How to use a Questionnaire to Overcome Writer’s Block.

Dear pantsers, this one’s for you. If you’ve ever found yourself in a situation where a freshly written scene or chapter led to a dead-end, and now you have writer’s block, consider writing a questionnaire.

What is a dead-end scene?

A dead-end scene is a scene or chapter that doesn’t have a natural progression to the next plot point. For example, if the destruction of the Death Star happened in the middle of Star Wars: Return of the Jedi, where would the story go next? How does the story continue if Darth Vader and the Emperor are already dead?

Furthermore, dead-end scenes are also the result of forcing yourself to write a scene your gut says doesn’t work. And when a pantser writes a scene they’re not feeling, do you know what happens? Their work becomes boring.

Narco Hotel ended up with two chapters of dead-end scenes.

Two warehouse style buildings leading to a dead end of another warehouse building.

Once I wrote the end to what I thought was going to be an awesome showdown, I re-read the chapter and found myself completely disinterested in what was happening. I wrote a dead-end scene.

In the past, a dead-end scene would keep me stuck for months.

After seeing Stephen King release a third book in one year, I realized this writing method does not work. I had to come up with a process to resolve writer’s block and dead-end scenes at a much quicker pace. So, I invented the questionnaire. The questionnaire is a process where I use freewriting to ask myself questions from the perspective of an editor, publisher, reader.

But before I go into details of how the questionnaire works, I do need to establish one thing. I designed this process for methodological pantsers. Don’t know what a “methodological pantser” is? My editor Ellen Brock has you covered.

The Four Types of Novel Writers

The Methodological Pantser’s Guide to Novel Writing

and this video describes my writing style to a T. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z310PYzplO0

Sorry, plotters. This process won’t be of much help to you.

So, what kind of writer are you?

It has taken me more than ten years of trial and error to figure out what kind of writer I am. I used to believe I could teach myself to become a plotter by creating outlines and planning my novel. Wrong. Plotting only made me want to quit writing forever.

I’ve literally tried everything to make myself a more organized writer. I’ve used notecards in Scrivener, story circle diagrams, visual venn diagrams, the Snow Flake Method, and nothing sticks. I hate it and hate the process of outlining. I also recognize how writing without an outline can lead a pantser into plot holes and dead-end scenes. Discovering your plot can oftentimes make you waste time writing out scenes that are entirely pointless. I could write five thousand words and delete all of it the next day. This process embarrassed me as a writer. My methods made me feel like I was unprofessional and unworthy of calling myself a published author.

Well, it turns out there was nothing wrong with my writing style. Am I happy to be a “methodological pantser?” No. But once I chose to embrace my chaotic writing style, I realized I could become a lot more productive with my writing.

Let’s talk about the questionnaire.

The questionnaire is a mix of the “Flashlight method” https://whenyouwrite.com/flashlight-method-writing/ and freewriting. Rather than freewrite random ideas onto a page, we are going to freewrite questions from the perspective of a publisher or editor. To make this easier to follow along, I will be using the deleted scene from Narco Hotel to explain my logic. Don’t worry, there won’t be any spoilers.

The Questionnaire Process.

Questionnaire Step 1: Re-read your scenes.

Pantsers are entirely dependent on intuition. We use all the experiences we’ve learned from reading and consuming media to identify non-compelling scenes.

When you perform a re-read there are usually three outcomes:

  1. The scene is boring and you have no interest in rewriting it.
  2. It’s interesting but the prose is rough.
  3. It’s boring but has potential.

For Narco Hotel, Cindy wanted to ask Bob where John was located. I wrote out a scene of her infiltrating Bob’s home in the suburbs and then confronting Bob in private. I thought this scene would be interesting because Cindy hates Bob. Bob has been a thorn in her side for years and they could never see eye to eye.

On paper, this sounded like the perfect recipe for drama.

It wasn’t.

Bob didn’t know where John was. Cindy’s goal was to find John and Bob was her last lead. Bob didn’t have any information. If Bob didn’t know where John was, how was Cindy supposed to move forward?

In regards to character motivations, it didn’t make sense for Bob to argue with Cindy or for Cindy to threaten Bob. At this point in the story they had come to a ceasefire. Bob had already lost everything so there was no point in resisting any of Cindy’s questions. Without Bob’s reluctance, the scene got boring very quickly.

All the insults and jabbing I wanted to write for these two characters didn’t make sense. If I forced them to argue and yell at each other, it would come across as filler and fake. So if there’s no emotional pay off and no story pay off, why does this scene exist?

Once Cindy didn’t know what to do, I didn’t know what to do. The plot ran face first into a dead-end scene. Even after applying a light touch of editing, there was nothing there to make the scene interesting. It was like trying to cook a steak without any seasoning. Something failed along the way. I needed to use the questionnaire.

Questionnaire Step 2: Ask questions, answer honestly

Writer’s block is almost as painful as perfectionism. At least with perfectionism you can continue editing your work until it leaves you satisfied. Writer’s block is like jack-hammering into a concrete wall one-hundred feet deep. You never know if the scene will be an easy fix or a month’s long overhaul. Therefore, I needed the scene questionnaire to significantly reduce my brainstorming time. With the questionnaire, my goal was to put an end to writer’s block once and for all. In the past, I would force myself to bulldoze through a dead-end scene and continue writing even when I knew it wasn’t working.

Whenever I forced myself to write through a scene that wasn’t working, the end result never worked. I would think to myself, “I wonder if my editor will notice that I forced this? And what would she recommend to fix it?” She’d catch it all right, but the responsibility of the fix always fell on my shoulders. She could give suggestions but ultimately I inevitably had to go back and undo what I did. In Narco Hotel, I deleted a character and rewrote another character into someone completely different thanks to her notes.

So if a scene is a struggle to write and uninteresting to read, do yourself a favor and get rid of it. Instead, focus on writing the questionnaire.

Do this by opening a new word document and ask yourself questions a third party would ask you. Literally talk to yourself and justify your answers to each question.

  1. Does this current scene work or do we need to change the previous scene?
    Answer: No, it feels boring.
  2. Why was John swapped with Cecil in a previous scene?
    Answer: The resolution was too predictable.
  3. What was the benefit of using Cecil over John?
    Answer: Cecil shared vital information on the villain’s plan.
  4. Why was the scene included where Cindy talks to Bob?
    Answer: Bob had been missing for a large portion of the book and needed to be added back in. Unfortunately, it does not seem Bob could provide information to move the plot forward.
    Suggestion – Delete
  5. What are Cindy’s goals as we reach the end of the book?
    Answer: –Redacted due to spoilers– Write the goal you are writing toward to finish the book.
  6. What should be happening to get us to the end of the book?
    Answer: –Redacted again– Write what events should happen next to move you to the end.

Questionnaire Step 3: Come up with solutions

By now you should have figured out where the point of failure happened in your scene. For me, it was when Cindy spoke to Cecil. This scene caused her interaction with Bob to completely fail. No amount of rewriting would ever make their dialogue feel interesting.

Therefore, my solution was to delete the two chapters involving Bob and focus my attention on the scene between Cecil and Cindy. “Cecil shared vital information on the villain’s plan.

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again, I don’t remember where I got this quote from but it’s true in almost all scenarios. “If you’re having a problem in Act III, look to Act I.”

Questionnaire Step 4: Rewrite or delete

Because Bob didn’t know where John was, and Bob didn’t have any new information, his scene was essentially pointless.

Once I re-read the previous scene, I realized that Cindy let an important character off the hook too easily. Especially once she recognized this character as having a hand in all the problems she’s been facing. Even with this knowledge, she let the character go as if it was no big deal.

Therefore, I rewrote that scene to make her more aggressive toward this character. She wanted information and she wanted it now. After I completed the rewrite, I realized I didn’t need the scenes with Bob anymore and deleted them. Even though I’m concerned the character isn’t prevalent, cutting his scene was the best decision for the story and pacing.

And that’s how I solved my writer’s block with a questionnaire.

What do you think? Can this questionnaire process help you with your novel? Try it out and let me know if it worked by commenting below or sending me an email.

Good luck on your writing!

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Wilmar Luna
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