I believe I've mentioned in previous posts that I used to be a history teacher. It didn't take me long to definitively realize that teaching was not the career for me, but I'm grateful for the things I learned in the process.

One of those things came from Mrs. "K.," the principal at the last school where I taught. The situation there was a mess on multiple levels, and I felt bad for her because I sensed that she wanted to do more to fix it, but higher-ups wouldn't allow it. (As I said, a mess on multiple levels.) But now I wonder if Mrs. "K." coped by using the method that she taught me.

I don't remember exactly why she and I were meeting that day, but I was upset. I must have said something like "I feel stuck" or "I don't know what to do," because Mrs. "K." responded with what I now think of as the Rule of Four:

"Always think of four solutions."

We used this technique in multiple meetings, and it worked remarkably well. All possibilities were allowed in this exercise, even less-than-ideal ones or ones that, realistically, we probably wouldn't use (e.g., quitting my job). By pushing ourselves to find four solutions—which isn't a lot but can be a surprisingly hard number to get to—we could almost always find something that both Mrs. "K." and I could accept and that would genuinely help with whatever the problem was.

The Rule of Four can also help us authors when we're facing writer's block or have written ourselves into a corner. I think a key reason we get stuck (in writing or in life) is that for whatever reason, we can only see two possibilities, neither of which is desirable and/or feasible. Then we get stuck in a loop of thinking, "I can't choose option 1 because of X, Y, and Z, but I can't choose option 2 because of A, B, and C. Either way, I'm sunk. But I have to pick one of them—what else can I do?" 

I think in most cases, we really have more than two options. By forcing ourselves to think of what those other solutions might be, we break the cycle of thinking that something bad will happen no matter what we choose. And one of the previously unknown options might be exactly what we need to solve the current problem.

My brother "Z" once did something like this for me without either of us even realizing it. At the time, I was adapting a screenplay from a series of historical novels and short stories about the French Revolution that tend to play fast and loose with history. I wanted to stick to the facts as much as I could, but now I'd gotten myself into a tricky position. Most of the action was taking place in the city of Orange in southern France, but an important person the characters needed to rescue was imprisoned in Paris (where, in real life, he remained until his death). I couldn't figure out how to reconcile those two situations.

When I asked "Z" about this, he suggested a reason why the prisoner could end up in Orange. I suddenly realized that having the prisoner rescued at all wasn't historically accurate anyway, so what difference did it make whether the rescue happened in Paris or in Orange? Bingo!

So the next time you're having trouble figuring out what to write next, try applying the Rule of Four. It may be exactly the break you're looking for.

Write on,


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(Thanks to Nathan Dumlao for sharing their work on Unsplash.)