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Monday, August 20, 2018

What to Do When You Write Yourself Into a Corner

I actually had a follower ask me about this a while ago, but I was so busy editing and my imagined answers felt so vague that I didn't get around to writing this post (my apologies). Now I have the time, and I'm hoping in the process my answer will sound less vague.

First off, let me say, I've been there. Multiple times. In fact, if you are serious about writing and are committed to finishing a high-quality book, this is probably something you will face time and again.

What do I mean by "writing yourself into a corner?" Basically it's when the story and setup gets stuck--closed in on itself so that it's trapped and you can't find your way out of it. Imagine you have a character gagged and tied and floating in the middle of the ocean, but your character needs to get to the Sahara desert. How the heck is your character going to survive and get there without it feeling unbelievable?

The easiest and perhaps most cliche option is to have someone or something else enter the scene and help fix the problem. Sometimes this works, especially if you have taken advantage of foreshadowing it properly. Other times it can feel like a Deus ex Machina. As TV Tropes explains, "A Deus ex Machina is when some new event, character, ability, or object solves a seemingly unsolvable problem in a sudden, unexpected way." To put icing on the cake, they even go on to say, "It's often used as the solution to what is called 'writing yourself into a corner,' where the problem is so extreme that nothing in the established setting suggests that there is a logical way for the characters to escape."


Since this is typically considered a storytelling flaw (unless done intentionally for humor or irony), let's talk about alternative solutions.

If you do decide to have an event, character, ability, or object enter the scene and help solve or at least change the situation, it needs to be foreshadowed (but not too heavily) or established, weaved in, and appropriate for the story precisely so it doesn't land on the paper as a Deus ex Machina. Maybe instead of simply having this story element solve the problem, see if it can simply change the situation to then enable the character or setup to have a little wiggle room to discover the solution. It doesn't need to "fix" everything. In fact, it's usually more interesting if it doesn't. Perhaps it can just change the conditions.

The point is, it's usually better if whatever enters the story doesn't solve the huge problems easily. Maybe it helps, but also has a cost, so that having and using it has both advantages and dire disadvantages. You're exchanging one set of problems for another set, in order to get out of the immediate situation.

The other option that might be easier would be to backtrack and change the story so you don't end up in a corner. Maybe the situation doesn't need to be quite so dramatic, wound quite so tightly. Maybe you can tone it down a bit.

But, geez! Gosh! Imagine how cool and intense it would be if you kept it the same? It's so good! Right? I mean, if you've written into a corner, that probably means you have either something big and dire going on, or a lot of complex elements in play, or both.

So that leads me to the third option, which is often most difficult, but can be the most rewarding. From my experience, and from what I've heard from other writers, writing yourself into a corner can be a prelude to brainstorming some of your best story stuff. Because if you can find a believable way out with what's already in play, then dang, you're good, and usually the idea is awesome.

There is really no easy way around the third option. You have to brainstorm like your life depends on it. And I mean, you might have to brainstorm a lot. And it will not be the fun kind either. You will probably want to quit writing at some point. It can be that difficult sometimes. But when you finally find the right solution that actually works, sheesh, it's amazing. However, it might take days or weeks of legitimate apply-butt-to-chair-and-don't-move brainstorming effort, so if you are on a time crunch, this may not be a great option.

In the process, you also want to make sure you don't brainstorm a solution that is so improbable it's ridiculous. Surprisingly, real life doesn't always work off probability, but fiction must in order for it to be believable.

Sometimes you can get out of the corner by using a little of two or all three of the options above. You mostly keep the setup the same, but something small enters and changes the conditions, and maybe you also go back and tweak what came before a little.

Good luck!


  1. Why, that's simplicity itself. He gets picked up by Somali pirates, who intend to sell him for ransom. They bring him to port, and he escapes and tries to get help. However, the people there misinterpreted his English and they think he's a foreign aid worker to the Sahara. What a hilarious misunderstanding!

  2. It's Deus Ex Machina, not Dues. The typo is annoying.


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