I started hiking about a year ago, less out of a desire to walk up and down steep things but because my body had officially vetoed running. I was disappointed when I could no longer jog a mile without my back, knees, and shins all screaming, but hey! I live in Los Angeles. Griffith Park is right there. I laced up my running shoes and hit the trails for some low-impact fun.
I promise—this is an article about writing. Stay with me.
I liked hiking, for the most part. I liked going uphill, at least. But going downhill was… what’s the word I’m looking for? Oh yeah: terrifying. The trails in Griffith Park are steep, and dry, and dusty. My feet felt like they were constantly on the brink of disappearing out from under me. I’d creep down the mountain inch by inch, afraid of falling on my ass in front of a tourist.
As I scooted, sometimes literally, my way to the bottom, other hikers would pass me, their pace as quick and their footing as sure as if they were on level concrete. I’d wonder how on earth these people seemed to go so fast without falling. I wondered if my knees were that bad, or if I was a big scaredy cat.
Then I bought the right pair of shoes.
I’d been hiking in my old running shoes, a sturdy pair of flat-on-the-bottom Sauconys, fitted to help with my tendency to either pronate or over-pronate, who can remember. When I realized I was going to be doing more hiking than running in the near future, I Googled “best hiking shoes” and realized what should have been obvious: they sell shoes with grips on the bottom. You know. For walking down mountains.
Suddenly, I could hike downhill without fear of falling—because I was wearing the right shoes.
Ready for the writing part? Here it comes: if you are struggling with a writing project, fighting for every word, starting to wonder if you just lack the skills to pull this off or if this idea was just flawed from the start—ask yourself, am I wearing the right shoes?
The shoes, if you haven’t guessed, are a metaphor—for any big, foundational aspect of your story.
Here’s some different shoes to explore:
FORMAT (Shoe style)
Broad strokes: are you writing a book, a screenplay, a short story, a play? What if you weren’t?
Think of the advantages and disadvantages of the various storytelling formats. In a book, you can get more inside a character’s head than a screenplay; in a screenplay, you can be more detailed about the world than in a stage play. How is your format helping your storytelling, and how might it be hurting it?
If your screenplay isn’t working because too much of the main character’s motivations are internal, that doesn’t mean you need to scrap it for a book. Once you’ve identified the problem, look at the solutions within your chosen format. For the above example, you might try: adding a best friend/confidant character, or adding characters’ thoughts in voiceover.
If none of these tools sound right to you, then yeah, you might look at writing a novel instead. But thinking about your format’s potential advantages and disadvantages can help you identify and solve narrative problems you are facing.
POINT OF VIEW (Arch support)
What if your protagonist was actually the antagonist? Or barely in the story at all?
If you’re stuck in your story, remember that your world has a million potential stories in it. What’s the point-of-view of the main character’s significant other, their boss, their next door neighbor?
Maybe you don’t want to rewrite your mafia thriller so the main character is the old lady next door, but it’s useful to remember that everybody has their own wants, needs, and histories. Imagining the story through another character’s eyes might help you come up with some exciting new plot ideas—how is this old lady going to deal with the crime boss that keeps running over her petunias?
STORY SCOPE (Tread and grip)
Once I wrote a play about two best friends becoming estranged. For three acts, they lied to each other, betrayed each other, and made increasingly horrible and unforgivable mistakes. And as soon as I typed “The End” I realized I’d written three acts of backstory.
The more interesting story, I realized, would be what happened a few years later, when these two former friends were forced back together. The breakdown of their relationship was interesting, but how they might find a way forward was much richer.
What if your initial idea is just the prologue to another story? What if it’s the epilogue? If the story you are trying to write isn’t resonating, think about where your characters might be in a few years, or where they were a few years before.
These aren’t the only shoes in your shoebox. There’s genre, time period, setting—dozens of different styles you can try on. Maybe a new one will work so well you throw away the shoes you’ve been wearing. Maybe one will only clarify for you why you like the shoes you chose in the first place.
The point is, when you’re stuck, sometimes it helps to think bigger. What if you didn’t just keep sliding along? What if you changed your shoes?
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