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June 10, 2014

Writer’s Block? Use a Random Generator

Question mark with text: Escape Writer's Block with Randomization

I’ll probably jinx myself by saying this, but I have more than enough story ideas to keep me busy writing for the rest of my natural life and I haven’t yet suffered from writer’s block. But I know others do struggle and come up blank.

My “seat of my pants” writing style means that I rely on my muse for everything, and so far, he hasn’t let me down. But others need to know every plot point in advance and can get hung up on figuring out the details or might have a too-often-silent muse.

Those issues are nothing to be ashamed of. We all work in different ways, and we all have different strengths and weaknesses.

So even though I don’t suffer with those issues (until now, when I just jinxed myself again *smile*), I was fascinated by the writing process I saw in a forum post and wanted to share. This author’s techniques might be helpful for any writer—no matter our process.

Secrets from a Fast Writer

KBoards is a forum community for all things Kindle. Advice threads in their Writers’ Cafe section frequently link to my site, so I occasionally pop over there to see the conversation.

One KBoards user, known as EelKat (Wendy C. Allen), wrote an in-depth explanation of how she writes a short story a week (scroll down to reply #15). Yes, really! In fact, she’s running a 52 stories in 52 weeks challenge based on her process.

That pace of a 5,000-15,000 word story per week is too crazy-fast for me. However, Wendy’s process includes several great insights about how to keep unknowns from slowing us down during the drafting phase.

In short, she uses my beat sheets for structure and lots of random generators for the details. While I wouldn’t use generators the way she does (filling in the blanks to create a story she publishes without external editing), her method works for her and her readers and meets her goals.

What I took away from her process is that we shouldn’t waste our precious writing time drawing a blank when we could use tools to kickstart our muse. After reading about Wendy’s process, I can see how random generators might be useful for giving our subconscious something to work with or for getting us unstuck.

Meet Your Brainstorming Helper: Random Generators

These sites each contain several random generators. If you can’t find the random generator you want at any of these sites, do a Google search for the specific type you need. Between these four sites, we’d probably find most of what we need:

Drawing a Blank on Plot?

Check out these examples for what we’d see if we use these links to come up with:

  • a plot twist
    • “Things were looking good until…a critical piece of technology is lost.”
  • a quick story idea
    • “The theme of this story: romantic adventure. The main characters: neurotic rascal and manipulative explorer. The major event of the story: political conflict.”
  • a basic plot idea
    • “This is a story about empowerment and things man was not meant to know. The story is about a secretive construction worker with unusual luck. It starts in a mansion. The story climaxes with a spiritual experience. Weapons proliferation plays a major role in this story.”
  • a basic plot where you can tweak the each of the details
    • “A wise 20 year-old man
      A daring 29 year-old woman
      The story begins in an abandoned warehouse
      Someone loses a fortune at cards
      It’s a story about risk-taking
      Your character has some tough lessons to learn “
  • a reboot idea
    • “The story of Sinbad envisioned as a psychological cyberpunk tale.”
  • a “What If…?” idea
    • What if… “…the construction of the Panama Canal involved aliens?”
  • a “In a world where…” idea
    • “In a city of sorcery, in a time of crime and magic, an archer hopes to solve the ultimate crime.”
  • a “re-imagine a story from a stripped-down movie logline” idea
    • “A skilled extractor is offered a chance to regain his old life as payment for a task considered to be impossible.” (Inception)
  • a conspiracy theory idea
    • “The prime minister is conspiring with foreigners to ruin the economy.”
  • an adventure idea
    • “The heroes need to remove the enchantment from the gatehouse without exposing themselves to the contagion or the land will be overrun with beasts.”
  • a prophecy idea
    • “They will parade after the first frost.”
  • an action, fantasy, or romance idea
    • “Down on their luck, the main character loses what’s dearest to them when long lost friend returns, asking them for a favour that will eventually ruin their reputation. Unable to refuse, the main character, public enemy number one, vows to get revenge. In the end, after a shocking revelation, the main character is able to put the past behind them and settle down in a peaceful life.”
  • a paranormal romance idea
    • “The warmhearted, pessimistic heroine has been involved with the supernatural since she discovered she was a shapeshifter. After the violent death of a loved one, she finds herself caught up in an electrifying adventure. Can she resist the brash, salacious fey who is more than he seems?”
  • an apocalypse idea
    • Initial Cause: world domination attempt gone wrong and nuclear experiment gone wrong
      Threats:
       pools of acid, giant wolves, diseased animals, and toxic food
      Survivors: 37.1% of the population”
  • a symbolic tale idea
    • “The action-packed story where the avatars of a god map to the pieces on a chess board.”

Drawing a Blank on Characters?

Check out these examples for what we’d see if we use these links to come up with:

  • character names (modern or fantasy or various nationalities)
    • “Ashlee Marshall” or “Raem” or “Ciprian Victor” (Romanian)
  • basic characters
    • “The time-traveler who fights for justice and who has a tragedy in the past.”
  • character outline
    • “An adventurous 23 year-old woman, who comes from a wealthy background, lives in an eco-friendly home and tends to worry a lot.”
  • physical descriptions
    • “This woman has tan skin, dark brown eyes and very messy brown hair.
      She has thick eyebrows.
      She is 4′ 11″ and has a small build.
      Her clothes are usually quite fine and she prefers them to be modest.”
  • character attitudes
    • “Is somewhat antagonistic towards the character, and feels passionately about it. Their feelings spring from regional stereotypes. Somewhat likely to act on these feelings.”
  • basic character motives
    • “Driven by hedonism, their goal is to live an easy life.”
  • insightful character motives
    • “This character is motivated by suspicion and ambition. At least one of these is due to a falsehood they believe.”
  • villains
    • “This greedy woman of science is motivated by sadism. She employs computers in her plots, usually corrupting commercial software to achieve her goals. She is living on borrowed time.”
  • character interactions
    • “The oddly dressed, wide-eyed young man who is giving a child a piggy back ride.

“Random Generate” Ourselves Out of a Blank Page

Between those four sites, there are random generators for nearly everything, from weather or cars to worldbuilding settings or magic systems. We don’t have to waste time waiting for inspiration to strike.

Yes, the vast majority of the ideas will be ridiculous or silly. In the examples I posted above, those were usually the best out of about 5-20 ideas. But sometimes we just need something to get our muse-subconscious back in the game.

We can keep clicking the “generate” button until something resonates with the story we’re trying to tell, or until something triggers our brainstorming and we come up with a better idea. The point is to not waste time being stuck because that definitely doesn’t help us reach our goals. *smile*

Do you get stuck in your writing, and if so, what elements do you usually get stuck on? Have you used random generators before? If yes, what ones do you like? Do you have additional tips based on how you make them work for you? If you haven’t used them, do you think they might help you get unstuck?

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What do you think?

34 Comments on "Writer’s Block? Use a Random Generator"

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Carradee

I’ve found that—for me, at least—writer’s block is my subconscious telling me “Something’s wrong.” Once I figure out what’s wrong, I can get going forward again.

Of course, sometimes the “something wrong” is physical or emotional rather than anything with the writing, itself. That’s harder.

Tamara LeBlanc
Tamara LeBlanc

Hi Jami!
I’m pretty good about not getting stuck. Normally, when I sit down to write, I write. The words come out. That’s not to say that they’re always spot on, but I don’t usually have writer’s block. Every so often, however, I feel like my muse is on vacation and I admit, I’ve used a generator or two. But I find that reading story blurbs, novels and even watching movies in my genre helps me jump start my muse if he’s on hiatus.
This post is AMAZING, by the way! I can’t believe all the helpful links you’ve added. I can’t wait to check them out.
Have a great day!
Tamara

Lolita Moroney
Lolita Moroney

I dreamt a couple of weeks ago that someone had given me some random elements to put into one story. At first they looked incredibly boring but then I started putting a twist to them and it got really interesting. Can’t for the life of me remember what they were!

My English teacher from middle school used to give us the first sentence and we had to make up the rest of the story ourselves. I always found it so much easier to write that way. I only hope that I finish my first book while he’s still alive, he’d be rather old by now and I’d be so disappointed if he died before then. I have been considering tracking him down and asking him to be a beta reader for me when I get to that stage. Daren’t do it yet, he was a teacher after all and you know how they can nag!

Sara Thorn

I usually don’t get stuck on the first draft (another pantser here! :-)), but sometimes I can get stuck on the second draft. The first draft for me is usually pretty bare-bones–key scenes and what not–and for the second draft, I usually need to figure out how to solve various things, like how to connect plotlines, or solve plot holes.

Sharon Hughson

Since skipping around to the scene that resonates with me at the moment, I haven’t really gotten stalled with a WIP. Right now I’m in the brainstorming phase for a new novel and the “what if” questions are taking me places. Every time I think I might be ready to start writing, a few more ideas spring up and I have to write them down and follow their trail for awhile.
If I do get stuck, I journal from the POV character’s perspective, using a stream of consciousness style, until the emotion and direction of the scene come to me. I use this same trick when the voice of a scene seems to be falling flat.

Amanda
Amanda

I agree with many of the comments today. I don’t often have writers block, but when I do its one of two things. Either I don’t know enough about the story or I’m bored with what I’m writing. Either way, the answer is to take a moment to brainstorm on what needs to happen. I usually try to do that at night since my brain can work on the ideas while I sleep and then the words flow again the next morning.
Random generators sound fun, but I find reading “how to write” books and blogs help me generate the most ideas. Yours is right up there, Jami. 😉

tmycann

Hi Jami,
I’m a linear pantser, too, and as a previous commenter wrote, I’m generally pretty happy to watch the words flow when I sit down to write. Here are the ones I’ve found:
http://nielsenhayden.com/overlord/
http://www.archetypewriting.com/muse/generators/plot.htm
http://nebupookins.github.io/electro-plasmic-hydrocephalic-genre-fiction-generator-2000/

Linda Maye Adams

I think it’s good to experiment with a wide range of ways to create ideas and see what works best for you. When I wrote with a cowriter, he glommed onto the thought of “what if” and berated me as if I was doing something wrong because that phrase didn’t do anything to inspire me. It can be hard for others to understand that what works for them may not work at all for you.

Other kinds of prompts include photographs, objects, even places. You can pick three words out of a dictionary and mash them together into a story or take ten items off your grocery list and include all of them in your story in a creative way. I’ve taken TV episode titles — Westerns are good — changed them up, and those became story title prompts.

Donna Hole
Donna Hole

I’m a seat-of-my-pants writer, but sometimes I feel like a “plotter” because I do a lot of research prior to every writing, and also during the writing. Like my day life, a story takes on its own plot as it is developed, so rigidly sticking to a plan just doesn’t work for me.

Nicole Grabner

Jami, I LOVE this article. It has all kinds of great links that I’m sure I will use at one point or another. I have been on a complete writing moratorium lately, and I always feel like a piece of myself is missing if I’m not writing. Thanks for sharing!

Serena Yung
Serena Yung

Wow, amazing! You’ve never experienced writer’s block in your life? 😀 I don’t suffer from writer’s block, but I do come into “writer’s hiatus” occasionally. So I would pants-write until I “run out of steam”, and then I’d brainstorm future story events. This brainstorming is like a “longer distance pantsing”, haha. I used to randomly generate adventure story related words, and now also use a generator that gives off make-believe nonsense words. I take little bits or combine letters from this nonsense word to see if I can find “clues” to my future plot events. Listening to music and attending to some of the lyrics may help me find clues as well. And sometimes I check people’s Facebook statuses for things to stimulate my muse again too–though that might just be an excuse to go on Facebook. XDD

But I like these random plot (and character) generators you suggested up there, thanks! 🙂

Sharla Rae

I always love these random generators. Thanks so much for sharing these with all of us. Like always, your blog is great. 🙂

Jordan McCollum

Fun! Years ago, I couldn’t figure out what treasure/object my characters should be pursuing, so I made a little MacGuffin generator. (Just got “shoe phone.” Perfect.) It’s here: http://jordanmccollum.com/about/macguffin-generator/

(I ended up finding something that fit with the story without the generator.)

Kathryn McKade

Great collection of links, thank you! Bookmarking this post for sure. (And I love Jordan McCollum’s MacGuffin generator!)

Sheogorath

Thanks for the links. In a story I’m writing, I was going to open on a boy packing for a camping trip, but I tried out the first line generator on the Writing Exercises website, and I now have a much more compelling hook. Cheers! 🙂
BTW, allow emoticons, please?

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