How to use freewriting to help with writer’s block
Freewriting is a trendy term for those who use journaling within their writing routine. Are you familiar with the concept of “morning pages”? If so, you’ve probably already tried it.
Morning pages are the three pages that Julia Cameron advocates you write. They should be written longhand, in stream of consciousness, first thing in the morning.
The idea behind both morning pages and freewriting is that you can open your brain and let it spill onto the page. It sounds gross when you say it like that. But it’s just the process of getting your thoughts out of your head.
Either way, it doesn’t matter if you freewrite by hand or using a keyboard. It’s the process of getting your thoughts out of your brain and onto the page that matters.
That’s how morning pages work. But I’d offer the idea that freewriting is more than an unplanned brain dump. You can use it to plot a new project or work around writer’s block.
How? Read on and we’ll dig in!
Freewriting helps you to have a conversation with yourself
Some writers use note cards to plot short stories or novels. Others use the note card feature in Scrivener. In my eyes, these people are magical. I can’t fathom the idea of planning a novel before you even start!
Instead, I need to work out my thought process first. That involves working through the possibilities of an idea before I start writing. That’s why freewriting is such a useful tool.
I’m going to use an example of one of my stories to show you how it works. If you want to hear an audio version of ‘Midnight Screams at Holborn’, click here.
I’ll preface this by saying I’m fascinated with abandoned or forgotten spaces. The London Underground is full of them (as well as people who like to shove up against you while studiously avoiding eye contact). When I lived in London, I’d always walk past old ghost signs for stations that no longer existed.
Not all these ghost stations leave traces you can find. Let’s take the old British Museum station as our example because it’s central to this process. The station itself is long gone, and a bank now stands on the site. Passengers use the nearby Holborn, Tottenham Court Road or Russell Square stations if they want the museum.
The British Museum station closed in 1933. Before it closed, stories of ghosts circulated about the station. In one tale, an Egyptian princess haunted the area. A secret passage apparently led from the station to the basement of the museum. The mummy of the princess apparently rested in the museum’s basement.
I’d passed through the station once before on the Central line, which inspired a free story which you can read here. But what really caught my attention while I researched the station was the idea that a newspaper offered money to anyone who would dare to spend the night on the platform.
This is where freewriting helps with plotting.
While freewriting, I would start with that single snippet. That becomes the motivation for someone being in the station. But why are they there? I’d start my freewriting with something like;
“I have my main character, he wants to try and win the bet. Why does he want to win the bet? He wants the money that’s up for grabs. Why would he need to win the money?”
Then I would brainstorm (i.e. freewrite) all the reasons why my protagonist needs the money. Is he trying to discharge bets? Perhaps he wants the money to put towards a wedding. As it’s 1933, maybe his salary isn’t great. Or maybe he doesn’t need the money at all but he’s a thrill seeker, or a publicity hunter.
All of these ideas, explored while freewriting, help me to sketch in which version of the protagonist I want to use. That then informs the plot. So I might write;
“It’s 1933 so maybe he wants to put the money towards a wedding, or proposing to his fiancée. So now he’s going to go into the station, and he could do X. But if he does X, then Y or Z might happen.
That doesn’t really work. So maybe he goes into the station and there could be someone else in there with him. Who could that be? What might happen to them?”
And then I riff on that. For me, freewriting is constantly a way of saying “If I do this, then X might happen”. And if X happens, then that might lead to Y and Z.
Follow the thread of ‘If this, then that’.
This approach to freewriting forces you to think about what the characters might do or say. Then you need to consider the logical implications of those actions or words.
You might come up with 5-10 events, the ‘this’. Each of them might have 2-3 possible outcomes, the ‘that’.
Those possible outcomes all then become their own event, which leads to further outcomes.
How you choose your opening ‘this’ is up to you. I follow a decidedly unscientific option because I pick whichever event and outcome gets me most excited.
I copy and paste the outcome of the freewriting session into Word. Then I delete the bits I don’t want to use. My series of ‘this/that’ outcome acts as a loose structure so I can write the rest of the story! Hey, maybe I’m a planner after all…
Note, I don’t necessarily plot the whole story in this way. I might just plot a loose outline for a novel. Or I may freewrite the first three chapters to see if the story has any promise.
Freewriting also helps when stories get stuck
If you don’t outline the whole story before you start and you get stuck? You can still use freewriting to dig yourself out of a hole.
Let’s say you’ve written the first half of a story. But now you’re not sure where to go next. In this case, you’ll write “I have X in Scenario A, but I want them to be in Scenario B. So how do I get X from A to B?”
It’s similar to the plotting idea, except you’ve got the entire weight of the story so far behind you. You can think backwards to other things the character has done, or things that have happened. Use those to link into where the story might go next.
Freewriting constantly relies on “I could do this…” to come up with possibilities.
This also works in reverse.
Are you the kind of writer who thinks of the twist, or the ‘punchline’ of a story first? Freewriting can help you too. Instead of working forwards, exploring where the story might go, work backwards. Investigating what might have happened to lead up to the part you already know.
Instead of being an explorer, use freewriting to be a detective. What was the likely sequence of events?
Whichever way you choose to use it, freewriting can be invaluable for writers. Use it for idea generation, structuring stories before writing, and working through blocks.