1. The worst possible thing
What is the worst possible thing that could happen to your main character? Write that scene. Now, how can you make it even worse? Can you add a time constraint? An internal moral conflict? Another external conflict?
For example, say the worst thing that could possibly happen to John is failing his calculus final. He’s barely passing the class right now, and if he fails, he’ll lose his scholarship to his dream university. So the first scene could be him looking at the test, sweating and shaking as he realizes he has no idea how to answer any of the questions. How does it get worse? Maybe he contemplates cheating. Maybe he has an arrangement with one of his classmates where he lets her copy his answers in exchange for her keeping the popular crowd from making him their next bullying victim. So if John fails, not only does he risk losing his scholarship; he also risks becoming his high peers’ latest target.
2. Impossible choice
Start with two questions: what does your protagonist want most, and what is the one thing he or she will never do? Now, write the scene where he or she is forced to choose between that goal and that line in the sand.
For example, say Sally wants to destroy the armada of alien space ships headed for Earth before they take over the governments of every major country. But she’s also an environmentalist, and the missiles that will blow up the space ships will also turn the Ozone layer into (metaphorical) Swiss cheese. Meanwhile, the aliens want to help manage climate change, so the planet will be habitable for both races. So does Sally advance global warming to keep the humans in charge, or let the aliens take over? (Yes, this is a terrible example, but hopefully you get the idea.)
3. Natural habitat
Where is your main character most comfortable? Describe his or her bedroom, office, living room, favorite park, etc. What do the things there say about him or her? Write the story behind one of the objects in the room.
4. Switch the setting
Write the big confrontation between your protagonist and antagonist in the setting from the previous exercise. Now, write it again in the antagonist’s natural habitat. How did it change? Did either of them say things in one place that he wouldn’t have said in the other? What happens if this scene takes place in public, or in a place neither of them have been before?
5. Switch the viewpoint
If you’re struggling with a crucial scene, try writing it from a different character’s point of view. What does he or she notice that your first viewpoint character doesn’t? What does he or she miss that the first viewpoint character wouldn’t? How does his or her mood affect what he or she notices?
For example, if John is telling Sally he wants a divorce, John may be feeling apprehension or remorse. He may focus on the painting she hung that he can’t stand to remind him of all the reasons he wants a divorce, fidgeting while she processes his announcement. Sally, on the other hand, may be blindsided by the news. She may be angry with John, or she may be angry with herself, wondering what she did wrong. She put up with him tromping across their once-white carpet in muddy work boots, and didn’t even complain when she missed her soaps because he wanted to tape some sci-fi show that was at the same time. And now he’s leaving her? Again, this isn’t a great example, but you can see the characters will notice different details, and their internalization will be different, too. The scene may be tense for both characters, but the other emotions that go with it (John’s frustration, Sally’s surprise) will affect how each of them views this scene.
Do you have other character exercises that help you push through writer’s block? Please share in the comments!