I know over five hundred
screenwriters - maybe more - ranging in age from 18 to 76, at all
levels, from those just starting out to a bunch that've gotten
deals, sold scripts and had movies made. They include friends,
former students, colleagues, pen pals, clients and acquaintances.
Some have good writing habits, some don't. Actually, most don't.
Hell, I don't. But in fairness, there are reasons and they can be
lumped together under one big umbrella.
The majority of us
are Short Attention Span Screenwriters.
For one reason or
another (or several) we're writing, but without enough focus. I've
broken it down to ten reasons. If you're lucky only one of these
will apply. Three or four seems to be the norm.
get started on an idea, any idea. Even an idea you love
- You have three or four ideas you love, but you can't decide
which one to write first and because of your indecision. Instead of
writing you watch TV, rent movies and eat junk food
fallen out of love with what you've been writing
- You can't
get past a certain point
- You've realized as you languish in
the middle of Act Two that you have no idea whose story it is so you
- You've finally admitted to yourself that you
weren't emotionally connected to your story and that you only
started writing it because you thought it was commercial and would
be easy to sell and the realization that you've wasted four months
on the project kicks in your self-loathing mechanism
idea requires more research than you thought and you hate doing
research so you watch TV, rent movies and eat junk food
find out that a major studio release with an A-list director and
huge stars has begun production on a film that's so close to yours
that you know you don't stand a chance so you don't know whether to
stick with it, put it in your drawer for ten years or start
- You showed the 63 pages you've toiled over for
eight months to someone and got negative feedback that bummed you
out and sent you into a tailspin of self doubt
nearing the end of your script and you're afraid to finish because
it means you'll have to show it to someone and it's safer to just
keep working on it because you have a pathological fear of criticism
The ultimate goal of every screenwriter is to sell a script
and get it made. However, the primary
goal of every
screenwriter should be to finish the first draft of a screenplay.
Without a first draft you'll be
stuck in a place worse than Development Hell. You're left without
food or water in a dark, sad, bleak place that I call Undeveloped
Hell. And what's even more galling is that you're the Gatekeeper.
Never forget: a bad first draft is preferable to a brilliant
unfinished 49 pages that's been gnawing away at you for two years.
Completion of the first draft is everything. Even if it's
barely 85 pages with a meandering second act, no real plot twists in
Act Three and an ending that's not only unsatisfying, but so wrong
it belongs in a different screenplay. Even if it's way too long (and
you've known it's too long ever since you hit Page 118 and you
haven't gotten to the end of Act Two.)
But too short or too
long, at least you got to the Fade Out and you've typed in The End.
Only then can the real work of revision, rethinking and fine-tuning
begin. But getting to that completed first draft is the hardest part
for most of us. If you can get a handle on why you're not moving
forward to completion, it might help you break through the miasma.
Based on an unscientific poll of screenwriters I know, the
following seem to be the biggest roadblocks:
- You're spreading yourself too thin with your full-time job,
social life, family responsibilities and/or other interests that
prevent you from finding enough quality writing time
- You're working on too many scripts at once. Halfway done with
this one, a third of the way with that, stuck with no third Act for
- You're so infatuated (or obsessed) with your idea that it's
turning into a creepy little Pygmalion scene or your psychotic
Frankenstein monster. You just can't let it go. You're constantly
tweaking and revising the same scenes over and over again
- You're spending too much time thinking about the deal you're
convinced you'll get or making notes about which stars to get the
- You get mad at the script, as if it's a recalcitrant child who
- You somehow expect the screenplay to fix itself
- You're waiting for your Muse to do her part and you haven't
realized that she's like that girl/guy who dumped you and left town
without a forwarding address
- You have negative people around you who are discouraging
- You're just lazy and more of a slacker than you thought
Whichever point(s) above applies to you, there's only way to
deal with your inability to see a first draft through to the end:
It's almost like going to therapy. You
acknowledge your problem, figure out why you're letting yourself be
victimized by it, then take the necessary steps to get out from
under it. Owning up to what you're doing wrong (or not doing) is the
Some problems are easier to deal with than
others. If your brother or a parent or even a significant other
ridicules or minimizes you for pursuing a screenwriting career, you
must turn a deaf ear to the negativity. Let them carry on, smile and
keep writing. It's your dream, not theirs.
If you come to
the conclusion that your biggest problem is laziness, i.e., you
about writing a screenplay more often than you actually
do it, you must
give yourself a wake up call. Stop goofing
off. Stop wasting time. Instead of going out drinking with your
friends, shopping at the mall and doing all those things you do to
avoid sitting at your computer and grinding out five more pages
(even if they're so-so) find a mirror, stare long and hard into it
and remind yourself that writing screenplays isn't a day at the
It's hard. Very hard. And it takes discipline,
concentration and tenacity to finish one.
A good way to get
refocused is by doing things you've heard before. Maybe you've tried
them. Maybe not. Maybe it's time. Set a writing time you won't veer
from. Give yourself a daily page count - even if it's only one page.
Re-do the opening page or two, just to get back into the feel of
where you started from. Edit any scene that looks too talkie or has
too many stage directions. Without sounding too New Age, the object
is to get into a mindset that will guide you into that wonderful
zone where you're totally into the material.
I think the
biggest problem every screenwriter faces is that we get lost in our
own point of view. In the early stages of the scriptwriting process,
getting lost in our scripts is good. It's what launches us. But that
kind of single-mindedness can only take us so far. At some point we
have to pull back and be more objective and self-critical. The
further we allow ourselves to go into our own little wormhole the
easier it is to become imprisoned there. Once that happens it's easy
to be overwhelmed by some of the problems listed above.
end of the day there are two kinds of screenwriters: those who
finish the first draft of a screenplay and those who don't. Some
days we can write and some days we all suffer from Short Attention
Span Deficit so we stare mindlessly at our monitors or notepads
until we give up and find our usual ways to avoid the problem.
After all, creativity can't be turned on and off, right?
Wrong. It must
be turned on. We have to force
ourselves to keep on keepin' on.
So to all Short Attention
Span Screenwriters out there, remember that you're not alone. You're
part of a big club.
Here's my last piece of advice: print
out whatever pages you have on the script that's driving you crazy.
Read them as if you're about to start nursing a loved one back to
Then do it.