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Break Writer's Block: Become the Storyteller, Not the Protagonist

In Eric M. Eisenberg's "Building a Mystery: Toward a New Theory of Communication and Identity," one of the things Eisenberg discusses is the therapeutic approaches to rewriting personal narratives. He makes a comparison between being a protagonist and being a storyteller and how each role can either constrict a person's identity and his or her view of the world or help expand one's identity and view. Being the protagonist, for example, is safe--we know that story, we know the character, and even if we feel trapped by the role, the safety of it, the comfortability of it keeps us trapped within that identity. It can also keep us from seeing beyond the role to the world and other people that surround us. On the other hand, the storyteller, as Eisenberg asserts, "always keeps one metatruth in mind: I am not the story" (547). Not "being the story," the storyteller easily moves from story to story. The storyteller stays in a story long "enough to feel the emotional connection, to experience the heroics and the relationships, but the storyteller always reserves the right to tell a different story." In short, "whereas the protagonist's resources always are limited by the context, the storyteller's resources are limited only by his or her imagination" (547).

Now, you may be wondering why I'm spouting off on an article I read for my dissertation work on a blog about writing.

Well, as I read this article, I thought about writer's block. Often, I hear writers talk of their inability to move forward in a story. "I don't know how to move on to the next part," one might say. "I know what I want to happen, but it won't come out," another might complain. "My characters totally left me and this story," another will bemoan.

I would argue that sometimes, when we're in the drudgery of writer's block, we are performing the role of Eisenberg's protagonist. As a "protagonist" writer, we are stuck in the context we created for our story. We have developed outlines that we refuse to break from, we have an idea of who the characters are and the "right" way to write the story. We are so focused on that one "identity" of our story that we can't see beyond it. When things don't work to fit in that story's identity, we become frustrated, the creativity stops flowing: we enter the domain of writer's block.

To break one's self from writer's block, we can see ourselves as Eisenberg's storyteller. Now, I know what you're thinking. But I AM a storyteller! Yes, yes, you are. Congratulations. But just listen. I know we are all very close, very personal to our stories, but I think at times it's important to remember Eisenberg's metatruth: "I am not the story." When we find ourselves unable to move forward in our story, we should know to zoom out on the story, to look beyond it--the characters, the plots, the structure we have determined to be musts for the story--to see what other people, what other parts of the world are around the story we are trying to write so that we can perhaps incorporate those things and refashion our story in a way that makes it stronger. The "storyteller" writer looks to find the stories that fit the best...not the story we think should fit.

So, the next time you find yourself at the door of writer's block, stop, zoom out, and pan your story's surroundings. Move beyond the constructs you have created for your story and figure out what other elements of your story's surroundings might help to develop a stronger story.

Eisenberg, Eric M. 2001 “Building a Mystery: Communication and the Development of Identity.” Journal of Communication 51.3 (2001): 534–552. Web.

Shon Bacon is an author, editor, and educator. She has published both creatively and academically. Shon also interviews women writers on her popular blog ChickLitGurrl: high on LATTES & WRITING. You can learn more about Shon's writings at her official website, and you can get information about her editorial services at CLG Entertainment. Currently, Shon is busy editing, tinkering with the idea of self-publishing, and pursuing her Ph.D. in Technical Communication and Rhetoric at Texas Tech University.

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  1. A very good point, Shon. I also like that concept of reserving "the right to tell a different story". I know he means that in the context of changing the story one is actually writing, but I've noticed this in terms of jumping from story to story. In the past I've often locked myself into trying to finish the novel I'm working on and it's like drawing blood. If I allow myself to put it aside and start a new novel, the writing flows beautifully. Eventually I'm sure I'll finish all the partials, but for now at least I'm writing and not procrastinating.

    HearWriteNow & Blood-Red Pencil

  2. Terrific post on how to keep your focus, thanks!

  3. Interesting points, Shon. I guess there is something to be said for us who write by the seat of our pants. Someone recently made the comment, "If the purpose becomes you, then you have lost the purpose." This was in reference to leadership positions and how people abuse power, but I think it applies here, too. The story has to be about the story, not the story teller.

  4. I think the more novels I get under my belt, with more "voices" and povs, the less I feel like "I am the story". It is MY story, but it isn't ME.

    Keeping this in mind makes it easier to remember that I am the story-TELLER. I am the creator of my little universe. No matter how often I may let the characters "guide" me, I am the one in charge.

    Good to remember, thanks, Shon!

  5. I really like this shift in thinking. I can't say I've ever really identified as a "storyteller". Wonder why. Maybe because it's also a euphemism for "telling lies"? LOL. I really have to think about this! Thanks for a good, juicy post, Shon.

  6. Thanks for the comments, everyone!


    Elle, that was a great point to make. So many of us beat our heads against a wall trying to finish that ONE book instead of reserving "the right to tell a different story." It not only keeps us from telling ANY story, but it also weighs on us in regards to how we see ourselves as writers. I know way too many writers that think they stink because of major writer's block. If they had chose another road to travel in that story, or picked a whole other story to work on, this issue could possibly be resolved.

  7. That's a good point, Maryann. And you know, speaking to some authors about plotting and pantsing, I get the sense that we all have both sides, with one side probably being dominant. I can see this issue affected a pantser as much as it does a plotter. Plotters can get lost in the story by adhering to the "one" story they set to be told in an outline. A pantser, on the other hand, by just jumping in and writing, can find themselves running out of "pantsing" steam by say 30k with a road of missing 50k ahead of them and no outline, structure in sight. Both scenarios could lend themselves to some serious writer's block.

  8. Dani, you know, I never considered the titled "storyteller" either until I read Eisenberg's essay. Not because of the lie part--as a writer, it's what we do, LOL, but I guess I was one to go, "But I AM a storyteller." I never thought about the way(s) I come to the story as a writer and how that might actually propel me into the world of writer's block while on the writing journey.

  9. I tend to write from the protagonist's head. The one time I got stuck, I realized I was identifying with her too much. I stopped writing her story and started over again from a different angle.

    Shon, I forgot you're at Texas Tech! I was in Lubbock this past Friday.

  10. Written simply and tastefully. It’s pleasant to read. Thank u.

  11. Shon, While I've always admired your succinct posts in 140 words, I have to say, this is my kind of juicy material! Guess I'm just a dissertation kind of gal, lol. (Doctoral candidates use "lol," right?)

    As a person who considers myself as much a storyteller as a writer—even while writing up a developmental edit, I'm telling the author a story about their project—this really hits its mark. While writing memoir, much role confusion comes into play. You are the protagonist, you are the story's raison d'etre, you are the author—you can get pretty twisted up in it.

    You (through Eisenberg) bring up an excellent point about taking that final step back from the material. This very point is at the basis of my "Healing Through Writing" workshops, and my "Healing Through Writing" blog ( We are not only bigger than the story—we can make a better story. Seek all the aspects of story we couldn't have known the first time through, and forgive ourselves the role we unwittingly played. Its big, heavy, important stuff, and I love how you applied it to fiction writing. Thank you!!

  12. Fascinating, Shon. I'd never thought about it in those terms. Haven't thought of myself as a "storyteller" either. Funny.

  13. Oh, neat article Shon. I'm glad to see a fellow writer interested in the theory of storytelling. I learn so much about writing by understanding more about the nature of story. An awesome (!) book on this subject is Brian Boyd's "On the Origin of Stories" - I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to understand why story is such a deep part of human consciousness.

    Memory Writers Network

  14. I'm sorry I missed you, Helen!

    Kathryn, yes, this doctoral student uses LOL a LOT! The minute I read "storyteller" in the article, my interest piqued exponentially. I'm pretty sure my desire to get into creative writing while in the throes of preparing for quals made this write-up possible. *chuckle* But you're right in regards to the memoir writing. Think this is something I might craft toward some of the memoir writers who come to me. They often don't see beyond them in their writing, and when editing their work, I'm usually asking them to zoom out a bit--now I have something solid to discuss with them, :-)

  15. Heidi, you know, I never used the word storyteller to describe myself either, yet there is something about the word that feels really endearing and authentic...that makes me want to claim myself as it.

    Thanks for the book suggestion, Jerry. Checking it out now!

  16. I love the notion of 'zooming out,' with its photographic and cinematic suggestion that a writer needs a grasp of the bigger picture -- in contrast to that little corner in which she or he is stuck. You could also see that as being a contractive vs. expansive mode, which allows room for imagining. In other words, let the story breathe.

  17. I suffered writer's block recently also--one of my worsts! This is how I broke it: I got myself lost in the woods.


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