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How to use Freewriting to Smash Through Narrative Hurdles

July 21st, 2012 Matt Leave a comment Go to comments
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Writers occasionally face a problem they can’t get their head around – a plot hole; an aspect to a character; something that just doesn’t feel “right”. Sometimes, pondering won’t solve it. Here’s one way to break through those problems and bypass writer’s block.

It’s something I do a lot. In fact, often the problem is “I’m not sure what to write on the blog this week”! But I use it when writing my fiction as well.

If You Got a Problem, Yo I’ll Solve It

I’m coming to the end of my first draft on a project, and [as I have mentioned], I already know there are some problems with it. They were gnawing at my mind, and I had planned to ignore them until my first draft was completed, but to get them out of my head I decided to do something about it.

So, outside of my normal writing time (that’s for finishing my draft after all), I pulled up a blank document on the laptop, and wrote.

Guys hurdling

Image courtesy of Philo Nordlund on Flickr

I did not continue my story. I simply wrote out the problem I had, and proceeded to write my thoughts on the subject, gradually working my way towards a solution. Here’s an excerpt:

Problem number one – there’s no tension. I’ve just been reading about giving my character two or more conflicting needs, which might help. His needs are to get enough money to survive, but he also needs peace, and getting money will necessarily create conflict. the urge to run away and hide will be great then, but it simply isn’t in his nature.

So, other than that, why is there no tension – the character’s plan doesn’t really change throughout the story. So I still have this problem (if it indeed is a problem) that the character formulates a plan and then executes it, the end. That can still hold tension if there’s a sense that the plan could go wrong at any time. I want to create the impression that he has a plan, but it’s shaky and he is improvising the details – he is walking a tightrope with this plan and the whole thing could come crashing down at any moment.

I think I have a bit of that, but what compounds this issue is that I want to plan to be a surprise for the reader. I therefore need to let the reader know that he has a plan (which I don’t do effectively yet – I don’t have enough internal stuff for the reader to know what is going on in his head, partly because my reluctance to reveal the plan is creating that distance), without revealing the plan.

This is compounded further by the fact that he lies, or tells half-truths to people. This means I can’t just let him talk out his plan with someone – there isn’t really anyone he can trust. The nearest is Tooner, so perhaps I can have him be more honest with her than anyone else. So it becomes a conversation where she asks him the plan (which in itself might create distrust. distrust = tension) and he can simply say that there is a plan, he hopes that if it does not please everyone, it at least satisfies his contracts with them (and gets him the £££), but that he can’t tell her the plan. She might be a little pissed off with this on the surface, but such is there relationship and their position that she understands (and really, did she expect anything else)?

Sorry, that’s a lot of notes to put in a post, but it gives you an idea of how the process progressed. There are many more notes of course, but that’s the start of it.

Everybody’s Free (To Write Good)

So, freewriting then. it’s often touted as a source of great inspiration and creativity. Putting pen to paper and just writing, without thinking, is said to unlock your subconscious and generate all sorts of weird and wonderful ideas you can develop later.

And in a sense, most writing is freewriting to a degree. That is to say, there is not a solid line between freewriting and conscious writing, a switch you turn on and off, rather “consciousness” in writing can be seen as a spectrum between very consciously writing, and sub-conscious writing.

Even when I write to a detailed plan, I will often add details that come to me in the moment, sometimes going off on tangents (that get removed or better incorporated later) or dreaming up connections and ideas that will become useful further down the line.

Ripples at sunset

Ah, that's better. Think zen when you're freewriting. Image courtesy of Richard Freeman on Flickr

Because it is a spectrum, there is plenty of room between random ramblings and strict plans for guided freewriting. It’s in this space that your problem solving writing lies.

So, here are my tips for using guided freewriting to solve problems in your story:

  1. Block out some time – make sure you won’t get interrupted and that you’re not on a tight schedule – you don’t want to be thinking about your dinner burning in the oven.
  2. Pick a conducive environment – make sure where you’re writing is free of distractions. You might want to try noise cancelling/isolating earphones or earplugs if they’re comfortable.
  3. Start by writing the problem on your page. This will focus your mind enough to tackle it.
  4. But don’t focus too much! You can’t constantly be thinking, “gotta fix this, gotta fix this…” Relax. Think of it as a conversation. Explain the problem to yourself, then discuss it.
  5. Don’t stop to think – all your thinking should be done on the page.
  6. If you don’t solve your problem there and then, don’t worry. Just by thinking about it, you’ve set the wheels in motion. You might find the solution comes to you later when you’re doing the washing up or something. If you can, go for a walk or a run.

And there you have it. Chill, have a nice chat with yourself. You may be surprised at what you and you can work out together.

Over to you:
What do you do to work through a problem in your narrative? Have you ever tried freewriting your way out of it? How did that go? These, or any other comments should go below.