Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Rule of Twenty

I've been to a number of writing workshops focused on how to deal with those moments when your story seems to hit a brick wall. Now, nobody said writing was easy. If you're trying to make (or supplement) a living at it, you learn it's a job. You have to show up at the "office" and work. You can't wait for your muse. I believe it was Nora Roberts who said some days you have to drag her, kicking and screaming, to your computer (or notebook).

The late Robert B. Parker, speaking at a SleuthFest conference said, "There's no such thing as writer's block. Sure, writing can be hard. But can you imagine calling a plumber to fix your clogged toilet and having him tell you he can't show up today because he has plumber's block?"

One technique that's been mentioned in a good number of workshops I've attended is to invoke the "Rule of Twenty" (not to be confused with another post I did on the "Rule of Three"). The idea is that you come up with twenty pos­si­bil­i­ties for any sit­u­a­tion. There are no bound­aries. As a mat­ter of fact, the totally off-the-wall ideas some­times end up being the strongest.

When I was writing Deadly Secrets, my character was searching for something, and there had to be a reason why he couldn't come right out and ask about it, or the book would be over. There's no story if a character says, "Hey, Joe, I need that painting your grandfather handed down to you," and Joe says, "Sure. Here it is." So, I started listing all the sorts of things Justin, the character in question, might be looking for, and why he had to keep his search a secret.

The first things that come to mind will usu­ally be the obvi­ous, the mun­dane, or the clichés. By the time you get past the first ten, you’ll have some­thing usable. By twenty, you’ll prob­a­bly have some­thing that’s unique to you.

I don’t adhere strictly to the twenty, but I do write down as many pos­si­bil­i­ties as I can think of—and often recruit the Hub­ster to come up with some as well. I've been known to pose these sorts of questions on my Facebook page as well. You never know where that perfect idea will come from.

For example, as a non-plotter, I don't always know where a scene is going. In my current WIP, I reached the following point and hit that wall. (Note: Gordon and Metcalf are searching for a missing woman, and they're in the middle of a snowstorm.)

Now what? Gordon took off after Metcalf, but at a considerably more cautious pace, testing muscles and joints. No serious pains, but he'd feel it tomorrow, and have some Technicolor bruising to show for his mishap.

Puffing, he arrived at the rock outcropping. Disturbed snow leading to a narrow gap in the rocks told him Metcalf was inside. Not willing to squeeze inside the cramped quarters, Gordon held back. "You have anything?"

Metcalf emerged holding a—

This is a perfect place to try that "Rule of Twenty." What sorts of things can you come up with? (For the record, Hubster's immediate response was "a bear" which I don't think I'll be using.)


Terry Odell
is the author of numerous romantic suspense novels, mystery novels, as well as contemporary romance short stories. Most of her books are available in both print and digital formats. She’s the author of the Blackthorne, Inc. series, steamy romantic suspense novels featuring a team of covert ops specialists, the Pine Hills Police series, set in a small Oregon town, and the Mapleton Mystery series, featuring a reluctant police chief in a small Colorado town. To see all her books, visit her website. You can also find her at her blog, Terry's Place, as well as follow her on Twitter, or visit her Facebook page.

23 comments :

  1. I think you have, quite surreptitiously, hit the nail on the head, Terry, with your almost throwaway comment '...as a non-plotter...' I suspect that those of us who don't plot, rarely have the difficulties faced by those who use plots to guide their story-telling. Because we allow our characters to drive the story, we're rarely in that place that plotters face; how do I get from A to B now that I've done X? I've never suffered writer's block. But I hope your piece will help those who have/do.

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    1. Stuart, even plotters might be using this method, although they're doing it in their outline/plot development phase. I don't think having to find the right way to get from A to B is writer's block when it stalls--it's just part of the work. Writing isn't easy. For me, when I know the whole story, the writing is tedious.

      But that's why we are all here, helping each other discover new things to try, finding what works for each of us.

      Terry
      Terry's Place

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  2. Great post, Terry.

    I agree that Writer's Block is usually just getting stuck on one particular part of a story. The trick is to ensure this doesn't put the brakes on the whole piece - just keep going!

    I wrote a post on a similar theme called Keep Moving, Write or Die! where I suggest keeping the flow going, even if it means returning to the sticking point a little further down the line.

    Kelly's Eye - Writing, Music, Life

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    1. Yes, for most of us, an entire book doesn't spring forth without having to stop and think about it. Authors might have that "one" book that simply flows from Chapter 1 to The End, but most will tell you they had to struggle through at least some of the rest of them.
      Terry
      Terry's Place

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  3. This comes at a great time for me, Terry. I have been struggling with the story line for the next book in the Seasons Series and I will use this tip to see if I can get out of the cave with the right thing. (smile) I, too am a panster, and often go to my husband and my kids for help. So far nobody has told me to put a bear in my story.

    Nothing good comes to mind for your Metcalf to bring out of the cave. All I could think of was a scrap of cloth torn from the missing woman's parka, but that is a bit of a cliche.

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    1. Thanks, Maryann - and maybe by the time 20 people have made suggestions, the perfect item will appear! (Which could be nothing--absence of 'stuff' is often as good as 'stuff', especially if it's unexpected.)

      Terry
      Terry's Place

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  4. I like the "rule of twenty." It's a good one. Actually, the best combination for plotting a mystery is to combine plotter and pantser. By this I mean it's a good idea to write out a general outline or synopsis to follow. Then as you start writing, allow flexibility. For example, characters often take on a life and direction of their own. Allow them to do so. It may well improve your writing. If not--there's always the edit phase!

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    1. I like the term "Plantser" which combines both. Or, a much more 'highbrow' sounding term: Organic writer.

      Terry
      Terry's Place

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  5. Love it, love it, love it! I'm not a plotter either, but I have a general idea where I think my story's going. (We won't discuss the number of times my characters have informed me otherwise.) However, even this non-plotter has the occasional sticking point that results in a "now what?" dilemma. I do love the idea of giving the imagination free rein to come up with practical, unusual, and even outlandish ways around that seemingly solid what-now wall. This is a key ingredient in making a good story great.

    Metcalf emerged with empty hands held high. Gordon's countenance fell.
    "Wait, my friend. Empty hands do not necessarily mean failure." Metcalf pulled his digital camera from his pocket. "You've heard of the handwriting on the wall, I assume?"
    "This is no time for clichés."
    "Cliché?" He pulled up a photo on the viewer. "Look at this."
    "Look at what?"
    "The handwriting on the wall. It's been partly rubbed out, but you still can decipher some of it."
    Gordon squinted. "Oh, my god! She's..."

    You get the picture. (No pun intended — this was fun.)

    Fabulous post, Terry.

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    1. And I LOVE your suggestion. Now, we need twenty ideas for the end of your example!

      Terry
      Terry's Place

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  6. A good brainstorming session with my crit group can always get me back on track. If they aren't available, I sit down with a blank sheet and write down anything that comes to me. Sometimes just telling myself I have to fix it keeps me from walking away from it. Other times, I tear the sheet up and go have some tea and wait for an attitude readjustment. :)

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    1. It's a matter of powering through, be it with people, a notebook, or the dog.

      Terry
      Terry's Place

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  7. Good post! This could get me out of a hole I'm in right now.

    "Metcalf emerged holding a backpack."

    Who does the backpack belong to?
    What does it contain?

    This could open several divergent story lines.

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    1. Exactly -- one idea leads to another. Thanks for your suggestion.

      Terry
      Terry's Place

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  8. A great tip--sometimes stepping back and brainstorming will lead to a twist or a turn you would never have thought of if you just sat staring at the page.

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    1. Yes, and even plotters are often led down a different path. C.J. Box said he had an 80 page outline (I still shudder to think of it) for his last book, and then he 'lays the story down over it.' But he also said he's willing to deviate if new ideas appear.

      Someone once said, "Your first idea is rarely the best one," so being open to new avenues and seeing where they lead can be a boon.

      Terry
      Terry's Place

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  9. Terry, so glad I read your post today. I'm trying to make decisions about a new book. Your thoughts will get me going.
    Oh, and I like the bear:)

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    1. Thanks, June. It didn't end up being a bear, though.

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  10. I use a similar technique -- I call it the "what if" list. Taking a brainstorming break is great advice whenever you're feeling down or stuck --thanks for sharing this!

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    1. What if and Why are the two best tools an author can use.

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  11. I'm not much of a plotter either so this rule of 20 will come in handy. thank you !

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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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