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How to End Writer's Block by Clustering

Updated on December 8, 2012

Writer's Block: A Universal Problem

At one time or another, every writer experiences the dreaded writer’s block. You run out of story ideas. Or, worse yet, you run out of ideas in the middle of your story. You find yourself unable to answer the question: What happens next? Or, if you’re just beginning, you can't even answer the question: What happens?

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Janet Burroway's Writing Fiction: Guide to Narrative Craft

How to Cluster

The best way I can think of to explain clustering is to give an example of how it worked for me. So, here goes:

  1. Flip through any book and choose a page at random. Put your finger down on the page and find the closest noun to your fingertip. The word I came up with was "flashback."
  2. Write the word down in the middle of a piece of paper.
  3. Take 1-2 minutes and try to think of as many related words as you can. Write these words down around the first word and try to connect them to each other. I came up with these two sets of connected words: flashback, image, memory, cognition; flashback, device, torture, child abuse, pain, stress, trauma, PTSD.
  4. The second set had more words, and seemed to have way more potential for the conflict that any good story needs, so I decided to go with that one.

A really useful text for all writers

Janet Burroway's book is an amazingly informative guide for all writers of fiction. And, most importantly for me, she lists some great ideas for beating writer's block. One of these is clustering.

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As If By Magic, A Story Idea Began to Form

Instantly, the idea of a story began to form. I began to develop a character who had been abused as a child and was still suffering from the abuse as an adult. In Burroway's book, she recommends free-writing only a short scene to start with, so that's what I did. This is the result:

The young woman stared at the refrigerator in horror. She instantly backed away a few steps, shaking her head vigorously. "No," she murmured. "Please, no."

The woman with the salt and pepper hair stood off to the side of the room closest to the door, just in case the young woman decided to make a run for it. "Natalie, you must stay in the room. You know that. Otherwise, the therapy won't work."

But the young woman seemed not to hear the therapist's orders. She didn't run. She just stood, frozen in that same spot. She could not take her eyes off the common kitchen appliance. She began to whimper then and hunched to the floor in a squatting fetal position. She turned glassy eyes up toward the therapist and whispered, "Daddy, please don't. I'll get the beer for you without complaining. I promise. Just please don't slam the door on my hand again."

The therapist watched the young woman with sad eyes as she opened the door to end the session. She quietly cursed and hurled silent insults at every father who would use their cruel authority to damage their children for life.

The Magic of Quick Writing

I completed this clustering exercise in about 15 minutes. In just 15 minutes, I went from having no story idea at all to having an idea and a pretty good idea of my characters and their back stories. And I began to see how this one little scene could be expanded into a much longer story.

Not Just for Blocked Beginnings

And while I was doing this exercise at the beginning of a blocked story idea, Burroway says she has actually used the technique in the middle of her novels, and she discovered something new about her characters and her plot each time.

So, whatever point in your story writer's block hits, try the clustering technique and see what new ideas pop into your head. You might surprise yourself at how good they really are. Happy writing!


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    • workingmomwm profile image

      Mishael Austin Witty 4 years ago from Kentucky, USA

      Thanks for visiting, Magic777eternity and Vinaya. I'm glad you both got something out of this. :-)

    • Vinaya Ghimire profile image

      Vinaya Ghimire 6 years ago from Nepal

      Writer's block is pain sometimes and also a great help. Your point of view and also your story is inspiring.

    • Magic777eternity profile image

      Magic777eternity 6 years ago from School of Dreams

      Thank you for some really good input.. I really enjoyed reading this ;-)

    • workingmomwm profile image

      Mishael Austin Witty 6 years ago from Kentucky, USA

      Thanks, Danette. It is a really interesting idea. I haven't had a chance to try it out yet in the middle of a blocked novel, but it's something to look forward to, I guess, if you can look forward to writer's block. :-)

    • Danette Watt profile image

      Danette Watt 6 years ago from Illinois

      I enjoyed your hub and the clustering exercise. What I found especially interesting was your comment that the author, Burroway, said she would use it in the middle of her novel. Great idea!

    • workingmomwm profile image

      Mishael Austin Witty 6 years ago from Kentucky, USA

      Thanks, Angela. I thought that was a really neat idea, too. That's why I tried it out. I really was amazed that one random word could generate so much!

    • AngelaKaelin profile image

      AngelaKaelin 6 years ago from New York

      Very good advice. I like the random word in a book idea.

    • workingmomwm profile image

      Mishael Austin Witty 7 years ago from Kentucky, USA

      Glad I could help, FloBe. Thanks for reading!

    • FloBe profile image

      FloBe 7 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      The idea of clustering is a good one. I have many ideas to write about right now but don't know how to begin...this idea may help me get started! I took a break over the holidays and lost my "edge" so thanks for an idea to get me back on track.