For Writers

Sitting Down to Write: How to Start When You’re Stuck

We all know the feeling. You’ve got a scene in your head you want to write, but your brain isn’t working. Your fingers won’t cooperate. Maybe it’s your keyboard that has it out for you. Whatever the case, you can’t think. You want to start, but you’re stuck.

Here are a couple of tricks I find really handy for that first half-hour when you’ve sat at your desk, opened your laptop or your notebook, and gone “… oh no.”

1. Make a list of sensory words to put you in the mindset of your scene.

What’s your character seeing? Hearing? Smelling? Touching? Say I’m writing a scene where my main character is running from a monster in a rainstorm. I might make a list like this:

mud, muck, slippery, splatter, pouring, shoes squelching, shivering, sheets of rain, buckets, splashed, slipped; snarling, slobbering, growling, thundering paws; spikes of lightning, blinding, flash, silver; panting, whimpering, skidding, falling, crashing

This’ll help you visualize the scene and get into the headspace.

2. Try describing your character’s emotional state, moment by moment.

Make a second list following your character through the scene, describing what he’s feeling. For example, let’s return to my character, running from the monster:

First, he’s panicked, because if he slows down, he’s dead. He runs; he slips in a puddle and his stomach feels like it flips over. Faster now, he starts to pant, develops a stitch in his side. The cold rain makes him shiver. He hits dead end after dead end; he doesn’t know which way to go. His panic turns to rattled indignation. Why should he be the one running? That’s when he grabs the nearest blunt object and whirls around, ready to fight.

Now you have a kind of emotional timeline of what your character is thinking or feeling throughout the scene. Because you wrote it in one go, it should follow a consistent logic.

3. Set a timer for a five or ten minute word sprint and write down whatever random descriptions you can think of that would fit the scene well.

“Rain poured down in silvery sheets.”

“Ropes of slobber swung from the creature’s jowls.”

“He fell, skidding through the mud, and scrambled to stand back up.”

Don’t let your fingers go still for one second — this is a mad dash to get words out and creativity kickstarted!

Now, look back at what you have:

  1. A list of adjectives worth dispersing throughout your scene to set the mood
  2. The emotional journey of your character to help plan your action
  3. A number of descriptive sentences to get you started

Voilà! Just by structuring your writing warm-up, you’re already halfway through writing your scene! The trick here is simple:  when you feel overwhelmed and don’t know how or where to start, break up the scene into manageable pieces and go from there! Try it! See if it works for you.

Okay, now I turn it over to you: What do you guys do when you can’t get the words to come out? Do you have any exercises or word games that have always helped you? If you were running from a monster in the pouring rain, would you try to hide somewhere or turn and fight?? Leave a comment, let’s talk!

An earlier version of this post was originally shared on my old blog, Christina Writes

Christina is an aspiring novelist, who wanted to create a safe, fun place to share advice, inspiration, and motivation with other writers!


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