by Ginger Earle
Screenwriters, like all writers, are often plagued with fear of the blank page, or writer’s block. Advice for beating writer’s block is often to just do it in spite of a lack of inspiration, or fear of writing the wrong thing. This is good advice, however there are some specific techniques that screenwriters can use to beat our own particular form of writer’s block. Writers of all genres can use these ideas to complete their stories and stop making excuses.
Some writers detest the idea of structural rules and outlines because they find them limiting and stifling. They like to approach writing as a purely creative art form, where ideas and words flow freely and magically form a coherent story. But this desire for freedom is often what leads to the second-act morass that screenwriters are all too familiar with. You envision how the story begins, who the characters are, and maybe even have an ending in mind. But getting from page one to page one hundred and twenty can leave a screenwriter feeling lost, and therefore blocked. You approach the first act with inspiration, introducing characters, setting the scenes, creating goals and anticipation. You know where you want to end up, but how do you get there? Without an outline, screenwriters often find themselves stuck and unsure of where to go, what should come next and how to resolve the questions posed early in the story.
Take the time to write an outline. This will not limit your creativity or stifle the creative process, in fact it will make your ideas flow more freely, because you won’t have to worry about what happens next or if each scene will work in the overall arc of the story. Instead of focusing on plot points and when each major turn and revelation should occur, you can concentrate your energy on finer details like the dialogue, the action description, and the language you use to vividly convey your ideas. An outline is not limiting, it is actually very freeing. When you’ve laid the foundation the pieces fall into place easily, and give you the freedom to write without obsessing over when each even should occur. The guide has been created and it can be used as a roadmap to keep you on track and help you realize the full potential of your writing.
An outline is not set in stone. You can move pieces and scenes around as you go if you decide they will work better in a different order. If it helps, write each beat on an index card or small piece of paper so that you can rearrange them if you choose, adding in new scenes and deleting others as needed. This outline will help you avoid writer’s block because you’ll always know where your story needs to go next. You’ll have the assignment all laid out clearly from the beginning. The outline will serve as a map that keeps you from wandering and feeling lost and avoiding writing in frustration. Detours and deviations from the outline are welcome, but without this guide, you’ll be more likely to decide to give up and turn back.
Another cause of writer’s block is fear and doubt. Most writers are intimidated with the idea of having others read their work and plagued with doubt about how good our writing really is. We are afraid to write because we are afraid to fail. If we never try we can never be rejected. We always think our script isn’t ready, it’s polished, and we’d be embarrassed to put it in the hands of a professional for fear they’d laugh at our inept writing. Overcoming this fear and self-doubt can be the key to overcoming writer’s block. One of the best ways I have found to undo this nagging fear is to read other scripts. Not just good scripts from already produced films, but terrible ones as well. If you can get an internship or job as a reader, this will greatly improve your writing and your motivation to write. Just like watching terrible movies will make you think, hey I can do better than this, reading horrible scripts will show you what your competition is like, and inspire you to put your own work out there, because you will see how truly awful your competition is. If you can get your hands on screenplays submitted to a studio, you will gain confidence in yourself by realizing that some truly abysmal writers are able to obtain agents and managers and have their scripts taken seriously. If they can do it, you certainly can. Bad scripts are abundant, and if you aren’t able to get a job as a reader, focus on reading the screenplays of badly reviewed movies. These scripts are sometimes awful, and yet the writer was able to get their story produced. This isn’t discouraging, it’s encouraging because it shows you that you aren’t up against thousands of phenomenal Oscar-caliber screenplays, and it reveals the real lack of talent and need for good stories and good writing. This understanding of what terrible writing you’re up against will make the task of writing your own script much less daunting. When you see what else is floating around, the idea of submitting your own work will be infinitely less intimidating, and confidence in your ideas and your ability as a writer will undo the fear and insecurity that often cause writer’s block.
Another very effective method of unblocking yourself is to join a writer’s group or take a writing class. With the abundance of online and traditional writer’s groups and classes on writing and screenwriting, there’s no excuse not to get involved in a group, and it should be easy to find one near you. This will accomplish two things: you will have a chance to read other work, which as explained above, will help motivate and inspire you, and you will have deadlines.
When writing on spec, you have no set due date, and this often leads to procrastination. If you had a writing assignment and were forced to hand in a draft by a certain date, you would. The excuses would be overcome and you would make it happen and turn it in, whether it was perfect or not. Your desire to get paid and keep your job would force you to overcome your writer’s block and just get it done. A writer’s group or a class will create these deadlines for you. If your group meets regularly for critiques, you will be expected to bring work to the meetings, and this will force you to write something. You’ll have people you are accountable to, and deadlines will make you write. A screenwriting class will also provide you with these goals and deadlines, as you’ll usually need to complete an entire script within a semester. A well-structured class should break down the process into manageable chunks, with a certain number of pages due at different intervals. Whether you care about your grade or are just taking the class to grow as a writer, you will benefit from the knowledge of the teacher and the classmates, as well as the deadlines and due dates that will force you to write and get your story on paper. It’s easy to make deadlines, goals and resolutions for yourself, but if you aren’t accountable to another person or group, it is easier to find excuses, give yourself extensions, and make up reasons why you didn’t meet your own deadlines.