where you feel boxed in.

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