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How to Unblock Writer's Block
By Lourens Durand

Julia sits down at her word processor to start writing her great novel. There is no immediate inspiration, she cannot concentrate, so she plays a few games of Solitaire to relax, to get into the mood. Still no inspiration. She tries drinking a cup of coffee. Still nothing. Watches a movie. Nothing. Too late to start now. Goes to bed. Nothing to write about.

Poor Julia! Does she not know that plots are all around us? Has no one ever told her that observation can be a powerful tool; that there are a multitude of creative techniques around for generating ideas and, armed with these, she need never be at a loss for something to write about? Here are some approaches that could be suggested to her:

People Watching

One of the easiest ways to find material is to observe people. Watch people at work, at the shopping centre, commuting, wherever, and then pick out one person and build an imaginary character sketch around him or her. Where does he live? Does he live alone? What did he do last night? Where is he going tonight? Where is he going now? What kind of car does he drive? Is he in debt?

Look for another person in the vicinity, and carry out the same exercise, and then wonder what would happen if the two people were to meet. Would they be compatible? Would they fight? Would they be honest with each other? What secrets would they keep from each other? Let them get into trouble, and then get them out of it.

Here is enough ammunition to keep Julia writing for a week!

Keep a Scrap Book/Data Base

Keep interesting scraps of information or stories from newspapers, magazines, TV or films in a scrap book, or build them into a data base. Even photographs could suggest an interesting idea. Put them in your scrap book. From time to time, open the scrapbook or data base, and scan the ideas. Group them where topics are similar, or string some of them together randomly. Rearrange them freely, add more, until a plot beggns to emerge, and then write!

Build Word Tree

Select a word at random from a book and write it down in the centre of an empty sheet of paper. At the end of short lines branching outwards from the centre write down words that the first word brings to mind, one word per branch, without consciously thinking about the process. Do the same for each of these words, branching out towards the edge of the paper. Sometimes a word will suggest a series of words; write them all down on as extensions of the same branch, as if they were twigs. If the edge of the paper comes too near, change the direction of the branch. Freely associate and combine some of the branches. Often a storyline will appear; perhaps even a whole plot. Start writing, while the plot is red hot!

Another approach to this technique, instead of using a random word from a book, is to write the name of a colour in the centre of the paper, and then to jot down, along the branches, emotions and memories that the colour suggests to you. This helps to write with feeling.

Rewrite a Fairy Tale

Take a children's fairy tale and rewrite it, populating it with contemporary characters (real or imaginary), modernising the events, and making them more true to life as we know it today. Although this is not likely to be an original, or even a sensible story, the process may suggest a new way of looking at the plot which could result in the germ of a good story.

Build a Set of Standard Plots

Analyse the plots of stories, novels and films and build up a set of standard plot types (e.g.. Revenge, Escape, Sacrifice for an Ideal, Pursuit, Adventure, Rivalry). Link two or three of the plot types randomly, and examine the possibilities. Develop the possibilities into a plausible story, and write it.


Place a notebook and a pen next to your bed before retiring. If you wake up during the night, immediately write down what you remember of a dream if you have been dreaming. Do the same when awaking in the morning. The notes probably won't make any sense, but don't let that put you off. Do this for a few nights running, and then read through your notes, rearranging them, building on them, developing them, and soon a plot will suggest itself, rich in imagery. Then start writing.

Do the Splits

Take two words randomly from different pages of a book. Write one in the upper half of a sheet of paper and the other in the lower half. Split the first word into two words that it may suggest to you, then split these words into two more words each, and then split these again, and so on. Do the same with the second word, until the sheet of paper is full. Now scan the sheet and do a free association of the words, writing the associations on a second sheet. Do further splits if you want, and soon a sequence of ideas will emerge that can be woven into a story.

Plots are all around us. Julia only needs to look for them; if she doesn't look, she won't find. When powers of observation fail her, the use of structured creativity techniques can help Julia to find something to write about. When she sits down to write her great novel, Julia should have more ideas and plots available than she has time to write.

Lourens Durand. Writer, Artist and photographer


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