Since you’re reading Intwischa you probably are something like us in that you spend a fair amount of time writing when not rolling the dice. Sometimes the words just seem to flow naturally: background fiction about your characters, an exciting new campaign arc, a prelude or epilogue to a recent adventure, or even details for an original role playing realm. The connection between your ideas and how to express them is strong, maybe damn near unbreakable.
Other days, however, you may be lucky to get six words in a row that make sense. That’s been me for the last few weeks, so I’ve been collecting some ways to break the dreaded ‘writers’ block.’ What better way to exorcise those confounding demons than to share my discoveries with all of you?
Do Something Else
If I’m trying to plow through a story for a fantasy RPG, the only “breaks” I allow myself consist of putting in Game of Thrones or Stardust to get me in the mood. As it turns out, however, that’s exactly what science says I should not do.
Psychology says that beating a topic to death with your conscious mind makes matters worse. By focusing on an unrelated stimuli, you can actually allow your subconscious to connect the dots. When you’re actively cogitating story elements, you frequently poison your creative well with inhibitions, judgments, and expectations. By watching Game of Thrones, I’m thinking about George R.R. Martin’s ideas about fantasy; I’m unlikely to come up with any of my own.
Distracting your consciousness with Family Guy or that blog post about the casting of Iron Man 3 gives your subconscious the opportunity to sneak around inhibitions. Stop the flood of images that are washing away your own original thoughts, and you will clearly see paths to new creative content. These detours allow your subconscious mind to generate ideas that you didn’t know you had!
Just make sure to have a pencil in your hand when ideas finally do hit.
Bridge the Gaps
Even seat-of-their-pants GMs have encounters, characters, or milestones they want in their games. When you begin to suffer the curse of linear thinking, these story elements are supports to the bridge that spans gaps between sessions. Significant events in a game need only be marked as an anchor for a future story.
Indeed, a single element may be an anchor that supports several bridges. An auspicious meeting with an NPC might lead to his homestead, another to his recently sabotaged factory, and yet a third to his market connections–which in turn establish yet another anchor.
With these supports in place, you only need highlight these milestones prior to the campaign’s start. Your players will build the bridge to the next event. You can also do this work on your own: if you lack ideas for events between major happenings, invent details for encounters and characters in the gap. These elements don’t have to be the bridge; merely making them supports allows for the building of an entirely new bridge.
While editing fellow Intwischa writer Chase’s posts, I’ve noticed he composes using this method. Consequently, I’ve adopted it as well when I know what points I need to make but haven’t yet found the voice to make them. It’s not quite the outline method that was forced on us in middle school, but it certainly seems to point the way.
Use Familiar Voices/Names
I recently started a fantasy novel purchased on a successful used book dive. After the first five pages I was hopelessly lost. It wasn’t the intricate plot or exotic setting; I just couldn’t keep the damn names straight.
When stonewalled in the planning process, I’ve actually composed pages of dialogue using the names of the characters’ players, just so I could envision the conversation taking place. Using familiar names and envisioning familiar faces makes it easier to find the voice for the interaction between their fictional counterparts. Later, through the magic of “find & replace,” I can change ‘Chase’ to Wil Delving, ‘Frank’ to Father Emry Wicks, and so on.
I’ve also used the familiar voices of my friends to map out the path of character conversations, free of the trappings of potent vocabulary and poetic license. If I can get a start at the story by writing simplified dialogue, I can go back later to beautify character speech. This also helps avoid the pitfall of verbal tangents, and instead focus on moving the plot forward through the characters’ words.
Brainstorming (n): a technique of solving problems, amassing information, stimulating creative thinking, and developing new ideas by unrestrained and spontaneous participation in discussion.
For a control freak like me, the greatest enemy to creativity is internal editing. To overcome this in the last couple campaigns I’ve written, I simply sat down with a yellow legal pad, a Sharpie pen, and an hour on the clock. During that hour, I write every plot hook, encounter idea, cool character quote, NPC origin, or other game-related fodder that creeps into my head. Last time, I ended up with about four pages of notes.
Only after I’ve finished my spontaneous and unrestrained listing of information do I allow myself to edit. What’s cool is to see how some ideasgrow, evolve, and connect organically from one another. While I may not use the idea that planted the seed, I can see it bear fruit three lines later as I build on the original thought. If I struck down the first idea out of hand, I never would have realized the potential it possessed.
Remember! Spontaneous. Unrestrained. You can always throw out the really stupid ideas before the rest of the group sees them.
Write The Story in Reverse
This is my preferred method around a creative quagmire. To sound more intelligent, I call it ‘reverse engineering.’ I walk to the end of my story, game, or blog post and look back to see how I got there. Circumventing looming writers’ block by skipping to the end can give you some much needed perspective on that mental mountain.
I learned this method years ago, thanks to my shelf full of Choose Your Own Adventure books. As the title of the series is not “Choose Your Own Grisly Death,” I would thumb to the end, to discover what pages would lead to a happy ending for the titular character. If a certain choice would get me impaled or eaten or worse, I’d simply return to the prior encounter to find my way around the tragedy.
Come on. You know you did the same thing.
The joy of being a game master is that sometimes, since I’m telling the story and not trying to survive it, those tragic bits can be pretty entertaining. If I’ve already determined where the party will end up, should they prove successful, it helps me plan where some opportunities for obstacles will be along the path to make victory that much sweeter. It also aids in discovering which encounters and are necessary for them to reach their goal.
Gild the Lily
If all else fails, you can use the method favored first by Shakespeare, Disney and almost every cop show you’ve seen: Steal a story. Change the names. Retell the story. Maybe you add a talking animal, maybe you throw in a catchy song.
In a pinch, the sincerest form of flattery can also be the easiest road around your writers’ block.