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A Way Out of Writer’s Block

By Elad Fichman

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Before I studied cinema whenever I heard of a screenwriter complaining about the difficulties of writing and the anguish caused by writing blocks I felt those self-pities were unnecessary. Moreover I thought the act of writing is not as difficult as they reported; on the contrary, I assumed that writing for film is pure fun. After experiencing the challenges of accomplishing five short scripts and handling thousands of writing blocks as a writer and screenwriting teacher, I understand that writing blocks, as UCLA screenwriting teacher Richard Walter claims, is the natural state of the creative person and you have to accept them as an integral part of the writing craft.

In this article I have listed some common writing blocks in chronological order and for each one suggest a possible way out.

Writer’s Block 1: I don't have I good idea

The issue of choosing an idea for a script can be very intimidating and a source for paralyzing anxiety. All kinds of disturbing thoughts can emerge, like "this idea was used already", "that idea is not interesting enough"', "it is not an important issue" etc. The writer is at the beginning of the journey and is afraid that the target of the efforts will not be fruitful. Another possible concern may be that you will waste your creative energies.

A way out…

Certainly there are ideas that seem to have a better commercial or artistic potential but the initial idea is a starting point for the creative process and as you proceed, your thoughts, emotions and views of the world will find a way to be expressed. Another point to bear in mind is that you can, for example, start out writing about carpentry but discover though the different drafts another idea that you are passionate about. As for keeping your energies for the right project, this is a distractive concept that will lead you to bitterness and frustration.    

Writer’s Block 2: The idea utilized itself, it's not enough for a film

You chose an idea, wrote two or five pages and that's it. You feel there is nothing more to write about this idea. You try harder, you become angry and nothing helps. All kinds of disturbing thoughts celebrate your block by whispering "you are not talented", "if it is so hard maybe it's not for me" and so forth.

A way out…

At this stage, though hidden in mist and fog, your creative vision is starting to come into being. You don't have the specific details yet but you begin to have a sense, an unconscious "feel" that you have to hold on to. You can remind yourself that you have overcome one writer's block and keep an optimistic approach that you will successfully overcome this one too. In this stage you need awareness of two things:

A. The nature of the creative process.

It is important to acknowledge and embrace the stage of "incubation". This stage is characterized by experiencing no progress but actually underneath the surface your mind is involved in the work of art until one day a breakthrough occurs. It is hard to grasp how it is possible that a month ago you felt completely stuck and suddenly you're not but that is just the way it is. Some artists cope with that stage by self-doubt or self-hatred; feeling that they are lazy or not talented or assuming that the reason is that they did not have rich experiences in life.  Some can even become self-destructive, neglecting their health, drinking alcohol, risking their life in order to gather some extreme or "colorful" experiences. All of that is unnecessary. You have to teach yourself, or be taught that" incubation" is part of making art.

B. Involving other people.

I believe that at this point you must be aware of the tools you need for completing your screenplay. Maybe you need a co-writer, maybe you need someone who will tutor you. It is time to step outside yourself and see whether you should involve other people in your project. Some can overcome this block by themselves, some need collaborations. The notion that if you need others you're not talented is a myth. Everybody needs other people in the creative process, the question is when. Every serious writer seeks feedback on the various drafts, and is nourished by the different responses from readers.  Involving others does not mean that they will write for you. It is still your responsibility and you have to choose what to accept or reject. Furthermore, I believe that it is part of your creative ability to choose the right people for the right project at the right stage of your creative process.  

Writer’s Block 3: Finding the right order

You are uncertain about what to write first…the synopsis, the treatment, the script?

Maybe the end and then go back?

A way out…

Eventually you will have a synopsis, a treatment and a script. The important thing is their quality and not the order in which they were written. The way you write should be suitable for you. If for example planning ahead and sticking to a plan works best for you, start out with the synopsis, if not don't force yourself. You have to stay open, and keep all the different drafts. Even when writing the script you don't have to write scene one and then scene two because it can limit your possibilities.

Writer’s Block 4: Incubation time again?

The stage of incubation is an internal process and it is hard to distinguish when it ends. When it repeats again the writer is faced with the dilemma whether to "rest" a little or work harder.

A way out…

I recommend you to make use of this period for growth. Read books, articles, watch movies, deepen your research, expand your knowledge, not only about cinema and about the topic of your script but be open to absorb all kinds of art, skills and so on. Even if all those actions do not influence your writing directly I believe it will help you clarify your creative vision and gain perspective which is important for improving your script.

Writer’s Block 5: Holes in the script

There are two kinds of "holes". The first is that you know what you want to happen in scene 20 but you do not know "how to get there". So there are scenes which are missing.

A way out…

I believe this is a time to check your structure and ask yourself what is your movie about and what are your central characters going through? What do they want and what stops them from achieving it? Try to stay flexible and play around in your head with different situations than can be interesting for you to examine how the characters will act and respond.
 
The second type of “holes” is where you know that you want your character to do something in a specific scene but it is not consistent with what happens in a different scene. Here it is very dangerous that by over-trying to be consistent and clear your script will lose momentum.

A way out…

Try to fill those holes but don't lose your focus. Ask yourself how can you develop your central idea or theme and how can you deepen your characters and the relationships between them.  This I believe should be your first priority.

Writer’s Block 6: Is it creating or copying?

You feel you have gone through a lot but then realize this scene is influenced by Scorsese, that sequence was taken from Kubrick, and that character resembles a character from another famous movie etc.

What is wrong with me? Am I stealing? Copying?

Can't I do something entirely new?


Does it mean that the script is useless and should be thrown into the trash? 

A way out…

The difference between an artist and a “copier” is that the copier does not share with the viewers his or her internal world and the decisions in the movie are a product of popularity considerations (to viewers or to critics). That means the copiers do things because they think it will work, not because it is emotional or personal to them in any way. An artist is trying to express oneself; to articulate an internal truth through the medium of cinema. It is not stealing it is a dialogue.

Don't hide your influences.  If you are putting in the effort of making films surely there were some that really touched you and as such you cannot ignore these influences, whether they come from real-life experience or from cinema. Most great directors are walking cinema encyclopedias, for example Scorsese and Truffaut and they can inspire you to create not out of ignorance, lack of confidence and denial but to face the achievements already made and find the ways to express yourself with courage and sincerity.   

Writer’s Block 7: Objective feedback to your script is unpleasant and offensive

After a lot of effort and emotional investment you finally let someone read your script and expect a constructive opinion to be given in a respectful manner but then you experience the complete opposite. You feel the criticism is distractive and even humiliating. Your natural response may be to be offended and feel a need to defend yourself, argue, or even to hurt back. This can lead to a creative crisis, reducing your enthusiasm and lessening the energy you invest in improving the script.

A way out…

It is hard to receive criticism but also hard to give “constructive” criticism. Actually most people do not know how to give it but for an artist it is a waste of energy trying to educate others so as a writer your goal should not be to teach someone how to communicate constructive feedback but to learn as much as possible from the criticism you receive and how to use it in order to improve your script.

It is different for teachers where this is an essential responsibility to protect their students from offensive remarks and to make sure that the learning environment will be safe and that students will learn how to give constructive feedback to their colleagues. As a writer, try to ask yourself if you can learn something from a given remark. Even if someone falls asleep you should ask yourself when did it happen and why.

If someone gives you a general remark for example “it is boring”, try to find out why the reader thinks that way, what scene or element in the script made the reader lose interest. I believe getting criticism is like working with actors -- you need to help them make a good performance. The criticism, if filtered correctly, can boost your creative energy because there are new questions to seek answers to and new challenges to overcome.        

Writer’s Block 8: I conceded things I wanted and the outcome is less than what I wished for

At this stage the script has a life of its own. It seems that the characters speak in their own voice and not that you write the dialogue for them, and that the plot is guided by their desires. If this is so you have to respect your script by conceding what is not suitable.

A way out…

Even if something is great on its own, if it is not in harmony with the other parts of your script you have to let go of it because it will damage the overall artistic achievement and the overall artistic experience of the viewers. It is a matter of maturity as a writer and strengthening the structure of the script.

If you have a great number of important ideas you don't have to squeeze them all into one script. If you let go of some ideas which are not crucial, the remaining ideas will be emphasized and a hierarchy of what is important and what is less important will be formed. As an artist this is essential. As the successful author Stephen Kind claimed: “writing is human, editing is divine”.  

Writer’s Block 9: Giving your dream to others

In the writing process you are dealing with your internal emotions, organizing them, and so on, but for the script to become a movie you must share with others. A character that was only yours on paper is turned over to an actor. Rooms, costumes, streets, sounds you imagined, everything becomes tangible. It is like stepping out of yourself, or a separation from a child and this can be hard, but in this separation you can find new hope.

A way out…

This is time to involve other professional creatives. They will then have an opportunity to express themselves because of your perseverance and sensitivity. This is it! You have succeeded, you have overcome all the writing blocks, and in so doing you would hopefully have discovered that those psychological, creative and mental challenges were in fact the most interesting thing.

About Elad Fichman

Elad Fichman is an independent screenwriter and film director and teaches cinema in high schools and at David Yellin College in Israel where he is the Head of the Communication Department.

Screenwriting Article by Elad Fichman

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