How to Write Through the Unknown

Photo credit: Johnson Cameraface on Flickr
With many WIPs that I’ve plotted out, I’ve found that I eventually hit the Dreaded Scene. Most times, this isn’t a scene that I dread because of the content (ergo: I don’t feel like writing this)—it’s a scene, and often an important one, that intimidates me because I’m not entirely sure how it’s going to happen.

If you’ve been a reader of Writability for some time (or have dug through the archives), then you may remember that I once wrote about how to plot with flashcards. I still use flashcards for plotting purposes, I just use virtual Scrivener flashcards rather than physical pile-on-the-desk cards.
The reason I mention this, is that while I swear by this type of plotting, it does mean that I don’t plot my scenes in detail—instead, I’ll have a couple sentences summarizing the action.

This works wonderfully, because it gives my characters room to stretch and make their own (sometimes unexpected) decisions within the framework of the semi-plotted scene. It does, however, have a downside, namely the Dreaded Scene.

This is probably partially my fault, but oftentimes while I’m plotting I’ll know that something especially important has to happen, but I can’t figure out for the life of me how. I’ll work out everything before and after that point, and I’ll get a general sense for what happens, but as for the details? I figure I’ll work it out later.

Inevitably, later comes when I’m writing and I hit the Dreaded Scene, and I’m still not sure how to work it out.

This is a how to post, however, because I’ve found that the best way to eliminate the dread and get through the scene is to sit down and force myself to figure it out. And as you may or may not have guessed, I use brainstorming lists to do so.

I head the list with the issue that I’m stuck on with the Dreaded Scene, in the form of a question, usually something along the lines of How does x happen? From there, I brainstorm as many possibilities as I can come up with. As is often the case with these kinds of exercises, the key is not to censor yourself, and write down even the most ridiculous of ideas. Once you have a significant list, you narrow it down to the more feasible options, and expand from there to detail step-by-step what happens.

You may now be wondering if the step-by-step bit is necessary. This will vary per writer, but I’ve found that when I’m truly stuck, most times it’s because I can’t envision what will happen. Writing down the steps, then, eliminates that problem and allows me to dive into the writing knowing full well how the events will unfold.

As it turns out, it’s significantly easier to break through a block when you know what lies on the other side. Go figure.

Have you ever encountered the Dreaded Scene? If so, what did you do to overcome it? If not, have you ever plotted or brainstormed with flashcards or lists? 

Twitter-sized bites: 
Stuck on a scene in your WIP? Here are some steps to breaking through the block. (Click to tweet
Do you ever get stuck while writing? Here’s one writer’s strategy to beating the Dreaded Scene. (Click to tweet)


Sarah Anne Foster said...

I think I have a few Dreaded Scenes in my WIP. I feel like I know what needs to happen but I just can't figure out how to get my characters to the end of that scene. I'll have to try your brainstorming list idea!

Ava Jae said...

Yes! That is exactly the dilemma with the Dreaded Scene. Taking the time to list out the step-by-step points until the end of the scene definitely helps me. Let me know how it works out for you!

Robin Red said...

Spot on. The Dreaded Scene for me was the Castle Scene in my WIP. I knew everything that was going to happen before it, and what would happen while the MC was in the castle, but I had no idea how to get her there. Worse is when I drag out a scene with too many descriptions because I'm brainstorming on the go.

Ava Jae said...

I totally understand the brainstorming-on-the-go bit. Usually when I catch myself doing that (and it's easy to pick out because it takes me forever to write even a couple paragraphs) I know it's a good time to pause and mentally (or on paper) lay out what's going to happen. That way when I jump back into the writing again, I can focus on letting what I've plotted out work on paper. :)

Shay Dee said...

Oh my god. At risk of writing an essay, I'm going to post a short section from something I wrote a while back:

"Once I’m certain I’m in love with my characters, and they have survived the ride of my first few chapters, I get onto some real planning. At this point, I need a basic plan for each chapter. Usually I have A and C already set up for the whole novel and it’s just a case of setting up B and filling in the middle. To help with that, I create bullet points for each chapter which might look something like this:

*MC gets caught
*MC meets another prisoner who offers help
*MC escapes
*MC finds a dinghy by the shore and sales away only to be picked up by pirates.

There are never any real specifics. I know the key points in my story - the things I want to happen, but I don’t always know how it’s going to happen. I don’t know exactly how my MC is going to escape, or get caught, or who that prisoner will be, or if the pirates will treat him well on the ship or chain him up in the galley to peel potatoes!"

So I do the exact same thing, and although I love the freedom of creative space it can become the bane of my writing, driving me absolutely nuts. It makes me feel like I don't know what I'm doing, or worse case scenario - I never knew what I was doing. Ultimate fail scenario? I return to the beginning and start with a new re-write! It feels like a fail but once I get into it, I'm back on track and enjoying the process...until the next block.

Ava Jae said...

That is EXACTLY the same! Seems we work very similarly, Shay. :)

I totally agree about the freedom of creative space. With my earlier WIPs, I used to outline very little and pants quite a bit, but I've found more and more than having plot points to guide me make the entire writing process much easier. And in the case of the Dreaded Scene, occasionally I need more than basic plot points, which is where those lists come in handy.

To me, there are few things more frustrating than wanting to write, but not having any idea where to go next. Taking the time to sit down and actually work it out solves that problem instantly.

Shay Dee said...

"To me, there are few things more frustrating than wanting to write, but not having any idea where to go next. Taking the time to sit down and actually work it out solves that problem instantly." Yup, this.

And I reckon, with pansters, it's the eagerness and excitement that takes over that gets us in trouble in the first place. I've always wondered who gets first drafts done quicker, pansters or plotters?!

Ava Jae said...

You know, I'm really not sure. I think it depends on the person, because some pantsers fly through their drafts, but others get stuck often. Meanwhile some plotters get caught up in intricate details and take a long time to write a draft, but others get through them very quickly. So...who knows?

Shay Dee said...

Would make for an interesting experiment, lol.

Carry on inking, Ava!

Ava Jae said...

That it would. Thanks, Shay!

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