Reverse Engineer your Way out of Writer’s Block, Right Now

by Christine Edwards

Endurance runners call it the wall. Legs turn to jello, lungs threaten to give out, and everything in the stretch between those two points tires out or quits cooperating altogether. The finish line is closer than ever before, just beyond the horizon. The end is in view, doesn’t matter though. The finish line may as well be on another continent at this point. Writers have another name for this excruciating breakdown, but it’s essentially the same awful experience.

Only the semantics are different with writer’s block. It goes something like this: budding author punches out most of a brilliant first draft. Just scenes from completing said first draft, everything goes black. Aspiring author stares at open word doc, a thin black line blinks back from a pristine rectangle of white space. Anxious writer admonishes herself, this was supposed to be the great American novel! Tension rises as the realization hits: publishers don’t buy three quarters of the great American novel and some notes scribbled on crumpled a Star Bucks napkin. 

At this point, the advice goes something like this: go for a run, watch a movie, start a short story. Get your mind off your first draft and then, wallah! The answer will come to you. When you go do all those things and find yourself staring a hole through 17 square inches of computer screen, come back and read the rest of this article. Go ahead, I’ll wait. 

Sometimes running, petting Fido or reading a good book is just the fix. Many of my best twists have come from being otherwise occupied. For me, driving to work, running or loading the dishwasher usually produces some killer scenes. Whenever I can’t possibly write something down, I have an epiphany for some zany reason. It’s not as humorous when it’s actually happening. 

Then there are the weeks in-between those eureka moments, spent ruminating, but producing nothing of note. During my most recent bout of writer’s block, I went in a different direction and found an alternative to waiting around on the fates to take pity on me. I wrote about my writing, essentially reverse engineering my way over the hump. That stint of writer’s block has been in my rearview mirror for quite a while now, because I sat down and typed out my synopsis. That’s right, I put the cart before the horse and wrote a synopsis of a story that wasn’t even completed yet. I do crazy stuff like that, and sometimes it pays off. Try my crazy idea and see if it works for you too.

So the great American novel you’ve been slaving over is stalled somewhere between acts II and III. Here’s why you should write your synopsis, and how it will get you racing along again.

Why am I doing this?

The reason I prefer to write a synopsis over a character journal entry, plot outline or query letter is because it fits the symptoms I’m experiencing. 

Journal Entries won’t help because...

My characters are developed. By this point in my first draft I’m herding cats with god complexes. They don’t need any more reason to go haywire on me. 

A plot outline won’t help because...

Outlines fixes plot holes. I’m not trying to shovel my way somewhere. I’m at point A trying to get to point B, and the map is already in my head. I just need to fill in some scenes along the way. 

A query letter won’t help because...

This just isn’t enough space to ramble on. Three brilliant lines aren’t going to take me where I need to go. Two double spaced pages is about the word count I need at this point. 


I need something to help me look at my story as a whole so that I can tune back into the premise. I need to find that thread that ties the story together, following it is the only way to fill the blank white space with create clear, fluid scenes that people will want to read. I need to revisit my big idea and my previous scenes to renew my interest and drum up some creativity. At this point, I also need to be reminded why I wanted to write the darn story in the first place.

In contrast to other devices in the writer’s tool box, a synopsis has the right stuff to do all this, and possibly more. 

Perks to writing a synopsis

Perk #1 Getting it out of the way

When you finish you’re thirty-sixth edit and are ready to query agents, a synopsis will be in their guidelines somewhere. Having it saved to your hard drive is money in the bank. Pat yourself on the back then, not now. Right now you still have writing to do.

Perk #2 Theme generator

Your theme is there, sprinkled amongst hundreds of pages. When you write concisely about your story, you are bringing your theme to the forefront. What’s not to love about having your theme well defined the next time you make your elevator pitch?

Perk #3 Magical Foreshadowing Powers

There are bits of your story that stick out for good reason. Others are highlighted just because you really, really like them. That’s all roses now, but when you write your synopsis you will find that some parts show up more than others, for a reason. When you look at your whole work in a condensed version, what really matters starts to take up more of this valuable space. Develop these areas along the way. Foreshadow what you want to stick out in your novel, because it’s what shined brightest in your synopsis. 

The rest has already weeded itself out. Your novel just told you where it’s headed, get in line with it. Foreshadow to guide your readers in the right direction. Don’t be that guy giving lousy directions. Lay your mines where they pack the most punch, and collect all the duds along the way. Unless you’re writing a mystery, your readers won’t appreciate being led astray or down dead ends.

Perk #4 Back Online

My synopsis wrote itself, quickly. My fingers flew, like someone was dictating the words to me. Upon completion, I was incredibly excited about going back and layering my theme, which had come to me just then, and foreshadowing the parts I now knew to be important. 

That night, I attacked my first draft with tiger-like veracity. I didn’t get everything down, but the writer’s block lifted. My missing scenes appeared to my mind’s eye, demanding their due attention. Revisiting your story as a whole brings renewed enthusiasm, which is essential to drumming up your creativity. Looking at the same scene from different perspectives can do the opposite. Go back frequently and look at the bigger picture to stay in line with your premise and remind yourself of why you liked the story enough to write it in the first place.

I’m not an expert, and I normally don’t go against the grain. But when it comes to my writing, I take liberty as a last resort. If the advice of running around my block doesn’t work, but tapping out two pages about my writing does, yours truly is kicking off her running shoes and opening a new word doc immediately. My novella isn’t finished, but I’m through the middle and within view of those two little words that carry great emphasis: The End. 

Not everyone writes the way I do. But I’ve brainstormed and have yet to find a reason why this method couldn’t benefit a writer in some small way. At the very least, it will help tighten up a story line or flush out a scene idea that was previously hidden.

So try it out. Use the links below to get yourself started. The first link provides formatting basics. Formatting is tedious, mind numbing work, so get it out of the way quickly. The second explains how a synopsis should read and what it should and shouldn’t contain.

When next you find yourself chewing your nails to bits and staring at the flashing thin line, go in a different direction. There’s no harm in trying, you’ve got to do something to beat the dreaded writer’s block. Remember, reverse engineering isn’t just for scientists, word smiths can fall in love with it too.


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