Writer's Block- An Issue of Abundance
Twenty years ago, psychologists Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper discovered a curious phenomenon at a swanky California food market. After a number of days observing the shopping habits of the people who visited the market, they noticed that a table filled with six varieties of jam had ten times more sales than a table with 24 varieties of jam. TEN TIMES.
Was the jam at the smaller table just that much better? In fact, the jams were from the same company. So, why were the jams at the smaller table so much more likely to fly off the shelves? It’s a phenomenon called “choice paralysis.” Researchers posit that having an excessive number of choices actually reduces peoples’ ability to choose, making them more likely to walk away entirely.
While this phenomenon was first studied in consumerism, its premise is relevant across various aspects of our lives, and writers are no exception. While some of my clients fall into the classic traps of writer’s block such as struggling to find a place to start or connect important plot lines, many have also mentioned feeling a sense of paralysis, not for a lack of ideas, but for an abundance.
For some, the vast number of ideas leads them to choose none. I often hear my clients say that they decided to organize their notes, or pick up a book in their genre, or do extra research instead of writing. These choices vary in a variety of ways for the writers I work with: too many plot points, a growing list of potential characters, or simply too many story ideas and not a clue which one to start with. One of the things I hear a lot when this comes up is, “Shouldn’t this be a good thing? I have a lot of ideas, why can’t I just choose one and go?” That’s really the magic question.
Let’s say, for example, you’ve just finished a story and you’re looking to start your next project. You go to choose something from your list of story ideas and realize that it now includes two dozen ideas. If you visualize that list in your head, what does your brain feel like? Twenty-four ideas? Mine feels like mush.
Now, imagine instead that you’re list is only four story ideas long. Is it easier to choose? The answer is almost always, “yes.” This is because there is less risk. We get so caught up in choosing the ‘wrong’ idea or plot or character, that we decide not to choose at all, which leads to a litany of other problems like procrastination and more traditional writer’s block. But, when given fewer options, writers often find that their decisions are easier.
Now, the big disclaimer here is that I am not remotely suggesting that you stop coming up with ideas to write about. That would be absurd. What I am suggesting, is finding ways to offer yourself fewer choices at one time.
Story Idea Organization
Consider organizing your story ideas by genre. When I finish a project and look to start my next, I often get a tingle for a specific KIND of story before I start to think about a specific plot. This will allow you to choose from a shorter list.
If that doesn’t work, consider organizing by story length. There are many times a story idea comes to me in a dream (or daydream or moment of intense anxiety) and I can quickly come up with the plot, characters, and setting. These ideas are added to a short story list that I keep separate from my book ideas. This way, I can decide which list I want to pull from for my next project: short stories or novel ideas (I even have a few for novellas or poems).
The last suggestion is to consider organizing story ideas by those with the most vetting. Each time I come up with a new story idea, I add it to a running list of ideas (by both genre and length). Once I add enough scenes, plot points, and character ideas to the original story concept, I pull it to a ‘front-runner list.’ This list is much smaller and only includes story ideas that are ready, or almost ready, for outlining. Sometimes this happens quickly, other times it takes years, but having a limited list of vetted stories makes it easier to choose what to focus on next.
Too Many Characters/ Plot Points
There are two competing suggestions for this, and it depends entirely on your writing style.
The first suggestion is to write all of the plot points and all of the characters. It doesn’t matter necessarily if they all make sense together. If the idea of choice is causing you to stop writing, then simply write all of them. Then, the choice becomes more about eliminating what doesn’t work. Perhaps a character you thought would be important suddenly doesn’t add as much meaning to the story, or a plot point you were particularly excited about doesn’t push the story forward. Then you can make the choice to cut these things, rather than choosing what to write.
The second suggestion is to stop writing the story and instead write about your characters/plot. For example, what are your character’s goals and obstacles? What can they add to the story? How do they fit with the plot? For plots, consider how they push the story forward. Does that movement help your character achieve their goal? Does it move the story forward or does it derail the story into an entirely new direction (which isn’t always bad)? While the methods are a bit different between these two suggestions, they both allow you to eliminate what no longer makes sense.
Working through abundance can sometimes be just as difficult as trying to generate new ideas. The idea is to find a strategy that works for you and your writing style.
Need help working through your ideas? I am now accepting new writing clients! If you are interested, please reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org!