Letters to a Young Writer: Getting Stuck

In earlier letters I talked about what to do if you want to write but you don’t know how to get started or what to write about. Sometimes (and for some writers, all the time) that’s not a problem. You know what you want to write and you don’t have any trouble getting started. The ideas and images and words just flow out onto the page, and it’s great.

Then you hit the Swamp.

That’s what I call the place that you come to as a writer where you get bogged down and stuck. You stop. You don’t how to go on, or you don’t feel like it. Trying to write feels like trying to walk through waist deep concrete that’s quickly hardening.

You give up.

 As a young writer I spent a lot of time in the Swamp. As a teenager I already knew I wanted to be a writer, but the problem was I couldn’t seem to finish anything I wrote. I’d have an idea and start off on a wonderful wave of writing energy but soon the energy would run out and the story would sit there, unfinished.

So how do you keep going? How do you get out of the Swamp?

First thing is to figure out what it is that’s stopped you. Sometimes the problem is that you can’t see where to go from here. You’ve come to a blank in the plot. Or sometimes you do know the ending, but you lose interest in the story as a result (if you know how it’s going to turn out, why bother writing it?). Or maybe you stop simply because writing is such hard work and you’re sick and tired of it.

The good news is that you can make use of the Swamp. Getting stuck and blocked and stopped are all natural parts of the writing process. Sometimes they happen because we really need to take a break. We need to stop and step back and take a wider look at what we’re doing.

So if you can’t keep working on a particular story for whatever reason, then let it sit for a while. That’s fine.

The key is to keep writing something. It took me a long time to learn this, but making a daily habit of writing is crucial.  

Write every day. Even if you only have the time for a few sentences. Even if you feel like the worst writer that ever lived. The story you're working on may be stuck, but that doesn't mean you are. Work on something else and you won't stay in the Swamp very long.
I’ll offer some more thoughts and strategies on getting stuck and how to get unstuck in the next post.


People say that what we are all seeking is a meaning for life. I don't think that's what we're really seeking. I think what we're seeking is an experience of being alive.
                                                                    -- Joseph Campbell

And this may be one of the reasons human beings in every culture, through all time, have told and loved stories. Sure, stories can instruct us in how to behave, and provide explanations for the way things are, but there's also something in stories that isn't about meaning. We don't read or listen to stories, or watch stories on movie and television screens only in order to extract a meaning from them, but to have more life. To make our own lives wider, deeper, richer, by experiencing the lives lived by people in stories. With stories we get to live many lives, many lifetimes, within one.

Photo: Canada Day, Edmonton, by T Wharton

Nicholas Pendrake

The streets of the city were alive with music and colourful banners and cheering crowds. War had been declared against a nearby kingdom and the people of the city were happy. They loved war.  They loved it, that is, as long as the messy, bloody part took place somewhere else.

And now the latest host of young men and women, shining and beautiful in their bright new armour, were riding off to fight for the honour and glory of their city. One of them was a young man named Nicholas Pendrake.

As a boy Nicholas had learned woodcarving from the old man who looked after his family’s garden. Nicholas became very skilled at carving wonderfully detailed figures of animals and birds out of unlikely scraps of wood, but of course such a talent was of no use to one who was being groomed for knighthood.

Like most of his friends Nicholas had caught war fever early in life, and when he was old enough he put away his carving tools and learned to wield a sword.  And now, on his seventeenth birthday, war had been declared and he and his friends were riding at last to glory.

The battle was brief but savage. Hundreds of young men and women were injured. Many lost their lives. The stream that lazily trickled through the valley ran foaming and red. Nicholas took an arrow in the side and lay on the battlefield through the night, thirsty, cold, and in agony. He screamed for someone to help him, screamed until his voice went hoarse, but it was well after dawn before he was found by his comrades and taken home.

The war ended and little changed, except for the rows of fresh mounds in the graveyard on the hill. The people of the city were already dreaming and planning for the next war. Nicholas was young and strong and his body healed quickly, but his former brightness of spirit did not return. He avoided his friends and took to wandering the woods and hills around the city.

One day his father’s mother, whom he had never met, came to see him. All that Nicholas knew about her was that she lived in some small, far-off, unimportant place called Fable, and that his parents seldom spoke about her. On the rare occasions they mentioned Nicholas’s grandmother they seemed afraid of her, and he had never known why.

The old woman was a surprise to Nicholas. She was cheery and quick-witted and laughed a lot. One day she took Nicholas for a walk and asked him what he hoped to do with his life. To his own surprise Nicholas found himself confessing his feelings to this woman he hardly knew.

“I thought I knew what I wanted in life,” he said. “Everyone told me I was meant to be a soldier, a fighter, and I believed it. But it was what they wanted, not what I really wanted. I just didn’t see it.”

“You were told a story,” his grandmother said, “and you believed it was the only one. That happens to a lot of people.”

Then she told him a story of her own. A story about another war, one that had happened so long ago few remembered it. That war, Nicholas’s grandmother told him, was not over some trumped-up grievance between one city and another. It was not an excuse to steal another nation’s wealth. It was not about glory. It was a war to keep the world from losing its stories.

“Why haven’t I heard about this?” Nicholas asked when his grandmother had finished. “How do you know about it?”

“I know because I have tended the weave of stories that is our world, as loremasters have for many ages.”

“Loremasters?” Nicholas asked. “What are they?”

“You are one yourself,” the old woman said cryptically. “Only you don’t know it. There have been loremasters in our family for many generations. Your parents feared that you would follow in the craft, and so they left Fable and hid the truth from you. I cannot blame them, for they did it out of love. The life of a master of lore is a dangerous one, even more dangerous than that of a soldier.”

When it was time for his grandmother to return home, Nicholas asked to go with her.

And so began the apprenticeship  of Nicholas Pendrake the loremaster.  But it was also the apprenticeship of Pendrake the toymaker. Like many a keeper of stories before him, he found that he needed another trade to earn his daily bread. And so he took up carving again, and made wonderful toys for the children of Fable.

When he was older Nicholas returned to his native city and brought his old rusted armour back with him to Fable. He kept it on display in the library of his toyshop, as a reminder of the folly of believing that only one story can be true.

Writing Dialogue

The writer found the kid standing in his office doorway. The writer was busy.

“What is it this time?”

“Dialogue,” the kid said. “It’s hard. To write it, I mean. I was wondering if you could help me.”

The kid had a notebook in one hand. A real paper notebook, the writer noticed. That was promising.

“Are we speaking?” the writer said.

“Excuse me?”

“I said, are we speaking. As in right now.”

The kid shrugged.

“Well, yeah.”

“Right. Then do that.”

The kid smiled nervously, as if one of them was possibly an idiot but it wasn’t quite clear yet who.

“Um, do what?”

“You’re having conversations all the time,” the writer said. “With all sorts of people. You’re always in dialogue with somebody or other. Aren’t you? Young people these days are always yacking or texting or twittering or whatevering. So what’s so hard about writing the stuff, then? Just write down what you hear.”

The kid frowned.

“Yeah, but. Well, talking like this is one thing. It’s real life. Writing it down is different.”

“How is it different?”

“Well, you need your characters to talk about what the story needs them to talk about, right? Not just any old thing. But you don’t want the dialogue just providing exposition, either. You know, Tell me again, professor, why are we exploring this ancient ruin? Gee, Bob, my new assistant, don’t you remember we’re searching for the lost treasure of Petawawa?

The writer made a snorting noise that might have been a laugh.

“And you don’t want them just blathering on either,” the kid went on. He was really fired up now. “You don't want the small talk people make in real life. How are you? Doing good. And you? Can’t complain. You know, the banal stuff we say to each other on a daily basis. You can’t--”

“Sounds like you’ve already got a pretty good idea of what dialogue shouldn’t do,” the writer said.

The kid blinked. He looked at his notebook, then up at the writer.

“Yeah, I suppose so.”

“That’s a pretty good start, wouldn’t you say?”

“Well, yeah. But … there’s more to it than that. Isn’t there?”

The writer didn’t answer. Instead he gestured for the kid to come in, and then to sit down on the chair across from his desk. The kid did so, with his hands in his lap like a nervous job applicant. The writer stepped around to the other side of his desk, sat down and tapped some keys on his laptop. A moment later his printer whirred and a sheet of paper slid out. The writer plucked the paper from the tray and handed it across the desk.

The kid leaned forward in the chair and took the paper but didn’t glance at it.

“Um … what is …?” he murmured.

“Take it and read it,” the writer said. “Maybe it’ll help. In the meantime, as you can see …” He gestured to the stack of loose pages on the desk beside the laptop.

“Oh, right. Yeah, right, um, sorry. I’ll let you get back to work.”

The kid jumped up from the chair and backed away from the writer's desk.

“So is it okay if I ...” he began.

“Shut the door on your way out,” the writer said. He was tapping on the keyboard, not looking up.

“Right. Sorry. Thanks!”

The kid shut the door ever so gently. Once he was alone in the hall, he blew out a big breath, then lifted the sheet and read.


Ask yourself, why do I want to use dialogue? What can dialogue do for my story? Make a list of all the things dialogue is good for. In the tips below you've find some examples (and also some things dialogue is not good for).

Avoid using dialogue for exposition. Don’t use your characters as Handy Explainers. If they simply have to explain something, if there’s really no way around it, use the following tips to keep the exposition from becoming obvious, straightforward, and boring.

Save dialogue for important exchanges between characters.

People talk to other people because they want something. Know what your characters want (or don’t want) and you’ll know what your characters need to say (or will avoid coming right out and saying).

Avoid dialogue tags that draw attention to themselves. E.g., “He hissed,” “She warbled,” “He enunciated,” “She replied.” Don’t worry about over-using the good old tag “said.” It’s so familiar that readers barely register it consciously, like a mark of punctuation.

Dialogue is wonderful for revealing character. In your notebooks, write lots of “practice” dialogues between characters. Have the characters say all the things to each other (or to you) that they wouldn’t really say in the story. You may not use most of this stuff in the actual story, but you’ll get to know your characters better. You’ll know better how they speak, and what they are likely to say, or keep quiet about.

Use dialogue to create tension. How? Have your characters talk around the central issue. Avoid getting to the heart of the matter too soon. It might seem that getting the characters into big arguments, yelling, screaming, etc., is the way to inject drama into a scene, but as soon as you have the characters “blow up” at each other, oddly enough the tension usually deflates like a punctured balloon. The suspense is over.

Silence can be part of dialogue.

Dialogue is also a physical act. It’s something that we do to each other, and with each other. So make it physical. Use gestures and actions. (And in a case where you’re using your character as a Handy Explainer, think about how they might provide exposition without words; e.g., by gesturing to something, or acting something out).

Remember the rest of the world. What else is going on around the characters engaged in dialogue? How might the rest of the world intrude on the dialogue and throw in a surprise, or increase the tension, or add comic relief?

Use indirection and deflection, the craft of keeping the reader guessing and on her toes. How? Try this exercise: try writing a dialogue scene in which a question is always answered with another question. See how long you can keep this going. Read some of your favourite writers and see how the great moments of dialogue are usually full of surprise twists, non sequiturs, questions answered with questions, evasions, silences … anything to keep the dialogue from becoming one direct statement after another and putting the reader to sleep.

Often in real life conversations are inconclusive. They don't come to the point. Conflicts are left unresolved, or new conflicts are created. People talk at each other and don't listen. Try that with your dialogue. Leave some things unfinished, unsaid, as a way to keep the reader wanting more.

Image from Gabe Wong's "Method & madness" wall at the Art Gallery of Alberta

Shadow of Malabron: edited trailer

The newly edited (and improved) trailer for The Shadow of Malabron, by the amazing Chris Hill.
A trailer for The Fathomless Fire will be coming soon!

The Greatest Plot Ever Told

I think the best way to illustrate what I see as the difference between story and plot is (surprise surprise) by way of a story:

Long ago, when I was a little boy, I always looked forward to the end of the day, because that was when my father would tell me a plot.

Most kids hate bedtime but I loved it, because my father was such a wonderful plot-teller.   

“It’s plot-time, Dad,” I would shout when the clock struck eight. I’d hurriedly brush my teeth, put on my pajamas, and hop into bed. Then Dad would come into my room and sit on the edge of my bed. 

How vividly I remember the comforting scent of tobacco from his knitted sweater (he smoked a pipe, much to my mother’s dismay, and then one day he just quit, cold turkey, and started competing in marathons). I remember the deepening winter twilight outside the window, and the feeling of being safe and cozy in my bed mingling with the exciting certainty that I was about to be swept away into the abstract realm of narrative schematics.

Sometimes I asked my father for the same plot I’d heard the night before, and sometimes I’d ask for a new one. Dad was very good at setting the plots out clearly and concisely so that I could follow the narrative sequence without the hindrances of mood, atmosphere, evocative sensory detail, tension, suspense, or anything else having to do with style and imagination.

Before he began, Dad would always hem and haw for a bit, pretending that he just wasn’t feeling very structuralist tonight. I would protest and whine, and then at last, once he’d got me sufficiently fired up, he’d finally give in and start to tell a plot.

“This is the plot of The Sword in the Stone,” Dad would state in his most clinical and detached voice. “The protagonist is Arthur. The exposition is as follows: as a baby Arthur is given to Sir Ector to raise in secret so that no one will know the child is the son of King Uther. Arthur grows up in Ector’s household. One day Sir Ector and his son Kay travel to London for a tournament. Arthur goes along as Kay’s squire. The inciting incident occurs when Arthur forgets Kay’s sword. There isn’t enough time for Arthur to run back to the camp to get the sword. Then he sees a sword sticking out of a stone in a churchyard. Protagonist breaks taboo: Arthur pulls out the sword and gives it to Kay. Sir Ector recognizes the sword as the one from the stone and asks Arthur how he got it. Kay lies and says he drew out the sword (minor setback). Then Kay admits that Arthur did it. They return to the stone and Arthur puts the sword back and draws it out again. The news spreads and people gather to see what’s going on. Other knights try to draw the sword, but only Arthur can do it. There is much anger and confusion, creating mounting tension leading to the turning point, when Merlin the magician appears and announces that Arthur is able to draw the sword because he is the rightful heir to the throne of England. A new equilibrium is reached, with the protagonist elevated in status.”

What a wonderful plot. One of my favourites. I asked my father for that one many times, and each time I’d sink down into my pillow, letting the pure temporal logic of a well-constructed sequence of narrative events carry me toward sleep…

Okay, I’ll stop there before my own story puts you to sleep.

 Image from Henson's The Storyteller

Most of the time all we want is to enjoy a good story. We don’t think about plot. We don’t care how it works. It just does.

But if you’re a reader who also wants to write, then you might want to study the way your favourite writer grabbed you and kept you hooked from beginning to ending. And one of the most important elements of story for grabbing and holding the reader is plot. So study plot. Make a plot outline or a plot diagram of your favourite book. Make plot diagrams of your own writing. Sometimes an outline or a diagram can show you why a story of your own isn’t quite working (maybe there’s way too much exposition at the start, or you’ve placed the crisis point too early, or too late, or there is no crisis point -- the story just peters out...)

But my advice is not to get too caught up in plot construction, in sticking to a pattern of inciting incident, rising action, climax, falling action, etc. That’s the road to formula, to a story without surprise, without risk, without life. Usually it’s best to just trust your story instincts (we all have them; we’ve been absorbing Story all our lives).

There’s so much more to a good story than a sequence of events. No one ever really said “Tell me a good plot.”

To my blog readers: if there are any other elements of story that you would like me to talk about, let me know.

Story vs Plot

When I was starting out as a writer, one word that bothered me more than any other was plot.

I knew a story had to have a plot (well, most stories I liked seemed to have one). But I wasn’t good at coming up with them, and that weighed on me. Whenever I sat down to write a story of my own, I never started with plot. I started with an image, or a memory, or at most an idea. Then, as the writing went on, I’d be struggling to do other things, like getting to know my characters or choreographing a scene or putting words together with beauty and precision, the way my writing idols did.

I usually put off thinking about plot as long as I could. The idea of it seemed too mechanical, too structured for the messy, meandering, intuitive way I got a story onto the page. And I thought that my way was wrong -- that I should be good at plot, that it was vitally important. And that belief blocked me and oppressed me as a writer.

I liked the word story a lot more. Story was something I felt I knew, deeply and intuitively rather than as an intellectual abstraction. Like most people, I’d grown up being told stories, reading stories, making up my own stories (often to get out of trouble, or start some). Even today, if someone starts to tell a story, I can feel the kid in me relax into that calm readiness to listen.

At some point as a writer I remembered this truth: that story lived deep in me in a way that plot didn’t. Eventually I stopped worrying so much about plot. What I was doing was telling a story. Or growing one, maybe. That seemed a better metaphor. A story is something that grows. 

And I also began to notice that short stories didn’t necessarily need a lot of plot, that in fact they were often better without much of it. 

Novels were a different matter. When I first started writing a novel I discovered that plot was more important to think about, but not too soon, and not too much.

Now when I write I still try to put off thinking about plot for as long as I can, and just let the story grow. I know that sooner or later I’ll have to grapple with plot. But it’s not really a struggle anymore, it’s more like a useful tension. Plot is part of the process. Or maybe it’s the bones, the skeleton in whatever the story is growing to be. 

Image by T Wharton


To a young person who wants to write, letter # 2

To a young person who wants to write

Letter # 2,

Dear X,

In my last letter I talked about just plunging in and writing. You might say That’s crazy. You may have heard or been told that you should always have an outline first, a plan for what you intend to write. Well, yes, that might work just fine for some writers, but in my view, too much planning (or too soon) is one of the main reasons why so many people get discouraged and give up on writing.

That’s what I found when I was starting out, anyhow. The first time I tried to write a novel, I plotted it all out ahead of time, like I thought I was supposed to. I came up with a detailed outline, but when I actually tried to write the novel, I found I was  bored with my own story. I already knew everything that was going to happen (and it was a pretty clichéd plot, too). There was no excitement of discovery, no mystery, no surprise. No fun. And so I soon gave up on it. I thought I just didn’t have what it took to write a novel.

Then a wise teacher showed me that there are other ways to write. You can start with something that has no plot at all. You can start with almost nothing, with an image, even just a word that intrigues you. If you just keep writing, and trust in the creative process, that word or image or plotless fragment will grow, and take shape, and become a story.

When I write something I want to be its first reader. That is, I don’t want to know too much about what’s going to happen or where the story is going to take me. I want to be surprised. I want to find myself wondering how are the characters ever going to get out of this mess? That’s how I keep myself interested and energized for the long haul of the writing journey.

Once I’ve got a lot of the story written, then I usually find it helpful to create an outline. I can use it to keep track of what I’ve got already and to sketch out the possibilities of where I might go from here.

Outlines can get us stuck in one narrow idea of what our story should be. That kind of narrow focus may be just fine if you’re writing a how-to manual, but novels and stories need to breathe. They’re imaginary worlds. An imaginary world is not about should, it’s all about could. Give your story, your world, room to grow. Let it take you to unexpected places.

Outlines and plot synopses are useful tools. For some writers, they’re indispensable. You might be that kind of writer. If so, that’s great. Ignore what I've said and just keep going. But planning and outlining is not the only way to get a story started. There might be some other approach that works better for you. The only way to find out for sure is to try different methods, and to keep writing.

Here’s a site with some more good writing advice. Here's another, with links to other resources and short videos of author Neil Gaiman and others offering writing advice. 

And X, here's a question I ask my writing students: what are some of the aspects of writing you have the most trouble with? Creating believable characters? Dialogue? Coming up with a good plot? Let me know what you'd like some specific advice about and I'll address it in another letter.

Image by T Wharton

To a young person who wants to write

To a young person who wants to write.
Letter # 1

Dear X,

If you want to write, then just write.

It doesn’t matter if you don’t think you have good ideas, or you think your writing is awful, or you can’t think of something to write about. If you have the urge to express yourself in words, go with it. Just get something out onto the page. This is just the rough stuff – no one else has to see it. You can always fix it up later, or not. No one else ever has to read your rough work if you don’t want them to. You can trash it, you can delete it as soon as you’re done (although I would advise against that – you never know when you might want to have another look at something you’ve written).

People sometimes get two very different things mixed up: being a writer and getting published. You don’t have to be published to be a writer. You just have to write. It sounds corny, I know, but writing really is its own reward. Ask just about any creative person and they’ll tell you that real joy and fulfillment comes from the creative act itself and not whatever recognition or fame one might earn from it. A lot of people say that it’s going to get harder in these changing times for writers to earn money from their work. Do you think that’s going to stop anyone who wants to write from writing? I don’t.

So that’s my first bit of advice to you: just write. Just start, then keep going. Don’t stop to edit yourself or criticize yourself. Just write. Just start, then keep going. Time yourself and see if you can write non-stop for five minutes. Then the next day try seven minutes. Then ten minutes. Do it every day.

You don’t need a plan. You don’t need an outline.

You don’t even need a subject to write about. If you can’t think of anything to write about then just start writing about that: “I can’t think of anything to write about today because I'm sitting here in my room going stir-crazy and have no idea what to write but I just noticed that little dent on the wall of my room which I can’t remember seeing before but I bet it came from when my brother borrowed my hockey stick and then tossed it back into my room when he was done with it he never looks after my stuff or his own stuff for that matter -- like the time he …” 

You might be surprised how quickly the brain will get on to something, how it will find a story to tell if you just keep the pen moving or the keys on the keyboard tapping.

Just write.