Whenever I'm stuck while writing a story I use a simple technique to find out what my characters will do next. I can't guarantee it'll work for anyone else, but I'm comforted by the thought that at least one other writer uses the same technique.
I found this out several years ago while watching a television program that followed various writers along their book writing journey from the first idea through to publication, even if that was many years. I was amazed to find that one of the profiled authors did something I did. This surprised me because we inhabit a writing world that is so different we might as well live in alternative universes. I write western yarns that aim to provide a few hours of light-entertainment. She wrote award-winning literary masterpieces in which every word has been precisely crafted to say something profound about the human condition.
If the program was an accurate representation, her life was one I'd thought existed only in Merchant & Ivory films in which delicate socialites loll around beside the river suffering angst because their favourite teddy-bear has lost an ear. While preparing to write, she held glittering dinner parties attended by cravat-wearing men called Tristam and cape-wearing women called Jocasta. They sat around the dinner table and said things like: I thing it was Oscar Wilde who said, "a good book is like an oyster in that both are easy to open, but not everyone can appreciate the contents." And then everyone laughed uproariously. Suffice to say if anyone were to invite me to that kind of party, I'd hide in the loft until they went away!
Even her writing environment was jaw-droppingly different. She didn't bang away on a keyboard in the spare room. She went to her chateau in the south of France and on the veranda she wrote in long-hand with a gold-plated fountain pen while her assistant did the typing. When she finished, she held a novel-finishing party for her literary chums where everyone drank Pimms and chortled while they waited for the publisher to send a courier round to collect the completed masterpiece. This made my finishing tradition of bunging a print-out into an envelope and queuing up down the post office feel a bit tacky.
Anyhow, despite inhabiting a different world, she had still developed the same technique for solving plotting problems that I had developed. Now I apologize for the writers' jargon as this technique is an advanced one. But here is the technique: I go for a walk.
The 'go for a walk' methodology works like this: I'm stuck. The white space isn’t getting any smaller, so I tell the pooch to stop snoring and drag him out the house. I have a favourite walk that goes through the woods and comes out in the field before my house. For the first thirty minutes the walk is through trees, but I tell myself that when I see my house for the first time, I'll have thought through the plotting problem and I'll know what comes next in my story.
But being a champion procrastinator, for the first thirty minutes I do anything but think about writing. My thoughts will be devoted to a constant stream of 'stop chasing that squirrel up a tree' and 'if you roll in that horse poo you're going under the cold tap'. So by the time I see my house it comes as a shock. I panic. I had all that time to think and I haven't. I try to think, but I can't. Nothing comes. I get closer and closer to the house and there's nothing. The gate is a few yards away and still I have nothing.
Then, with disaster looming and the pooch hoping we'll go around again so he can have a second go at the squirrel and horse poo, it comes. I remember my last written line and I can see my characters talking and one says one thing, a reply comes, and then they start moving around. And there, out of nowhere, I have the start of the next scene and a sense of direction. Thirty-four minutes of nothing, but one great minute at the end, and now I can start writing.
I guess it's a left brain / right brain thing and so this technique is no different to listening to music, or taking a long shower, or baking, or playing squash. But the method appears to be that if you think about a problem (not necessarily writing) you can never think of the answer. So take yourself away and do something completely different. When your brain is no longer cluttered with the issue and it's happily devoting itself to something else, then the solution will spring into your mind as if from nowhere.
So, going for a walk? I do it. Anyone else?