Have You Written Yourself Into a Corner?

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by Larry Brooks on November 25, 2009

Let’s have a little fun today.  Maybe at your expense, too.   Or maybe at mine if this pisses you off, which it might.   There’s a little exercise for you at the end of this post.  But first, a little context.

Sometimes an idea seems so good at first.  We bolt upright at night with it, we walk around with it in our head for days, and finally we sit down and try to write the thing.

Sometimes we write it without properly exploring it first.   Or even knowing how to explore it first.  And then, when it isn’t working as well as we’d hoped, we try to force it into something that does. 

One of the hard truths about this business is that there really are ideas, however compelling at a glance, that just don’t make for good stories.  And when that happens, we have two choices: we can resign ourselves to that truth and move on, or we can keep pounding on the idea until it evolves into something that will work.  At least in our very unobjective opinion.

But for that to happen, we first must recognize that the current iteration isn’t cutting it.  And that’s the problem.  That moment of recognition can be daunting.  And for those writers who haven’t been wrong about anything since the Clinton administration, it may never come at all.

Then again, maybe it isn’t the idea that’s the problem at all.  Maybe it’s you

If you don’t understand how to turn an idea into a viable story — newsflash: they don’t always organically grow from a seed into a full blown novel or screenplay – then the corner into which you’ve written yourself is entirely one of your own design.

One of the most formidable obstacles we writers face is the way we think

Some writers fail because they are unwilling to change something.  Either relative to their story or their writing process.

Is that you?  Are you stubborn that way?  Do you believe that any spark of an idea can become a viable story?  Especially in your capable hands?  That if you just twist it and pound on it long enough, you can wrestle it into submission?

Maybe, maybe not.  The point is, if you don’t recognize the moment when you need to re-engineer your idea, or perhaps even abandon it altogether, you will be in for a lot of frustration and pain.  Which usually arrives in the form of a rejection slip.

Because even if you don’t recognize it, someone else will. 

Remember…  the idea, the concept of a story, is but one of six core competencies that go into the writing itself, at least if the thing is to be successful.   If you haven’t mastered the other five… well, that corner awaits. 

And perhaps worse, if you don’t get that, you may never understand why your story isn’t selling.

Here’s an exercise designed to help you understand how you think about solving problems. 

If you take on this challenge, make sure you notice how you are thinking about it.  Will you solve this thing, come hell or high water?  Will you believe you’ve actually succeeded after only a few tries?  Will you give up after one?  Or not try at all, based on the suspicion that this will be a lot harder than seems?

Sometimes the simplest things can be the most impossible to conquer.

How you respond to this just might be a window into your creative process.  Are you someone who, after giving it a shot, recognizes the brick wall and moves on?  Or do you force your will on the thing and end up believing you’ve succeeded, no matter what?

Let’s find out.  Read the instructions carefully, they are key to this experience.  If you believe you’ve done it, copy it and email it to me, or fax it to me at 503-557-8082, with your email.  Win or lose, I’ll get back to you.  I’ll post the “solution” in a day or two.

Below you’ll find a diagram consisting of a box containing five other boxes, some sharing common walls.  In total there are 16 line segments that combine to form these boxes — 9 on the perimeter, 7 on the interior.

The objective is to draw one continuous line (you can work from either end, as long as the line ends up as a single “rope”) through each line segment (all 16), without omitting any, and without going through any single segment more than once.

Sounds simple, doesn’t it.  Just like your story idea sounds, if not simple, clearly doable.  So simple, in fact, that you’ll think you’ve succeeded… when in fact you haven’t. 

I suggest you draw this box on scratch paper, as you’ll no doubt try it several times before you either quit or decide you’ve done it.  (By the way, I do this in my writing workshops, and there are always those who are sure they’ve succeeded, sometimes within the first few seconds.  I’m just sayin’… whatever your experience here, you’re not alone. )

The box is shown here with a failed attempt in place (in this example there are four line segments that were not bisected).  Just draw this box without that curving, rope-like line as your starting point.

Have fun.  Learn something.  And don’t shoot the messenger.

paint box 5

{ 9 comments }

Nate Tucker November 25, 2009 at 8:36 am

Larry, I love your blog. I threw together a quick, printable version of your game. Hope you don’t mind that I put your URL at the top of the PDF… Thanks for your great tips. They have helped my writing so much.

Here’s the URL:

https://docs.google.com/fileview?id=0B0LuDGvEmEgJMjk5NWUwMmEtYWNkNi00ZDUwLTllODAtZGFjNWI1NTNiNWM5&hl=en

poch November 25, 2009 at 8:48 am

I haven’t tried the puzzle yet (I’ve solved many similar ones before -I’m a puzzle addict) but I just saw how excellent an illustrator or expounder of methodical writing you are Larry.

Tim Baker November 25, 2009 at 11:22 am

After spending two hours attempting to solve the puzzle and looking at it from many different angles I am convinced that it is impossible to solve with the given criteria.
I was able to find several “solutions” that left only one line un-crossed but I think the real lesson here is that some things are impossible no matter how hard you try or how “good” you are.
In those situations it is best to pick up stakes and move on – or – do the best you can and accept the results.

Larry November 25, 2009 at 11:40 am

@Tim — bravo, sir. Looks simple at a glance, doesn’t it? Just like our “big ideas” sometimes seem like no-brainers when it comes to turning them into a story. But… it isn’t always what it seems, as is the case with this nasty little box. It’s critical that we not try to breath life into an idea that refuses to live, we need to recognize that point at which our time is better spent on another idea.

We’ve all had those ideas. Usually they end up being manuscripts that are never completed, or worse, “finished” yet unworkable. Abandoning such projects isn’t a failure, its a victory of the writer’s evolved sensibility.

Time is short. We need to invest our creative energy in ideas that not only will work, but are worth the investment of that time.

Nice going, Tim.

Lira November 25, 2009 at 1:12 pm

As I was reaching my eleventh iteration where 1 line was still left untouched, I was reminded of the last scene in War Games where the computer is playing tic-tac-toe with itself. And I quote…
“How about a nice game of chess?”

Futile games are only worth playing if you are willing to learn when to quit. Thanks Larry.

Larry November 25, 2009 at 1:28 pm

@Lira — awesome. Glad you get it. Hopefully you’ll never encounter that moment in your story when you realize it isn’t working. But now, if you do, you’ll understand your options and not try to force it into a direction it doesn’t want to go. We all do it, we all experience that.

May all your ideas be winners.

Becca November 25, 2009 at 3:13 pm

I sent you an email with what I came up with and what it was that I found. I will admit that I didn’t even try it till I googled it. I always research things out as much as I can before I start to put all the info together.

I love reading your posts and look forward to each of your challenges. I am thankful for all I have learned by reading from you.

Russ November 25, 2009 at 10:24 pm

One important caveat is that failing to find a solution doesn’t mean there isn’t one. Complicated problems can’t be attacked by trial and error; you have to step back and actually think about them. For this puzzle all it takes is a little thought about how the pieces have to connect up to see that there’s no solution, and this certainly beats drawing a bunch of lines.

Stacey March 15, 2013 at 9:59 pm

Since any box with an odd number of line segments will need to contain exactly one end point of the continuous rope, and there are three such boxes with and odd number of line segments, the puzzle cannot be completed with any one continuous rope. As the problem stands, it is impossible. However, if the solution allowed for two ropes, or if the problem were simplified, (some configuration where all the boxes have only four line segments) it could be accomplished easily. Maybe that’s the lesson I take away from the exercise, to simplify the problem, rather than abandon a complicated idea completely just because it’s not working the way it is, or to break an idea in two. Thanks for the puzzle.

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