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Screenwriting Habits: The Short Attention Span Screenwriter

By D.B. Gilles

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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.
  1. You can't get started on an idea, any idea. Even an idea you love
  2. You have three or four ideas you love, but you can't decide
  3. which one to write first and because of your indecision. Instead of writing you watch TV, rent movies and eat junk food
  4. You've fallen out of love with what you've been writing
  5. You can't get past a certain point
  6. You've realized as you languish in the middle of Act Two that you have no idea whose story it is so you get discouraged
  7. 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
  8. Your idea requires more research than you thought and you hate doing research so you watch TV, rent movies and eat junk food
  9. You 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 something new
  10. 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
  11. You're 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 another
  • 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 script to
  • You get mad at the script, as if it's a recalcitrant child who won't listen
  • 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: confront it.

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 first step.

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 talk 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 beach.
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.
At the 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 health.

Then do it.

About D.B. Gilles

D.B. Gilles teaches screenwriting, television writing and comedy writing at New York University’s, Tisch School of the Arts. He also taught in The Dramatic Writing Department at NYU, the Graduate Film Department at Columbia and The Gallatin School of Individualized Study at NYU. His fiction includes the comic novel, I Hate My Book Club and the mystery, Colder Than Death. He is the author of The Portable Film School, The Screenwriter Within: New Strategies To Finish Your Screenplay & Get A Deal! and You’re Funny! Turn Your Sense of Humor Into A Lucrative New Career. He is also one of the most in demand Script Consultants and Writing Coaches in the United States. You can reach him directly at: [email protected].

Screenwriting Article by D.B. Gilles

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