Writer’s block. Creative freeze. Brain bubbles. Whatever you call it, getting stumped is an inevitable part of storytelling (and podcasting as a whole). But it’s whether you let it derail you that matters. When my brain and my creative wall collide, this bite-sized list of questions and actionable advice gets my podcast process back on track.
Gain a New Perspective
Some story webs can feel so tangled, they seem impossible to unravel. When in doubt, remember this: There is always a solution. Here are a few ways to find it by seeing the problem anew.
Look to the orbit
Circling every character is an orbit of detail. What do you know about their likes and dislikes, their wants, needs, and goals? Look at these qualities with an inquisitive eye. Turn them in your hands and find the secret levers. They can be jumping-off points that move the story forward.
Remember Occam’s razor
Here’s the gist of Occam’s razor: Simpler ideas are more likely true than complicated ones. If you find yourself tripping over a story, take a step back.
Are you overcomplicating things? Simplifying the story will often make it more compelling and digestible — for you and your listeners.
Are there too many plot threads to resolve? Are you overcomplicating things? Simplifying the story will often make it more compelling and digestible — for you and your listeners.
You don’t have to start at the beginning
The renowned writer and podcaster Malcom Gladwell knows more than a thing or two about storytelling. (As the host of Revisionist History, narrative audio is his bread and butter.) He says in his MasterClass,
“It’s not a math question where there’s only one answer. So, as long as you understand there is not just one good answer, it takes the pressure off […] It’s made easier by the fact I don’t start at the beginning. Once you don’t start at the beginning, your life just gets so much simpler.”
Dig into first principles
The idea of first principles is to take a complicated problem and break it down to its most basic elements. This process reveals the connective tissue that joins the foundational parts together. It’s a great way to reverse-engineer everything from a space mission to a character arc.
What am I presuming to be true?
Often, the answers to our creative questions are hidden in plain sight. Bring them into view by asking yourself what you’re presuming to be true. As far as plot, characters’ motivations, or any other element, reconsider what you’ve unconsciously established. You’ll be surprised at how many items you’ve left on the table unexamined. Remember: Those unwritten “truths” won’t come through for your listeners.
Desks are great for typing, but they’re also great for stewing in frustration. Creativity needs headspace and room to breathe. Step away from your screen, and try one of these mini mind-vacations.
Go for a walk
It’s been proven that creativity lives on its feet. Walking has been used as a catalyst for problem-solving by some of the greatest minds in history, from Aristotle to Steve Jobs (who swore by ‘walking meetings’).
Stare out the window
Believe it or not, staring out the window and thinking about nothing is actually productive. When you’re stuck in your storytelling, go gaze out at the world. Deep in your subconscious your mind is hard at work.
When you’re stuck in your storytelling, go gaze out at the world. Deep in your subconscious your mind is hard at work.
The momentary disconnection halts our over-stimulated brains and lulls our thoughts into a relaxed state of problem-solving. In order words, don’t let thinking get in the way of a good thought.
Take a shower
Epiphanies in the shower? It’s totally a thing. “Shower thoughts” are a universal phenomenon. (In fact, over 21 million people belong to a forum on the topic.) Awash in routine, your mind is on autopilot. Free from countless thoughts, your brain can chew on the storytelling problem it’s been given and might send back an answer.
Mr. Baudelaire has a point (and was a terrific writer). However, even the tanks of the most disciplined storytellers run dry. When that happens, it helps to take a break from creating and soak up the work of others.
Try a podcast you think you won’t like
When’s the last time you tried a podcast you were certain you wouldn’t like? Probably never. But we can learn something from everyone we meet, and the same goes for podcasts. Tune into a narrative show you typically wouldn’t touch, and see what happens.
Tune into a narrative show you typically wouldn’t touch, and see what happens. You may be reminded of something that clarifies your problem.
You may be reminded of something that clarifies your problem. Maybe you’ll hear a word or description that helps define a solution. At the very least, you’ll take off your headphones knowing what you don’t want your story to be.
Let the music set you free
Have you ever been in a bad mood, and then your favorite song comes on? Suddenly the world is a little brighter. Harness that power to evoke any mood, from upbeat to melancholy. If you’re stuck on a dramatic scene, search Spotify or YouTube for soundtracks from dramatic films.
If a comedic scene sounds more like a snooze fest, experiment with some quirky playlists. Let the music and your mind mingle. If organization and preparation speak to your heart, curate a collection of songs in pre-production. Return to those that convey a scene, an episode, or even your podcast as a whole.
Random acts of reading
This one has saved my backside on countless occasions. Turn to a random page in your favorite book (in any genre) and start reading. Take five minutes to soak in the world. Be proactive in noticing how the writer sucks you in with imagery, turn of phrase, defying expectations, and perspective. What sticks with you? How can you apply a similar technique to your story? Now run with a refreshed sense of creativity, courtesy of another person’s thoughts.
Storytelling in a process. Sometimes you find the golden goose in a flash of brilliance. Other times even the most basic elements can elude you. To find a solution, you may need to reframe your perspective, escape, or set out on an adventure.
No matter what happens, stick it out. Inspiration is rarely instant.
But no matter what happens, stick it out. Inspiration is rarely instant. You’ll find yourself getting better and better at reassessing your show. Because when you train grit, gumption follows.