On Being Stuck

A long time ago in a school far, far away, I was given an essay to write. I had over an hour to write a two page essay on the rise of the Nazis. That assignment made such an impact on me that even now, forty years later, I can quote that essay in its entirety word for word. Here it is:

One day Hitler jumped onto a chair.

It wasn't that I didn't know the subject; I wasn't the world authority on the Nazi party, but I had been listening. Still, I stared at that almost blank page for an hour and couldn't think what to write. It wasn't that I didn't think I was good enough; it was only a stupid essay in a subject I intended to drop the next year. It wasn't that I expected to have some mystical inspiration; nobody was going to see it except me and the teacher, and I didn't expect a gold star. I didn't have to do the washing-up, walk the dog or fetch the children; at that particular time and place I had nothing to do except write that essay. After the first five minutes or so, I knew that I would not be writing anything. I knew that that stupid sentence was going to sit there, forever alone. The longer I debated what to write, the more trivial it seemed. Nothing that my mind could come up with was worth writing.

I dropped history as soon as I could. Maths, on the other hand, I studied for rather longer. Mathematics doesn't have essays, it has proofs, and the construction of proofs is precise and and exactly defined. Nobody has to ask "is this fact important?" A fact is included if it is necessary to prove the hypothesis. If it is not necessary then it is not included. A proof starts with axioms. Axioms are the facts that are known to be true beyond a shadow of doubt. They are what define the world. If axioms were not true, then the world would be different. Next come predicates. Predicates arise from axioms, they say "if this is true, then that must be true". The first predicate arises from the axioms alone, and then each subsequent predicate arises from the axioms and the predicates that came before. The Hypothesis is that which you wanted to prove, otherwise it is identical to a predicate. It says "given these axioms and predicates, this must be true". The axioms, predicates and hypothesis form a single chain of truth, from the form of the world, to the conclusion we wish to reach. Every predicate in there is part of the chain. Every axiom is part of the chain. Every predicate is depended on by a subsequent predicate or by the hypothesis. If it isn't, then it's a blind alley and it doesn't belong. Every predicate, and the hypothesis, depends on, and only on, the axioms and predicates that came before.

It isn't easy formulating a proof. There are many blind alleys you can go down. There are multitudes of wrong approaches that you can make. Many times there is more than one valid proof of a given hypothesis, and often several different ways to represent it. People spend their entire working careers trying to prove a single hypothesis, filling page after page, hard-drive after hard-drive, but when they finally publish that proof it might only be two pages long. Every blind alley is erased, every alternative is ignored. All that remains is a single perfect chain of truth from the axioms to the hypothesis.

Writing essays is a well understood process. If I was given the same assignment today I might start with a list of things I wanted to say, arrange them in order from evidenced truths, with bibliographical references, through a sequence of arguments to the conclusion. Each argument would depend on, and only on, the truths and the previous arguments, and the conclusion would arise as a natural outcome of the arguments. Writing and ordering that list would be the hard part, although rarely a life's work. There would probably be many extraneous facts and many arguments that did not advance the thrust of the article. Those facts and arguments would have to be discarded in order to avoid confusion. Once the list was complete, writing the actual words would be trivial shovel-work. The essay would flow inexorably from evidenced fact, via reasoned argument from those facts, to the required conclusion.

Creative writing is not essay writing. The skills involved are completely different, and yet they have the same structure: axioms, predicates, conclusion1. The axioms are what define your world. They include the whole world you build and everything in it. They define your characters, who they are and what drives them. The predicates are the events that occur in your story, each arising naturally out of previous events in view of the world you have created. These events build one after the other toward an inescapable conclusion, the changed world at the end of the story, quod erat demonstrandum. Like a mathematical proof or an essay, a story has all the events that build toward the conclusion, and no others; it forms a perfect chain of truth from axioms to conclusion.

Being stuck is not an inability to write glowing prose. Choosing the perfect words is not the task in hand when writing a first draft. If you hate the only words you can think of, highlight them for future attention and keep writing. In my experience, being stuck is not an inability to decide how to write, it is an inability to decide what to write, and there are only two reasons for that. Either you don't know what is important, or you don't know something that you need in order to write the next page. If you don't know something, then you need another axiom; you need to define something new about the world. In that case, all you need to do is to define it.

The other reason for being stuck is that you can't see where to take the story. Maybe you don't know what to write about next. That's easy: you write the next predicate in the chain between axioms and conclusion. There might be a few possibilities, but sooner or later you are going to have to write them all, because they are all necessary. So pick one, any one. If you still find you have problems then you can't find your way from where the story is, to where it needs to get to.

Remember that mathematician with the overflowing waste-paper bin and the lifetime's supply of pencils. Sometimes when you start out, you don't know where you are going. You might start out just looking for interesting facts about triangles. You prove predicate after predicate, dodging here, there and everywhere, and then finally you come across one that seems interesting and you write a paper on it. You go back down that chain of derivation, pruning out all the unnecessary predicates and axioms until you are left with a single, perfect narrative. It might take a long time to find that interesting result, and you might have to write out a lot of dead ends and boring results before you finally find one worth publishing. On the other hand, if you have a goal in mind, a lot of those dead ends will be pruned quicker. The waste-paper bin will not overflow quite so much.

If you find yourself with no way to advance toward the conclusion, then you need to either change your axioms or choose another alternative predicate earlier on in the story. It doesn't have to be something that happens on stage of course, it could be something that has happened previously that only now makes its way into the narrative. As Raymond Chandler said "When in doubt, have a man come through the door with a gun in his hand." The reason that man comes through the door, and he must have a reason, is that a chain of events happened in his past to put him there at that precise moment. You don't have to be explicit about those events; so long as him being there is believable, that's good enough. But even if the current manuscript says nothing about him, if he is now nowhere to be seen, and you want him to come through the door with a gun, something in that chain of events must change, or at least be defined.

If you know how a story is going to end, then you can keep in mind a plot structure that gets you from where you are to where you want to be. If you can see no way to advance, then you need to either back-up and find another route, or you need to change an axiom to allow you to find a route from your present situation toward your goal. Maybe instead of taking a taxi, the protagonist drove to the theater. Maybe instead of cowering before the thug, the little girl with pigtails knows karate.

There are an infinite number of ways to prove any conclusion, an infinite number of stories to be written, and an infinite number of ways they can be written. In the face of such richness, being stuck can not last. Sooner or later you will realize what needs to change in order to make the story work. It will be right, it will be beautiful, and your story will shine that little bit more.

Being stuck is your story's way of telling you that you have made a wrong turn. Trying to continue without addressing it locks you in a blind alley with no escape. You rush about pushing this way and that, and nothing works. Nothing is worth writing. The page is blank and the muse has fled, ahead is only fear, uncertainty and paralysis. If instead you welcome being stuck, if you listen to that little voice telling you that you have gone the wrong way or that there is something that you do not understand, then you can turn away from that blank wall and find your way.

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