The Crime Writers’ Association

WRITERS’ BLOCK by Sarah Rayne

We’ve all been there. It doesn’t matter if we’re in the best-selling lists, or just starting out with a hopeful eye on the CWA Debut Dagger as a stepping-stone to great things (which, of course, it can often be) – we’ve all sat dismally in front of a computer screen, wondering what an earth happens next in the plot. Trying to fathom how the disparate group of characters, optimistically brought into being on Page One, can possibly extricate themselves from the tangled web, and whether the planned denouement can ever be reached.

There’s no quick solution to writer’s block, but there are one or two avenues that can be explored and that sometimes help re-start the imagination and re-kindle the enthusiasm.

For starters, it’s likely that having lived with the book for a long time it’s become over-familiar. The twist you wove into Chapter Three which seemed so neat at the time, now looks dreadfully predictable to you. But remember that the entire story will be completely unknown to others who could well be taken pleasantly by surprise by Chapter Three, and could also find the rest of the book very enjoyable.

Synopses and plot outlines

Depending on how you work, perhaps you’ve written a synopsis first. This is excellent, but even so, if you get bogged down, try re-writing it – summarising the story so far – seeing whether there are any sections that can be altered – turned on their head – or whether a new character can be introduced or an existing one given a different set of motives. Even whether a sub-plot ought to be removed. (It’s always hard to remove anything, but there are times when you have to be ruthless, and you can always use the sub-plot in a subsequent book).

There’s also sometimes a point in the story where a few characters can be brought together to discuss the latest plot developments. This is particularly applicable to crime fiction. It can be helpful for giving the reader an update on where the story’s got to – not to mention untangling any confusion for the author, who by this time might have lost the chapter precis/flow chart/synopsis so energetically started around Chapter One. (I always create one of those, and I never lose it, of course. Well, not often. Hardly ever, really.)

Deliberate distractions

There are some writers who deal with block by going off to do something else – mow a lawn or clean the house to within an inch of its life. This last can be useful, because you can ignore boring things like housework anyway, with the idea that visitors will look round and think your new book must be going well, because clearly you haven’t had to resort to vacuuming the carpet or cleaning the windows for a while.


Music can be a terrific catalyst and a great energiser. I once wrote an entire book to Rachmaninov’s 2nd Piano Concerto. But you need different music for different parts of the story, of course – you wouldn’t want to be listening to one of Mozart’s more romantic concertos during the committing of a murder. Nor would you want heavy metal or rap while working on a hand-in-hand-into-the-sunset scene.

Finally, keep in mind the excellent advice of H.G.Wells, who said, “If you’re in difficulties with a book, try the element of surprise. Attack it at an hour when it isn’t expecting it.”

I’ve followed Mr Wells’ advice on many occasions, and found it works remarkably well.

You can read more about Sarah and her books here.

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