It invariably happens to me about halfway through a manuscript. Inspired by an intriguing premise, I launch straight into the story, set my characters into action, throw in a few initial twists…and then I smack into a wall. Because I have no idea what happens next in my story. Or I don’t know who the real killer is. Or I’m simply bored, and I don’t care what happens to my characters. Whether you call it writer’s block or plot block, it happens to me every single time. And every single time, I moan and groan that the book is a disaster, my writing career is kaput, and, hey, maybe I should open up a fried chicken restaurant instead. (Seriously, my fried chicken is the best.)
Novelists who outline their plots in great detail before they start writing probably don’t know the agony of “hitting the wall.” I wish I could be like them, but I’m a seat-of-the-pants writer. I plunge into my story without knowing how it ends because I like to be surprised. I’ve tried to write outlines, but my story invariably veers off into unexplored territory, and I end up just trashing the outline anyway. After writing twenty-six novels without a road map, I’m resigned to sticking with the process I know, even if means suffering the inevitable throes of plot block. I’ve smashed my way through it every time before; I have to believe I’ll be able to do it again.
Getting past “the wall” is all about achieving the “Eureka!” moment, a startling flash of insight that miraculously solves your problem. The late, great Michael Palmer once described that instant of epiphany as “feeling like my brain suddenly explodes.” These flashes of insight actually show up on electroencephalograms, which record abrupt activity in the right anterior superior temporal gyrus of the brain. So in a way, when you have an epiphany, your brain actually is exploding.
That’s exactly how it felt when it happened to me during a long drive through West Texas. I had been struggling to write Vanish, a story that opens with a corpse waking up in the morgue. Medical examiner Maura Isles hears a noise in the cold room, unzips a body bag, and the “dead” man opens his eyes. Maura sends him to the hospital, where he does the unexpected: he grabs a security guard’s gun, kills him, and takes hostages in the x-ray department. Among his hostages is a very pregnant homicide detective, Jane Rizzoli, who’s in labor and about to have her baby. Jane is dressed only in a hospital gown and terrified that the crazy guy will find out she’s a cop—and kill her next.
My writing was zipping along at breakneck speed until suddenly I hit the wall. I didn’t know where the story was going. I didn’t know why the man was doing these frightening things. I didn’t know if he was a villain or a victim. Worst of all, I was bored.
I did what I usually do when I get plot block: I stopped writing. For a few weeks, I moped around the house and stared at the ceiling. I whined that the book was a disaster, and maybe I should start something new. Then I flew to Texas for a speaking engagement, and during the four-hour drive from the airport to my event, I suddenly had that “Eureka!” moment. I thought: what if the revived corpse is a woman, not a man? What if she shoots the guard and she takes hostages? A woman hostage taker changes everything. It felt like my brain lit up with fireworks. I saw the story with a whole new perspective, and I couldn’t wait to get back to my desk and finish Vanish. That drive through Texas helped me smash through the wall.
Taking a long drive is, in fact, one of the best ways I know of to achieve “Eureka!” moments. But it must be a silent and boring drive, during which I can allow my thoughts to wander freely. I’ll think about my plot, then about the weather, then about dinner, then about the plot, then about my garden. I’m not aware of it, but as I ponder trivialities, my subconscious is hard at work. It’s pulling together random bits of information, connecting them in new ways. And suddenly—aha! The puzzle is solved.
Monotonous travel of any kind works for me. On a train trip through Germany, I figured out “whodunit” in Last to Die. On a long flight home from the West Coast, I had an epiphany about a character in The Keepsake. This is why I don’t mind long drives: I get work done without even knowing it.
Another way to achieve a “Eureka!” moment? Take a bath. According to legend, the bathtub was the very place where Greek mathematician Archimedes shouted that immortal word “Eureka!” after he realized he could measure the volume of an irregular object by submerging it in water. Many an inventor, writer, and artist have had an epiphany while soaking in the bathtub.
If you think too hard about a problem, the solution eludes you. The more you attack it, the more frustrated you become. It’s tempting to give up on the manuscript and start over with something new, but that’s how writers end up with a dozen unfinished manuscripts in their closet and never finish anything. Because they can’t get past “the wall.”
It’s vital to break through and keep going all the way to the end. Put the manuscript aside for a while. Let the plot problem simmer in the back of your mind, but don’t let it consume you. Lie on the couch and stare at the ceiling. Take walks. Go for a boring drive or a train ride. Take naps. Take a bath. But don’t give up on the story. Because days or weeks or even months later, while you’re soaking in the tub and unrelated thoughts are flitting through your brain, suddenly the magic happens. The answer hits you. Your brain explodes. You’ll laugh, “Eureka!”
And you’ll head back to your desk.