Your new audience

We writers often run into seemingly intractable plot holes and roadblocks. Sometimes we can set it aside and the solution will dawn on us while washing dishes. Frequently, we are not so lucky. We might not even know what the problem is; we only know that something’s not working. So what do we do?

‘Rubber duck debugging’ is a method used by programmers, as Wikipedia says: ‘in which a programmer would carry around a rubber duck and debug their code by forcing themselves to explain it, line-by-line, to the duck.’ Some of us may have wonderful friends who will listen to our plot woes, and laugh as we solve our own problem before they say a word. The genius of rubber ducking is that you don’t even need the patient friend! Talk to your dog or cat or stuffed animal, summarize your plot for them and explain the issue. That explanation seems to be the key. We are inside our stories so much that we forget the bigger picture. When we are forced to verbalize the situation, it re-frames the problem and might present the solution we’re looking for.

Another method is to type out the problem. I often talk to myself in my notes– sometimes in separate documents, other times I just yammer away right there in the chapter. I state the problem and start asking questions and theorizing. Here are a few choice quotes from different projects:

“Now here’s a problem, what’s going to happen after (character) gets stuck in the mirror world? He’ll get bugged by (antagonist) and try to deal with (love interest.) But that’s not very exciting and it’s not very Gothic. What are some twists that could happen? Well he’ll have some problems with (character B) & (antagonist) is going to give him the business.

“Where are they traveling? Brno might make sense, but wouldn’t take long to get there. Maybe they just end up at some little village that has been ravaged by the plague.”

“I feel like this is far too whimsical, and needs to get spookier. We have this arrogant MC, and there are of course a lot of fairy-tale-ish elements, but we need to bring the spooky factor. What’s spooky?

The castle— Of course we have this Gothic trope, the crumbling castle over the sea. What’s spooky about it? It’s not very safe, one could fall off the cliff or be flooded. The interior is old and chilled, may contain sinister things inside. It’s isolated from the world, could be difficult to escape from. There may be places where people could be imprisoned. It may be haunted with ghosts from the past. “

This is just a sampling of the yammering I do. It might not make sense to anyone else; some of it is mysterious to even me by now! But it’s the act of writing it out, going step by step through your problem. It might take several rounds of interrogating the problem before you figure it out. Be sure to highlight any revelations and keep going. An important warning — If you ‘rubber duck’ on your own, don’t insult yourself or your writing. I used to do this, and it will absolutely kill your motivation. You don’t have to mince words; you can say ‘this part is boring,’ but don’t focus on it. Pretend you’re advising another writer. Boring or bad writing is just writing that needs work and you wouldn’t berate someone who had the courage to show you their rough draft. Be kind to yourself! There are important stories to be written and that evil voice in your head doesn’t deserve the attention. Plus, those innocent rubber ducks shouldn’t hear such vulgarity!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.