If you’re feeling unmotivated or your writing feels stale, it may be time to change up the way you write. The following is a selection of techniques you may not have tried. They can be used as exercises to get your juices flowing, or they might become your new M. O.
Free writing is the most extreme form of pantsing. Write (without editing, and without prior planning) for some set period of time or until you reach a natural stopping point. Then, put your document aside (for days, or weeks, or months, or years) and come back to it for a completely separate editing phase. Alternatively, discard it permanently.
Most writers & aspiring writers have already heard about free writing, but dedicated plotters may have resisted trying it. It’s not for everybody: free writing does not generally produce high-quality well-structured output, and requires an editing pass that may feel discouraging. But free writing (even if the results get immediately discarded) represents a way out of the rabbit hole of planning that plotters can fall into, as well as a way to work out difficult kinks in a story that may not be visible in an outline.
Even if the writing produced is discarded entirely, the experience of free writing demonstrates that it is possible to write something valuable without planning, and discarding whole documents is good practice for the kind of cut-throat editing you may need to do later. Writers need to recognize that ideas are cheap and words are cheap — after all, nearly everything you write will be discarded or obviated as you figure out new and better ways to express yourself!
If free writing is the most extreme form of pantsing, outline expansion is the most extreme form of plotting. In this technique, you create an outline of story events and then progressively substitute general headings with detail. I rarely see this technique recommended (though I gather it is popular with some pulp science fiction authors), but it will be familiar to most aspiring writers because it’s a natural extension of the idea of plotting
Outline expansion is guaranteed to produce a story-shaped object, unlike free writing (which is more likely to produce a stream of consciousness monologue, prose poetry, or an essay of some kind). However, it’s also liable to produce a ‘lumpy’ story in terms of pacing: when thinking about filling in sections in an outline, it’s natural to have sections of roughly equal size, but some sections would need to grow or shrink in order for the result to work as a whole story. Meanwhile, the order of sections that you initially decide upon may produce an ill-paced or anticlimactic story, and so sections may need to be cut or re-ordered during an editing phase.
William Gibson is famous for his use of dramatic, poetic prose. He writes highly imaginative books that are nonetheless page-turners. He’s got a very specific writing technique that produces this effect, and few people mimic it.
Gibson writes in order, each day appending new text to the end of the previous day’s work. Before writing any new text, he goes through the entirety of the already-written draft and edits it.
As a result of this technique, Gibson’s books are quite polished out of the gate: if he’s been working on something for a year, the first page has been edited and tightened up three hundred sixty five times. Continuity errors and accidental shifts in tone or style are rare, because Gibson has loaded the entire book into his head before writing. Of course he produces page turners with great re-read value, because he’s re-reading his own book every day.
This technique certainly has downsides. It’s time-consuming to read most of a novel every day, and this means that you won’t be putting out potboilers working like this. When applied to shorter works, there are fewer passes and so the polish doesn’t show as strongly. When applied to substantially longer works, the timeline for completion extends out arbitrarily.
Following a Template
A more reliable alternative to simple outline expansion is to follow one of the many story templates available. From Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat to Dan Harmon’s Story Circle, there are plenty of these to choose from, and if you follow their instructions properly you will more reliably produce something that feels well-paced and satisfying (even if, without craft, it still won’t necessarily be interesting).
Nevertheless, a deep understanding of why these templates work (based on the ability to create both successful and unsuccessful stories based on those structures, and the ability to create a successful story that violates those structures in specific ways) will improve your ability to structure plots in general, and familiarity with the templates will make it easier to learn from other people’s stories.
These templates are generally the result of analysis, not construction — in other words, they are literary analysis tools, and can be stretched to apply to arbitrary stories. They represent commonalities between what the creator of the model considers to be satisfying stories, and by using them for story creation, they help you create new stories that are satisfying in the same ways as the old ones. They do not help you ‘go beyond’ into genuinely new territory — and the authors of these templates will often spend a lot of effort dismissing the territory ‘beyond’ as uninteresting, unprofitable, or a poor bet. You don’t need to agree with them to use (and learn from) their templates, nor do you need to develop loyalty to one tool or another!
Breaking a Template
If you have followed somebody’s template and developed an understanding of how their model of storytelling works, you can begin to identify the model’s blind spots. What kind of story does the template explicitly disallow? Which kinds of stories not allowed by the model are interesting to you? You can explore these corners by inverting specific rules, or by trying to work outside all of them.
You are less likely to produce a work that people find satisfying in this way, but you are much more likely to learn about what people find satisfying and why! Sometimes, works produced in this way end up being quite good and spawn their own imitators.
Creating a Template Library
In the golden era of the pulps, writers were paid by the word and needed to produce satisfying stories at volume, quickly. They came up with a large variety of techniques to deal with this harsh environment. One of them is the private template library: a set of pre-written paragraphs for describing particular situations, along with notes for how to customize them.
Usually, actual pulp authors would (upon writing about a new situation or writing a new kind of scene) clip it and transcribe it onto a note card. They’d keep a filing system of note cards by topic, and when they were at a loss for how to write a scene, they’d dig out the notecard and start by modifying their previous attempt. However, it’s a worthwhile project to produce a template library ex nihilo.
Take apart some stories you have already written (or somebody else’s stories) and categorize the scenes. Rewrite them in several different ways, with different details, and create a set of templates to work off later. Occasionally, pick up one of these cards and write new variations on the same theme.
Later, if you need a writing prompt, you can pick out a card at random and start with the scene described. Or, you can use these templates as place-holders when filling in an outline.
Focusing on Pitches
Some aspiring writers hold on tightly to their favorite ideas, worried that they cannot afford to abandon them. Established writers generally recognize that ideas are cheap. One way to prove that ideas are cheap (and to accumulate plenty of rainy-day material for when you need something new to write and feel uninspired) is to make a habit of recording every new story idea you have.
I have been doing this for a few years, and I have a large archive. I am not abnormally prolific: if you keep recording your story ideas, you will have a document like this in a few years too.
A good exercise to become better at idea generation is to try to seed this kind of document. One way to do this is to take an existing pitch or summary & try to figure out a simple way to change it that will make it seem like a totally unrelated story. Home Alone is basically just Die Hard with Bruce Willis replaced by a child, but that isn’t necessarily obvious to somebody who watches Home Alone for the first time — the change in protagonist changes the way we feel about the story and also necessitates changes in the setting and premise. We’ve seen plenty of stories like ‘what if Superman were evil’, but I have not seen a story along the lines of ‘what if Superman had a social anxiety disorder’ or ‘what if Superman built his identity around his foot fetish’ — two things that would fundamentally change his character so that he was no longer recognizable as Superman.
The goal here is not quality. You will not actually write most of these stories (and if you do, you haven’t been making enough pitches). The goal is variety and volume.
If your characters seem to be behaving boringly sensibly, one way to shake things up is to add explicit randomness. Human beings are natural pattern-matchers, and sometimes this drives us into a rut — we can wrack our brains endlessly and never come up with an idea that feels really original. A pair of dice is substantially more creative than a human being in this way.
Come up with six (or sixty-six) possible events that could happen or choices that a character could make, then roll the dice and commit to whatever they say. (If it really doesn’t work, you can always revert it tomorrow or next week, but commit for long enough to take the decision seriously.) If you have a hard time coming up with interesting options, try using a divination system like tarot or the i ching, where randomly selected options have sets of established meanings and symbolism. Phillip K. Dick famously plotted his award-winning novel The Man in the High Castle by actually casting the i ching every time one of his characters did and treating the result as a meaningful indication about the world of the novel.
You can perform random plotting before even beginning to write, too. For instance, you can perform a tarot spread and treat it as describing the protagonist of your story. Conventional spreads work well for this (beginners ought to at least try a 3-card spread — past, present, and future), but there are online communities that develop various elaborate spreads specifically for the purpose of working out plot & character information in writing stories.
Another kind of random plotting is bibliomancy. Choose a random passage from a random page of a book and treat it as inspiration, or as an oblique description of your story.
Table-top roleplaying has been quite influential on fantasy fiction, and not only have ideas like character classes and a conventionalized stable of fantasy races migrated from D&D into fantasy but some popular franchises began as elaborated transcripts of actual campaigns. This latter point indicates something important: role playing is an extremely effective form of collaborative storytelling. You don’t need to involve rulebooks or dice if you don’t want, but you can often get out of a storytelling rut by involving other people — especially if each of you improvises while trying to inhabit a role.
Writing in a Survey of Styles
It can often be informative to mimic the style of a writer you admire. However, you can quickly develop a ‘voice’ that sounds derivative if you don’t mix it up a bit. One way to develop the nuances of your own style is to write the same story several times — each in the style of a different writer.
Becoming confident with this technique makes it easier to adapt elements of other people’s style to your own work — to treat writers as “effects pedals” the way Gibson does.
Even with all the above techniques, you may still get stuck in a rut. You might find that it seems like you’ve sucked all the creativity you can out of them (though you almost definitely have not). In that case, it’s time to bring out the big guns: constrained writing.
Using constraints means applying rules to your writing. In this context, the stranger and more unnatural the rules, the better. You may want to engage in lipogramy (writing without the use of some particular letter — usually ‘e’: that taboo glyph that is most common in our orthography is most difficult to omit, so writing with such a constraint will go loopy and circumlocutory). You may instead want to alliterate wildly, or limit yourself to words that are exactly five letters long. The point is to write in such a way that no normal habits can be maintained, and force yourself out of your customary paths into the unexplored spaces between them.