Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Break Writer's Block with Flash Fiction

Flash fiction can be even better than journaling for working through writer’s block. Creativity and imagination require an open mind ready to receive new ideas and play with them. Many of our feelings and reactions to a situation (even a fictional one) can shut this valve off, often when we most need a creative response.

Sometimes the very reason we experience a block is due to an ingrained and conditioned aversion to digging too deeply into something we don’t understand. You may be writing well when suddenly a character confronts you with a behaviour you don’t want to write about. Perhaps it’s your own behaviour, but it may be that of someone close to you, or someone who has hurt you. Flash fiction is an ideal vehicle for exploring your feelings about behaviours that you were told were acceptable but are not, or vice versa.

Let your characters explore subjects for you. Prejudice, insecurity, fear, misconception and misunderstanding, rules and religious laws, jealousy, resentment, disappointment, frustration, boredom, disillusionment – any of these can cause paralysing block if we let them control us. Why not let a character control the situation instead? You can try different responses, personalities, and histories for the characters and see if it changes the scene in any way. It also gives you empathy for all of the people involved, instead of just a single reaction or a list of feelings.

The funny thing about creativity is that it responds to a challenge. Present it with a preconceived idea fully accepted as truth and it will nudge at you until you explore the idea further.

Another reason fiction-as-self-analysis works so well is that it distances you from your problem; your resentment or other negative emotions that can cloud your view of the situation are removed. Many people find it difficult to assess themselves fairly. We tend to either put a better spin on our actions, or make ourselves out to be worse than we really are.

What can your character do, or ask someone else to do, that will help to ease the situation? Is your character showing you that you need to change your attitude to a situation or to somebody you interact with regularly? Your characters might be stronger than you are, but when you see that strength portrayed on the page you can realise the steps you need to take to empower yourself.

Flash fiction is therapy in a paragraph. Spill your guts.


Elsa Neal is currently on maternity leave, but is volunteering (mostly one-handed) behind the scenes at Blood-Red Pencil. She writes fiction as Elle Carter Neal and is based in Melbourne, Australia. Browse through the resources for writers available at her website or follow her writing insights at her Fictional Life Blog.

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  1. Elle, I do this without realizing it—at least in my head—every time I drive with my husband. If he wasn't so cultured he would definitely be a candidate for road rage! His blood pressure rises as people zip past him, cut him off, fail to stop at stop signs.

    Since I don't see how getting angry helps the situation at all, I make up little stories as to why those drivers acted that way (can't read English, don't have driver's license, on the lam, having a heart attack, rushing to hospital, etc.). That's my therapy!

  2. Elle, I had never viewed writing fiction (flash fiction or novels) as therapeutic, but it makes sense. Then I considered an underlying theme of my books -- abuse. My children and I have lived through abuse, been shaped by it, still struggle with its aftereffects. Can fiction writing rival journaling as a coping mechanism to assuage the pain? Perhaps so.

    Very insightful post. Thank you!

  3. Good advice, Elle. My novels have been spurred in part by my need to work through some social issue. Early on in my writing I realized that my characters were too much "me", however, so I had to remind myself to create someone different. The best lesson for that came from acting and directing. I remember actors telling me they could not do something because it just wasn't something they would do. I had to remind them that it wasn't them being asked to do that, it was their character.

  4. LOL Kathryn. I can just picture that.

    Linda, I'm sure it does work when done subconsciously, but you may find the therapeutic value is enhanced when it's used deliberately.

    Maryann, that's good advice, too. I love to write characters who are different to me, so that I can work through issues from a completely different perspective or figure out how to approach a situation as a stronger person.


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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