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How 18 Hollywood Screenwriters Annihilate Writer’s Block

(Advice from Aaron Sorkin, William Monahan, Cary Joji Fukunaga and Many More!)

Introduction

In the 1920s, F. Scott Fitzgerald moved to Los Angeles as a novelist with plans to start writing screenplays. To the young virtuoso, he found screenwriting to be all but impossible despite his enormous success as a novelist.

Screenwriting involves a unique set of skills, which begins with a blank page and ends in collaboration.

While a handful of writers have completely mastered the draft, viewing the work as merely a job, others will meet several roadblocks along the way. Obstacles begin on page one and can arrive again and again as the story continues.

Every writer has a different approach at what they consider to be the most difficult step in the writing process.

Depth Psychotherapist Philip Ruddy counsels screenwriters in Los Angeles. With a masters degree in Counseling Psychology, Ruddy understands that no creative blocks are alike and that can mean anything from being completely frozen, to only writing a few words here and then, or simply feeling anxious and missing deadlines.

Whatever block has found its way onto your journey, this collaboration of answers from top Hollywood screenwriters will get you back on the right track.

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Cary Joji Fukunaga

True Detective, Beasts of Nation, Jane Eyre

Starting is definitely the most difficult [step]. Once you get started and your mind is in gear to do it, then you’re great. But I will avoid the writing process — and not intentionally because I know I have to write — but I will find other things to do.

A lot of people want to write. A lot of people have ideas about what they want to write, but it’s that same thing — just getting started. Just do it. If you can start, you can probably finish. Just keep doing it.

I think that’s why I fit it into a two-week writing period. If you can’t plan out some kind of draft in that time period, even if it’s not a good draft but something that approximates what you’re going after, then you may never finish it.

It’s about making sure you finish something and seeing it through until the end. I wish someone had told me how easy it is to write a first draft of a feature film. It seems daunting but if that’s what you want to do, writing a 110-page screenplay is much easier than writing a novel, where everything is about the prose, the structure, the format, or the tone of the author.

Byron Howard

Zootopia, Tangled, Bolt

Someone asked our screenwriter on Tangled, whose name is Dan Fogelman (Bolt, Crazy, Stupid, Love), “When is the screenplay was done for an animated film?” It’s really never done.

We constantly rewrite, even up until the last couple weeks of production on the film. I would imagine we did over one hundred drafts of the script, over the years, and that would be small and large rewrites and overturns. It’s so constant that it would be ridiculous to actually count, because it’s constantly in motion.

Another writer at Disney once said it’s like “…trying to paint a moving train.” It just goes and goes and goes — especially once it goes into production. Animation is also so expensive that we really try to work out the story as much as possible before we dive into production, but that doesn’t always work out that way.

The story itself is the most important thing. If the story doesn’t work as a film, then all of the most beautiful animation in the world won’t bring it together. So it really comes down to story and finding that emotional core that is going to make your audience invest in the character who is driving the movie.

Not only do you want for them to like the character, but you also want for the audience to find something in common with the protagonist. In [Zootopia], Judy Hopps is driving the story, so that’s who we’re following throughout the film.

It’s critical to find that balance of emotion, humor, and that classic Disney pathos so everyone can have a complete experience with the film. With a Disney film, I think people want more than just entertainment; they want to experience a deep, emotional reaction. It’s tough to make it fire on all cylinders, but that’s why we spend so much time reiterating and reinventing it.

Jason Fuchs

Pan, Ice Age 4, Mafia

Every single step [is difficult]. It’s all so hard. With every script the part that is hardest changes. On one script the third act will be really tough and on the next script the third act will be the best thing ever written, but you can’t figure out the opening sequence. With the next script, there’s something in Act II you’re stuck on. It’s constantly shifting.

I’m always up until six in the morning pulling my hair out. I’m sure there are people who find screenwriting easy but I’m just not one of them. You also have to be someone others want to work with. You should be mindful of how privileged you are to be paid to make up stories.

When you get notes you disagree with or you’re getting pummeled in a story meeting, remain the calmest guy in the room, open to other opinions, and you will go much further in the business than those who become quickly frustrated or angry. Write and keep writing. Work harder than the next guy and be a good person — it pays off.

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Jonathan Aibel

Kung Fu Panda, King of the Hill, Trolls

We’ve met many aspiring writers who don’t really like to write. It’s a very difficult profession for people who don’t like to write. You have to want to sit down to write jokes or to write scripts — part of that is just having the ability to sit down day in and day out and actually do it.

The other is willing to hear people’s opinions of your work. You have to convince yourself that it’s great just to get through the writing of it, but ultimately, anything can be better. Then you have to turn it in for notes and you have to honestly accept that criticism and then try to make your material better.

Sam Shaw

Manhattan, Masters of Sex

The interesting thing about writing TV is that you’re not working in a vacuum. You’re working with other writers. I have an unusual staff of writers that I’ve put together, meaning that all of the writers on our show were prose fiction writers, and they now write for TV. Many are old friends and colleagues from Iowa.

It’s a very mysterious process writing within a group of people to find consensus. It’s an aristocratic process where you put a bunch of smart people together in a room, who have different points of view and different life experiences and you debate until you find an idea that’s hopefully better than any one individual idea.

It is tricky though, because at some point, someone needs to be an arbiter and legislate a point of view as to how to move forward. In a way, this can be the most challenging part. Essentially, it’s a choose-your-own-adventure where everyone is aware that there are fifty ways of telling the story and we need to commit to one.

As a writer, you collect bits of wisdom and pass them on to others like a custodian of fortune cookies. There are two pieces of advice I would give and neither of which are my own. The first is from E. L. Doctorow and I learned while writing prose, but it states, “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

This, to me, really applies to anything whether you’re writing a scene, an act, an episode, or an entire season. You’ll loose your mind trying to focus on the whole, the entire time, but if you make the ascent line-by-line, or scene-by-scene, you can make the whole trip that way.

The second quote is honestly the best piece of advice I’ve ever heard. I’m certainly not the originator and I can no longer remember where I first read it, but the most important development as a writer is when you stop thinking of writing as a high art and start thinking about it as work. It took me a long time to do that, especially beginning as a prose writer.

I began because I loved prose stylists like Lorrie Moore so I had all of these highfaluting ideas about myself as an artist. In reality, the writers I know that have made a lifetime of writing have set aside those ideas and focus on the work at hand. They write every day.

William Monahan

The Departed, Body of Lies, The Gambler

Sometimes when you get asked a question like this, you want to invent some type of difficulties just to be a regular guy about everything. “Oh yes, I chew pencils,” or something. “I go for long walks” or “ I have this terrible block!” But, it’s like “No, if you’re a writer, you just write.” Like ducks swim.

The other thing is that it’s pleasurable or else you don’t do it. It’s pleasurable for me to write and it’s never stopped being pleasurable as long as it’s autonomous.

I write as if I’m describing a film I’m seeing in my head anyway. I’ve always been highly visual and if there’s any argument to why I’ve been successful, it’s probably because I’m so visual. If you read my screenplays, you can at least see “a movie,” even though it’s not “the movie.” I think that’s why people have signed on to them and why they’ve been made.

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Pamela Romanowsky

The Adderall Diaries, The Color of Time

Knowing when something is finished [is difficult]. There is a desire to get it perfect before you start shooting.

My big takeaway from [The Adderall Diaries] was that that is not possible and there are also going to be so many surprises and gifts and magic moments that would happen on set. Many of those things would need to be figured out in the editing room, which was my second major revision.

Be patient and find people that will help you to create a network of support. Focus on what feeds you, both within the scene and the images, as well as with what you’re working on. It’s really important to stay excited. Stay passionate about it and give yourself reminders as to why you love the material and why you need to tell the story.

Robert Budreau

Born to Be Blue, That Beautiful Somewhere

Often, the most difficult thing is knowing what to write. It sounds obvious, but I think when you try and short cut rather than plot out, that can be difficult.

Sometimes, tuning into the language and dialogue can be difficult. But I find that workshopping with actors can improve the dialogue, so I don’t worry too much about that in the beginning.

Things always take a lot longer than you think. You have to be prepared for endless rewrites and its important to stick with your project without getting too discouraged or bogged-down by it.

Try to find a group of people that you trust. Get feedback and try to get a sense of what battles to fight for and which ones not to fight for.

When making a movie, you can often get pushed into strange decisions in writing or casting by financiers because you need to get it made, but rather than always sticking to your guns, it’s important to remember that it’s a practical business and you need to get things made.

I tend to write from a practical place, knowing my potential limitations.

Bryan Sipe

Demolition, The Choice

Obviously there are difficulties within the labor of writing, but for me, the most difficult step was trying to get [Demolition] made after the script was complete. It was ten years in the making. It was on the blacklist. People talk about it and they pat you on the back and tell you that you wrote a great script, but you’re still standing there holding your script wondering who’s going to make it.

It took a long time before someone stepped up and that was the producers and Jean-Marc (Wild, Dallas Buyers Club). I would be lying if I didn’t say that there were times when I lost confidence and thought about bailing out. You’re losing money, losing confidence, and running out of money. There were times when I was ready to throw it all away.

I think it comes back to what we were just saying. Don’t be afraid to go down those roads, even if you don’t know where they’re going.

There are so many days where I stared at my computer, afraid to make the wrong choices or write the wrong words. You can’t be precious. You have to be willing to fail. It’s a relationship.

Writing is a muscle. The more you use it, the stronger you get.

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Taylor Sheridan

Sicario, Hell or High Water

It’s that bridge. It’s the middle of the second act, because that’s when any mistakes you made early on in the first act or anywhere else, that’s where they pop their heads up.

If you hit that wall of logic or the emotional journey of the character starts to feel like it’s wavering, the problem isn’t there, the problem’s thirty pages back, and for me, it happens with every screenplay.

That is the spot, and you can either try to write around it or gut check and go back and kill something you probably really liked. That seems to be one I always have to do.

Someday I’ll assemble all of what I think are the best things I’ve ever written — none of which seemed to make it into the final draft of the script, and I’m just going to piece them together and it’ll look like an Altman film… or a mess or something.

I had been in the business for so long and I had seen the consequences of a plot hole or a character flaw or something that wasn’t fully developed. And I had suffered that as the actor or had seen it on the screen. I was pretty merciless on myself from the first day I wrote the first thing.

But for twenty years I’d spent most of my time reciting lines by people that took shortcuts. Don’t take a shortcut.

I always write the movie that I want to go see, and just assume someone else will want to go see it, too. It’s got to be saying what you want to say the way you want to say it.

I think to be a really good screenwriter, you have to be selfish, you have to write just for you. You’ll be your toughest critic, but trying to guess what someone else is going to like or want, that’s such a moving target. You’ll find yourself trying to write something that false.

Constantly remind yourself to write what you’d want to see and that you can’t waste a word.

Jim Strouse

The Hollars, New York I Love You, The Winning Season

I’ve never had a problem with drawing from life and exaggerating it. I don’t know if there’s something wrong with me but I always feel like any experience I have is fair game. It can work its way into a screenplay verbatim, or it can be bent to what I need it to do or be in the world of the screenplay.

I have a system of experiencing events and then funneling them into my tone. So hopefully every scene has a point to it. Everything is moving towards a larger picture while also revealing character and feeling authentic.

I write a line, I read it over, I write another line, I read both of them over, and I do that until the whole thing is almost finished. I’m reading it over and over, and I get really nitpicky about certain words and the way it sounds. My two main criteria are that it feel authentic, but it also has a flow and a rhythm to it

As I’ve seen it in the classroom, I think the biggest hurdle a writer has to overcome is him- or herself. I have seen many screenwriters in my class who simply aren’t writing. If you’re not writing there’s no magic thing that’s going to happen in the future, you have to write.

You have to write, and you have to allow yourself to make some garbage, too. I understand the impulse to be a perfectionist and only want to make great things but just finishing a screenplay is the achievement. That’s it. Don’t worry about if you’re going to sell it or what’s going to happen, just finish it.

I see so many people get to the halfway mark and then put it down and think they’ll just pick it up later and I feel like the biggest hurdle is one’s own procrastination or self-doubt. I tell my students that writing a first draft, for me, is always the race against one’s self-doubt, and if you put it down for too long, doubt’s going to win out.

Michael Lannan

Looking, Remember Me

For me, personally, it’s about habits. I am a very, very slow writer and for a long time, I didn’t properly schedule the time I needed to write. I needed to learn to shut the world out and make that time.

I didn’t defend that time.

Once I learned to block out that time and not look at my emails, to turn off my phone and not distract myself by getting a beer with friends, then I could make a lot more progress.

Somewhere, I read a quote that said, “We overestimate what we can achieve in a short period of time and underestimate what we can achieve in a long period of time.” So I got into the habit of defending that time, and the progress really does accrue over time.

I’ve seen other writers who are clearly working on something so beautiful and so personal that it scares them, so they turn to another project or idea that fits the compatibility of the market place and what people are buying.

But that personal thing that they are so uncomfortable with is usually the most amazing thing that I have ever read of theirs. They’re just too close to it and it’s uncomfortable, so they can’t bring themselves to finish it. That’s another common problem, especially here in Los Angeles, when everyone is talking about who-sold-what, all the time.

I got two pieces of pieces of really good advice along the way — one from a friend who is a really good writer, and one from another who is a cinematographer.

The writer said, “At the end, it’s just you and your keyboard.” By that, he meant, “No one knows anything, really.”

People will offer you all types of opinions — even very successful people who seem to know what they are talking about and speak with certainty — but they don’t really know anything, either.

They don’t know what the world that you are trying to communicate is. They will tell you if it fits into the marketplace or not, but if you have a burning passion for your world, then the only person that knows anything is you.

The other piece of advice is something that I struggled with for a long time, which was to “just finish it.”

I spent years just not finishing work, when a friend of mine said, “If you can just finish something, then you are miles ahead of most people. Most people just don’t finish their short films or their scripts, because they always pick up something else to distract themselves or just leave it three-quarters of the way through.”

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Greg Kwedar

Transpecos

I’m all about ideation. Stories come natural to me. Clint (Bentley) always jokes that I carry three different notebooks with me: a small one in my pocket, a medium, and a large elsewhere, and while there are grocery lists in there,

I also have ideas of where the story can go. I love the ideation phase. I love the research phase and pulling together details and interesting textures — I’m hungry for that.

Sitting down and following through to get that first draft done is the challenge for me. The first draft of Transpecos we wrote was written longhand, in a notebook. Something about not having that editor of the backspace key hanging over you so you can write until the end and scribble notes in the margins, seems so tactile — to have a completely full notebook of a movie in it.

By the time you move it to the computer, you’re really just editing it and transcribing, when compared to how you started. I just never want to be the writer that writes the first ten pages 200 times, over and over again, never getting to the end of the script.

Bob Nelson

The Confirmation, Nebraska, Highston

I’m probably more reluctant to take out things that actually happened. I trust the things that are personal a little more, I guess, than the ones that I make up because they’re grounded in reality.

When you start making up stuff, sometimes it can go a little broad or it might be something you haven’t experienced, which we all have to start writing about at some point. I kind of try to anchor it with the real stuff even if it’s been transformed a little bit in the writing.

It just makes me feel like I’m somewhere in reality. It’s something I can relate to and, hopefully, other people can relate to as well. I do tend to cling to those nuggets a little longer than anything else.

I thought when I wrote The Confirmation, that it was pretty tight, but as we were starting to get into preproduction, I realized that I should tighten it even more just to make my days.

Just deciding what’s really necessary, I kept in a few things in The Confirmation that aren’t totally necessary for the story, but I liked. There’s some theories that there should be nothing in your script that doesn’t further the story whereas I also like things that enhance the character or enhance the story even though they technically could be cut.

The screenplays people have sent me to look at, the biggest mistake by far is not cutting and keeping it very tight. Dialogue often rambles on for pages; the descriptions are much more than you need.

I do think that unless it’s very important, you shouldn’t be describing anything you can’t see on the screen. I often see screenplays where people are telling what the characters are thinking and other descriptions you wouldn’t know by just watching the film.

The other big reason for all of this is when you finally get someone to read the screenplay, you only get that first time that these producers or financers read it and you want to make sure you have your story exactly how you want it so the descriptions or dialogue doesn’t just ramble. It’s a big deal for your script to stand out. Once you get it in their hands you want it to be tight and ready to go.

Scott Moore and Jon Lucas

Bad Moms, The Hangover, Mixology

Jon: Coming up with ideas that are horrible is actually okay, because it’s really obvious when they’re a bad idea. The hardest part is we come up with a lot of ideas that are like, “Eh, that’s probably a movie. I could imagine that’s a movie,” and that difference between something that you could really make and that’s something fun and different and just a movie that’s sort of a piece of commerce or that feels like it’s programming.

That for me, personally, is really hard because you’ll come up with an idea and I’ll say, “I can’t wait to pitch Scott this movie, I know it’s a movie,” but then it’s just a little not different enough or it’s a little too different and no one’s really going to see it, and it’s sort of too esoteric. So for me, coming up with a good idea — that’s the hottest commodity.

If we had had someone in my basement that just came out and gave me ideas that would be truly the greatest gift. The actual act of writing, once you have a great idea, makes it a lot easier to write. If you don’t have a good idea, it kind of fights you the whole way, especially around page 70 where you’d normally push through. There’s a certain page in every script where if it’s not a good idea, it reveals itself. It’s a horrible feeling.

Scott: Coming up with ideas is the hardest part. Because there’s no craft to it, there’s no science to it. It’s hard to improve how you’re doing it. You just need to keep trying to think of stuff, whereas the writing process, if you write a scene that’s bad you can just re-write it.

You try different things. You try a different line of dialogue. “Let’s make it shorter, let’s make it longer, let’s throw in a character;” there’s all sorts of tricks and tools and ways to work on the writing, but I don’t know how you go on coming up with better ideas.

When you come up with an idea it’s so, kind of, magical. You’re walking down the street, or you’re in your car, or somebody says something at dinner and you’re like, that’s an idea. It’s almost an accident, and I don’t know how you make accidents happen.

Jon: You can’t replicate it. It isn’t like, “Oh this is how I got the last idea so it’ll happen again for this one.”

Scott: I’m going to get the band together and we’re going to have the same dinner every night, and you guys say the same thing and we’ll come up with a bunch of ideas. It doesn’t work that.

Jon: It’s like when you meet a producer or a writer or anyone who is like, “I’ve got tons of good ideas for movies.” It’s like, “Oh boy. No, you don’t.”

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James Vanderbilt

The Amazing Spider-Man, Zodiac, Truth

Whenever I’m writing the first draft, I’m usually struggling, and then on the version of the draft right before filming, I’m ready to work on something new. So the grass is always a little greener…

I write very long drafts — way too long to shoot. I’m envious of my friends who write a first draft that’s only 95 pages. My first drafts are usually 170 pages so most of my work comes from shortening the drafts. Truth is only a two-hour movie, so by hook or by crook, you have to narrow it down. The shooting script for Zodiac was 200-pages, but it was what it was. So the part of cutting down is perhaps the most difficult for me. Everyone has seen a movie where they enjoyed it, but they know it could have been fifteen minutes shorter.

Write as much as you can. Re-write as much as you can. Be brutal on your work. Be your own harshest critic. Read a lot of screenplays. Read a lot of good screenplays. Don’t just read your friend’s work. Read produced screenplays. Read Shane Black, William Goldman, Aaron Sorkin, Paddy Chayefsky — just go online and learn the craft of screenwriting. There is so much to learn. Read how Shane Black writes a script or how Aaron Sorkin constructs a scene. Learn how they use descriptions.

There is so much you don’t see in a film that you can read on a page. See how these brilliant writers use their words to convey emotion. Someone once told me you have to write seven bad screenplays before you can write a good screenplay and I said ‘whatever’ like any young punk would. Seven bad screenplays later, I realized that guy was right.

Go out and make stuff. Take an acting class. Take a psychology class. Take a directing class. Work on short films. Try directing. Try acting. Walk in the shoes of other people that you may be working with on set. Get on a movie set if you can. Immerse yourself in the business as much as possible.

My professor, John Furia, said he was always asked the question, ‘How do I break into the business?’ His answer always stuck with me. He said, ‘The question is not how to break into the business. If you work hard enough then you’ll get your shot. Your question should be, how do I stay in the business?’

It’s not about the big break. It’s about that point where they ask you, ‘What else do you have?’ It’s about building a career. Don’t focus on that one perfect idea you have. Write a bunch of different things. Experiment. Try everything.

Aaron Sorkin

The Social Network, Moneyball, The West Wing

Bill Goldman says that, “The last 15 minutes of any movie are the most important, and the first 15 pages of any screenplay are most important.” Here’s what he’s talking about. Obviously you’re hoping that the whole 120 minutes of the movie are going to be great, but if you can’t do that and the last 15 minutes are great, then you’ll send the audience out whistling.

Screenwriting is a different kind of writing, because we don’t write things that are meant to be read; we write things that are meant to be performed. There is a big difference. The only time that the reading of the script matters — as opposed to the performance — is when you’re trying to get the thing made.

It matters when a studio head is reading it, when the director is reading it, when an actor is reading it, when you’re trying to put the elements in place to get it done. In their world, if you have a great first 15 pages, followed by a not as great 120 pages, then they’re still going to be interested in the script.

They might say, “Come into the office so we can give you some notes on the script,” but you will have hooked them and, if nothing else, they’ll read page 16. This compares to a number of scripts where they aren’t even going to get past page 10.

[In addition], the characteristics of characters and the characteristics of people have almost nothing to do with each other. People don’t speak in dialogue and their lives don’t play themselves out in a series of scenes that form a narrative arc.

A character — let’s assume it’s your protagonist — is defined by what they want or by their intentions. I talk about intention and obstacle a lot in the Master Class. They are defined by what they want. You don’t show the audience who a character is — you show the audience what a character wants.

Then there is a formidable obstacle. You have a character who wants the girl, wants the money, or needs to get to Philadelphia — it doesn’t matter. But they do have to want it or need it, really badly. There must be a formidable obstacle — something very difficult to overcome. The tactics that the characters use to overcome the obstacle is what defines that character for the audience. It’s what your story is about and it’s what your audience is going to be watching.

When an audience looks at something and they say, “Well, people don’t talk like that” or “People don’t really do that,” that’s the absolute truth. People don’t talk like that — that’s what movies, television and theater are for. They represent heightened versions of ourselves. It has very little to do with people.

Jackie Mason — who I don’t recommend as a great mentor within screenwriting, while he may be a great mentor when it comes to being funny — says it this way: “Most people, in their lives, eat a lot of soup. We all eat a lot of soup, but you hardly ever see somebody eating a bowl of soup in a movie.” It doesn’t read well.

I talk a lot about the importance of failure — perhaps just in trying to make myself feel better. I’m envious of my friends who went to Yale drama or have a Masters degree in playwriting. I’m really envious of them. I have a Bachelor of Fine Arts, so I’ll ask my Yale Drama friend, “Please tell me, what in your Master program did you learn, because I’m sure there is something that you have learned as I have these big gaps in my understanding.”

They’ll say, “The MFA is roughly the same as the BFA, but the most important part is that the Masters Program allows for you to write the worst things that you are ever going to write. It allows you to write with no consequences. Right now, if I write something that is a failure, there are a lot of consequences. First of all, I just lost someone a lot of money and a lot of people are out of work.

For myself, there would be public humiliation, so there are a lot of consequences. Back in school, I wish I had taken more chances. Back then, I would only do things I knew I was good at. I would do things to impress my friends or to impress girls, so I wouldn’t do anything where I might fall on my face. I think I would be better now if I had taken chances before. So I encourage young writers to do that. I encourage writers to do that and buck up their friends who will take the chance to fail.

Final Thoughts

Hopefully while reading this collaboration, you’ve found what you were looking for. While each story is different and each obstacle has its own difficulties, these steps have helped others and they will help you too.

Despite where you fit within the realms or amateur, hobbyist or professional writer, each level has its own obstacles and every hurdle is merely a stepping-stone to another problem.

Fame and fortune will not make the problems go away, so it’s best to become a problem solver in the very beginning. Take the time to put in the work now so you’ll be ready when it’s time for the next step in your journey.

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