What to do when you’re screenwriting and up against the wall…
June 23, 2012 § 1 Comment
Yes, sometimes you come up with your best ideas when you are up against the wall and under the pressure of a deadline.
I was responsible for coming up with three really good pitches for a project I was working on with a director. We spoke on the phone and I had two of the ideas pretty well fleshed out, but the third was very weak and hardly a pitch. Of course, I worked on the two ideas with the most meat on their bones and created a one page treatment for each. This third idea was still lacking a real story and it’s always the easiest to create the setup, but that long ACT 2 is a barren wasteland if you don’t have a solid ending to your story.
So, that morning I found myself up against it again, as I my third pitch had no decent story. The clock ticked away as I sipped my coffee and completely dreaded the director’s phone call. Suddenly, as if the creative heavens opened up, my weak third pitch started to blossom and I started to see the movie — well, at least the second act and deep into the third act. I quickly typed it up and was ready for our story meeting when he called. At least it was something to work from, he could give his comments and it would seem like I delivered the goods promised.
You never know when creative ides will blossom or not, but you need to do the work to find a solution. If you sit in front of the blank page and focus, you’ll be present with the idea and you won’t fall into a trap of avoidance and procrastination. Trust me, when the writing gets rough, I’m the first writer to stray and find something else to do. Make it a practice to keep your ass in the chair and don’t leave your desk until you find that missing piece to solve the puzzle. If all else fails and you are completely blocked, you should put it away for a bit and focus on something else for a while. Make sure to come back to it and dig in deep.
I did this recently when I was nearly finished with my last script assignment. I tried to figure out the last scene in my head, I knew what should happen from my treatment, but I couldn’t see it to write it. I worked out the beats on paper, but was getting nowhere fast, so I took a break and went on my five-mile run. Toward the end, my endorphins were pumping and I literally saw the last scene as it played out in my head — the dialogue, action, motivations, everything. Even the last shot of the movie. I quickly ran home just in time to write it all down so I didn’t forget one frame of it. I love when these bursts of creativity happen.
Sometimes writing is easy and sometimes it’s pretty damn hard, but you have to keep the ideas bouncing around in your mind to eventually figure it out. Writing a screenplay requires thousands of tiny decisions and it’s okay if some are complete crap as you slog your way through it. Yes, it’s true screenwriting is always rewriting. But avoid rewriting as you are working on your first draft. Plow through and get the draft out of your mind and on the page. If you go back and continually fix what you’ve previously written, you’ll be trapped in an endless cycle and never get anything done. When you’re up against the wall, do not avoid the work, just do it because there’s no way around it — only through it.
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In private correspondence the great mystery writer Raymond Chandler once confessed, “Even if I didn’t write anything, I made sure I sat down at my desk every single day and concentrated.” Chandler gave himself the physical stamina a professional writer needs, quietly strengthening his willpower. This sort of daily training was indispensable to him.
“Talent renders the whole idea of rehearsal meaningless; when you find something at which you are talented, you do it (whatever it is) until your fingers bleed or your eyes are ready to fall out of your head. Even when no one is listening (or reading, or watching), every outing is a bravura performance, because you as the creator are happy. Perhaps even ecstatic.” — Stephen King, “On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft”
“… the payoff of playing-the-game-for-money is not the money (which you may never see anyway, even after you turn pro). The payoff is that playing the game for money produces the proper professional attitude. It inculcates the lunch-pail mentality, the hard-core, hard-head, hard-hat state of mind that shows up for work despite rain or snow or dark of night and slugs it out day after day.”—Steven Pressfield, “The War of Art”