by Fin Wheeler
From time to time every writer is paralyzed by an inability to put pen to paper.
Identify what sort of blockage you have and why you have it, and you’re more than halfway to remedying the situation.
Act One is A Mess
You finished your first draft, put it aside for a week or two, but now the first act just isn’t working.
If you read a lot of produced screenplays, you’ll know that even seasoned screenwriters nervously throw everything but the kitchen sink into their Act One.
Take a look at your prep documents. What’s the theme? Who is the protagonist? Why did you decide they were the best conduit for this story?
Have confidence in your protagonist and their story. Weed out everything that doesn’t establish the protagonist and their journey.
(Plot A is generally the physical journey, Plot B is the emotional journey. Any other subplots for secondary characters in the first act waste valuable screen time and suggest to the reader that you don’t have the confidence to write long-form.)
The Ending Ain’t Great
You know there’s something not-so-fabulous about your ending. You hope that if you put the script down it will be fine the next time you read it.
If you feel like the Act Three resolution is a yawn, do something about it. Yes, the audience of any given genre expects the standard outcome, but they also want to be surprised by the unexpected and the original way in which those final obstacles are overcome.
Every industry professional will tell you that all Act Three problems are really Act One problems. Have you properly seeded the ending in Act One?
Act Two Needs To Be More Interesting
You’ve got a beginning, middle, and end, but it still doesn’t feel like a feature.
The most common mistake early-career screenwriters make in feature-length screenplays is to not really have an Act Two. It’s not enough to establish your world (A1), have something happen to forever change that world (end of A1), then have the protagonist drift a bit (A2) before conquering all (A3).
Think about the worst things that ever happened to you. How did they change you? How long were you in denial before you finally accepted that you would have to change one of your fundamental beliefs in order to move forward? Did you take one step forward, then revert back to your comfortable delusion when you realized that being a mature grownup in the real world is too hard?
People who go to the cinema want to see your pain, sweat, and tears. They want to see what mistakes you made, how humiliated you were and embarrassed you felt. Those moments are what make them bond with your protagonist and root for a happy resolution, so write from your experience and your heart.
A development exec can always make a script more generic if necessary, but no one can make a generic script genuine (and worth purchasing).
Yet Another Rewrite, or Query?
You know you should really do another rewrite, but you just want to start sending out query letters.
You only get one chance to make a first impression. A mediocre script won’t get you any good attention. If anyone does read it, they could form a negative opinion about your screenwriting abilities.
If you just can’t face the script at the moment, then put it away while you work on the outline for another project or read a few produced screenplays. You can also submit it for script coverage. You don’t have to take the advice/feedback they give you, but you do have to accept that those are the weaknesses a producer will immediately spot if you choose to submit the script as is.
All Talk, No Write
If you constantly criticize filmmakers and the work of other screenwriters, you create unrealistic expectations for yourself.
Go a month or two without describing yourself as a writer. Only comment on what you felt was effective in the films and screenplays of others. Don’t talk about a project before you’ve written it.
Creating a feature-length screenplay is an awesome undertaking. It’s only natural to feel daunted every now and again. By understanding the cause of your trepidation, you’ll be able to acknowledge your fear, find the appropriate remedy, and move on.
And remember that sometimes ‘not writing’ doesn’t mean you’re blocked. Maybe you’re just gathering more life experience so you’ll have something genuine and worthwhile to bring to your next project.
Fin Wheeler is a member of the Australian Writers’ Guild and has a feature in development.