It happens sometimes as a writer where I’m just completely and utterly stuck. Even when I have an entire outline in front of me and I know exactly what needs to happen in the rest of the chapter!
While rewriting All The Elsewheres for the first time, I knew my original planned ending wasn’t enough to carry the story. The characters didn’t have enough agency, and they were mostly just reacting to a tragedy. I needed space to explore the consequences of this big event, give the two MCs a more profound role in the ending, and also make it make sense.
Yeah, I had no idea how to do anything about that. I just had a vague sense of disquiet that the planned ending wasn’t enough.
I decided I needed a whole new act to tack onto the end of the story, and that’s as far as I got. I’d had this story bouncing around my head for almost 5 years already, written in chunks and bursts of inspiration, all working towards this one event. And then I needed more. Ugh. Upending the entire image I’d had of the story so far in my head was…daunting.
Thus, the Dumbest Version Method was born.
So if you find yourself intimidated by the writing task you’ve set yourself, or just plain stuck, I hope this helps you.
Take a blank piece of paper or turn to a blank page in a notebook. Or pull up a blank document. Whatever. It just needs to be blank, nothing of your existing story to distract you.
And you write DUMBEST VERSION at the top of that page.
Congratulations, your page is no longer blank and intimidating in its perfection. And now, you have permission to write whatever the hell you want, even if it’s ridiculous!
The second line would be my goal, i.e., How do I give my characters more agency and give them a satisfying ending?
And then I’d challenge myself to fill up the page with possibilities. Mine was a bunch of scattered bullet points, but if you need, say, a location for your Big Final Showdown, make it a numbered list and just go to town. I like to set numbered list goals high, like 20 or something – because it forces me to really get creative.
For the satisfying ending part, I needed to focus in on the characters a bit more closely. What had they learned so far? What did they still have to learn? What did they fear the most, and what could I do to make them confront it?
(Disclaimer: I’ve evolved into a bit of a discovery plantser, but was a hardcore plotter back in the day. I used to have all this pinned down already with older stories, but this one was just like “magic train adventures, go!” and I got pulled along – aka all plot, no vibes. So a lot of the character work happened between rewrites, which ended up changing A Lot.)
So I was like, “I need at least 5 possibilities for a third act arc” and started a What If List and branched off into the consequences of that what if.
What if the character who just escaped a magical cage…didn’t actually escape (because magic)? Yikes, Character A would have to figure out how to bring them home, despite being alone in a world she’s not from, and all her friends are either dead, missing, clueless, terrifying, or had accidentally betrayed her – so she’s gotta Step Up and Get Shit Done. Cool, great, how could that happen…
What if the character who died isn’t really dead? Cool, so I could have them run into Character B who hates them and they have to work together to save themselves…
I can’t give you any more examples without massive spoilers actually, oops.
Sometimes the What Ifs lead to Even More What Ifs and sometimes they lead to dead ends! That’s why you fill the heck outta that page! My brainstorming session for this particular conundrum took like 5 front and back pages in my giant notebook because when I puzzle out plot issues I need to get distance from my WIP and that means going back to writing by hand, ha.
This continues to save me every time I run into a “how do I get from Here to There” problem! Even on my third (ouch) rewrite!