Writers on Writing

Getting Unstuck

Caroline Leavitt, the bestselling author of Pictures of You, asks her characters for help when she hits a wall


If you’re a writer, you know the routine. You’re halfway in the middle of your novel or story and suddenly you feel stuck. You can’t move forward. You have no idea why the plot isn’t thickening, but instead seems stuck in concrete. Recently, I hit one of those dead ends in the novel I’m writing now, but because I had some techniques—my personal lifesavers—the journey was not as perilous as I feared.


For me, character is always king, and if there’s a problem, character is usually my starting point. Maybe I don’t know my character as well as I had hoped. Maybe I’m forcing my character to do things for the sake of plot, rather than letting him or her evolve organically. The solution, for me, is always to put the novel down, move outside its confines, and try to do some extra work that may never see its way into the novel, but is sure to pay dividends.


Rather than  trying to force words into my character’s mouth, I try to get him or her to talk to me. I ask my character, "So tell me, what is it that you’re so pissed off about?" And then I let the character speak. It often comes out in a surge of words, so I inevitably feel as if I am simply transcribing what the character is saying to me. While not all of this character-speak is useable, there is almost always one diamond or two that I can use. Letting a character talk is a great way to make the character more alive, and it’s a way to exercise your subconscious. Also, it relieves the tension of trying to get the novel right, because you’re not actually working in the novel at the moment, you’re working off of it. You somehow don’t feel as tense, because there’s no pressure except discovery.


I know a lot of writers who read their work aloud when they get stuck. Not me. I print out my difficult pages in a new font. You’d be amazed how different the work looks, how new it reads. Suddenly, ideas you didn’t see before spring to the surface.

I also might take the offending scene (and again, this is out-of-the-novel work) and rewrite it from the viewpoint of another character. I won’t ever use this work in the novel itself, but it’s astonishing what it can reveal, like a heat missile heading for a target I totally missed seeing.

All of these are tools—like a life jacket or a pair of swim fins—to keep you from drowning, and to help you realize, that yes, you can swim.



More Writers on Writing: "Huskies, Hackneys" by Roxana Robinson



Caroline Leavitt  Photo by Thaddeus Rombauer


Caroline Leavitt is the New York Times bestselling author of 9 novels, most recently Pictures of You from Algonquin Books. A book critic for the Boston Globe and People magazine, she also teaches novel writing at the UCLA Writers Program online. She lives with her family in Hoboken, NJ.