Overcoming Writer’s Block with Setting

Writer’s block is stereotypically depicted as a writer staring at a blank page. I disagree with those depictions.

For most writers, I think a more accurate description of writer’s block is when you are in a scene and something just doesn’t feel right, but you are not sure where to go or what to write next. Your writer’s instincts tell you something needs to be there, but you’re not sure what it should be.

There are many ways to overcome this problem, but one method I discovered (in part derived from the teachings of Donald Maass), is to focus on conflict through setting. For writers like me who have a foundation in play-writing, we can feel confident creating arguments, conflicts, dialogue, relationships. What can be forgotten in novel writing for playwrights is that setting is another character.

When stuck in your story or book, try looking away from the characters and dialogue and focus on their setting. But more than just their setting. Look at their setting and ask yourself: how is this setting helping or interfering with my character’s goals? This is also called “world building.”

In both of Donald Maass’ classic writing books he describes this in detail. Many readers admit to skipping over parts in books, and for the most part, people often skip over what looks like world building. However, as Maass essentially argues in his books, when you make the setting part of the conflict and psychology of the characters, people will want to read these descriptions and it will help (rather than hinder) your story.

In “Writing the Breakout Novel” Maass writes:

How does your setting make people feel? That is the key, not how a place looks but its psychological effect on the characters in your novel.

In “The Fire in Fiction” Maass writes:

Setting comes alive partly in its details and partly in the way that the stories characters experience it.

“The Home Run That Tours America” is essentially all about what Maass describes above. The main characters grow up in a town with freight trains and commuter trains. The book explains how this creates conflict and inspiration in their lives.

Yet, despite this fact, I still came across moments while writing the book where I had to remind myself to remember where the characters were situated to propel the story along. Maass’ advice helped me overcome a momentary experience of writer’s block, and helped me write the following sentence:

The home run train tore through town, our friends and neighbors unaware the freighter just boarded a new passenger destined to symbolize our nation’s best.

What is even more exciting about that sentence was that I was completely blocked before I wrote it. By looking at setting and action and psychology, I was able to write a sentence that overachieved my goals and improved the book’s theme.

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