If we are suffering from writer’s block, we must at least be writing. If writing a screenplay were easy, everyone would be a screenwriter (and other clichés that might make you feel better).
A screenwriter is somebody who gets words down on paper and has a hard time making their story work.
Two major issues will cause us to stop writing our screenplay. Either we haven’t planned out our story properly and we don’t know where to go next, or an idea we had doesn’t work when we try to actually bring it to life.
Don’t worry. Here is a little secret that will make you feel better. Every screenwriter gets stuck. There is no screenwriter in the world that sits down, bangs out 100 pages, stands up and says, “Well, there’s another screenplay done.” It’s just not that easy.
Aaron Sorkin suffered from writer’s block. Shakespeare suffered from writer’s block, I promise. At some point William Shakespeare put his quill down and thought to himself “Aww shit, I don’t see how I can finish this without Romeo and Juliet both killing themselves. What a downer ending!” Then he stared at the page for twenty minutes. Then he got up and tidied his room a little. Then he rearranged his other quills on his desk. Then he stared at the page some more. Had he had the internet available to him he would have played on Facebook for the next few hours and then he would have come back and realized he was still suffering from writer’s block.
And when we get blocked we doubt ourselves. We want to give up. We worry that we’ve lost our talent, or worry about whether we had any talent in the first place. These are the horrible thoughts of a screenwriter.
Writer’s block is a natural part of writing. It is not a problem. We don’t need to stress about it, we need to understand that it’s going to happen and discover the best way out of it.
Here it what it does not mean:
- It does not mean we are a bad screenwriter.
- It does not mean that we picked the wrong story.
- It does not mean that we should give up.
- It does not mean that we should start a different screenplay.
- It does not mean that we can quit writing for a few days to “get a fresh perspective”.
Here is what it does mean.
- It means an idea we had needs more thought.
- It means that great stories are complicated and difficult.
- It means that some parts of our screenplay are working since we can see this part isn’t.
- It means that by fixing this block, we can make the story even better.
- It means that we are a screenwriter.
In my early years, I started and stopped roughly 10 screenplays within the first 30 pages. That’s potentially 300 pages of wasted writing that taught me very little. Why? Because I didn’t have anyone giving me this advice, and instead of just pushing on through I stopped writing, waiting for some divine intervention that would magically fix the problem for me, but it never comes. We need to fix it, but we don’t need to fix it now.
Therefore, this is how we are going to fix it. We are not going to fix it. We are going to write something that may not make any sense at all, but we are going to get past the moment that is blocking us and continue on with the screenplay. Even if we just write shorthand notes. For example:
“Bob was supposed to be angry with Susan here, but now that doesn’t seem to make sense, but they need to have a fight so let’s say they have a fight about the cake.”
And then we are going to move on.
For your viewing pleasure, I now give you the most useful lesson a screenwriter can ever have.
THERE ARE NO SUCH THINGS AS STORY PROBLEMS UNTIL SOMEONE ELSE READS IT.
The process of creating our screenplay is just for us. It doesn’t matter how many mistakes or problems it has, it’s just for us. If we write with a partner, then the two of us become one unit. Together we can share and discuss the problems all we want, but it does not go outside of that partnership.
We sit and stare at problems with our screenplay and we get all worked up as we think to ourselves, “Oh no, I can’t show this to anyone, this doesn’t make any sense at all. They’ll think I’m an idiot.” But we’re not showing it to anyone. It’s just for us.
What we mustn’t do is stop writing. The longer we stop, the harder it is going to be to get started again. We might have written 40 wonderful pages, and then on page 41 we get writer’s block and we stop writing for days or weeks or months because we convince ourselves that until this moment is perfect we can’t continue—but we can.
Painful as it is to know this, we are going to have to rewrite all of this stuff many, many times. That fabulous 40 pages we just wrote, we’ll be lucky if 4-5 pages of it remain in the third draft, so to stop writing your screenplay because of one story or character issue is ridiculous.
Write something and get moving again.
I promise you, that in the vast majority of cases, we’ll move onto page 42 and then as we get to page 50 we’ll think of a solution and come back and drop it into page 41, but even if we don’t it doesn’t matter. This is a first draft and it will be seen by no one but us. Writer’s block will only stop us if we let it.