In my relatively short tenure as a screenwriter so far, I’ve learned to pay close attention to the parts of my script that “niggle” at me — the writing red flags, as it were.
When I give notes on scripts, I do the same.
Those “niggly” bits — dialogue that feels off, structural choices that aren’t working, character introductions that don’t do your dramatis personae justice — are nuggets of wisdom from your inner writer, letting you know when you’re off track. And when you do yourself the disservice of ignoring your inner voice, you do a disservice to your writing and what it is capable of becoming.
Say it isn’t so
Hal Croasmun of ScreenwritingU says: “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard a writer say they sent out a script that they ‘suspected wasn’t ready‘ or they’ll say something like ‘I knew I should have changed that ending’ after their script is turned down.”
He finds that some writers lack a proper process to elevate their work, something he teaches in his professional level training program, the ProSeries. (Full disclosure: I’m a graduate of the program and loved it.)
For these writers, he says, “Their process looks like this:
1. Write the script.
2. Know it needs improvement, but hope nobody will notice.
3. Send it out to producers.
4. Regret sending it out after it has been turned down.”
He goes on to say, “That’s not a solid process to base a career upon. It will be a consistent source of disappointment and likely have a person give up at some point — often just inches away from success.”
When Croasmun asks producers the question, “What percentage of screenplays do you get that are written at a professional level?”, the response he receives is usually, “About five percent.” This means that 95% of screenplays out there simply aren’t up to snuff.
Be willing to do the work
It seems this all-too-common practice of ignoring the parts of our screenplays that need work comes about as a combination of ignoring our inner wisdom, being overly attached to our early drafts (see also: Adjust Your Attitude About Rewrites), and clinging to a fundamental resistance to just doing the hard work.
Steven Pressfield, the seminal author on the concept of resistance, says in his book Turning Pro, “The professional knows when he has fallen short of his own standards. He will murder his darlings without hesitation, if that’s what it takes to stay true to the goddess and to his own expectations of excellence.”
3 ways to harness your inner writer’s wisdom
So how do we raise the bar on our work to bring it to the level it deserves? How do we know what to cut, what to change, and what to make better?
Feedback certainly plays an important role. So does learning to pay attention to our own deep wisdom about our work and stop glossing over what we know isn’t working.
Here are three ways to harness your innate ability to improve the quality of your work:
1. Answer your own objections
I recently conducted a “writing reboot” session with TV writer and novelist, Jamie Livingston, writing as Jamie Lee Scott. She had been stuck on a sitcom pilot project for about a year as the result of a perfect storm of writing resistance: A challenging critique, a high stakes opportunity with her manager, and some unresolved objections about her own work.
In our session, we tackled all three of those items, but the one that made the biggest difference was finding a new way to look at her own concerns about her story. It was a personal one, set to take place in a situation very similar to her own. So when she worked on her pilot idea, she continually bumped into the notion that “in the real world, that wouldn’t happen.”
I helped her solve this by inviting her to write down all her real world objections in a list, and then to look at how they could happen differently in “sitcom world.” It freed her up to both acknowledge the concerns she was having, but also gave her a useful way to approach brainstorming new ideas that would work.
She was thrilled with the result and was able to complete her pilot after months of being blocked.
Value the concerns and objections you have about your own work as useful information that will help you improve your script — and address them.
2. Think of clichés (and even your initial ideas) as placeholders
Sometimes the obvious answer is … well … too obvious.
What if, rather that telling yourself, “This is too cliché, it’s not original enough,” you took on the notion that anything you find in your script that is cliché is simply a placeholder you can come back to and improve?
Rather than ignoring it or hoping a Hollywood reader won’t notice it (fair bet they will), pay attention when that voice says, “This isn’t cutting it,” and do something about it.
The judgment, not the fact, is the obstacle.
In other words, telling yourself you’re blowing it by writing something too cliché isn’t going to help you. Instead, notice the judgment (or the cliché itself) as something that needs to be corrected. Then fix it.
3. Be honest about the red flags
Similarly, as you read through your script (or someone else’s script), pay attention to the parts that nag at you, the things you know are just a bit outside (or way past) where you want them to be. Especially pay attention to those aspects that make you say, “Oh, that’s okay, no one will notice that,” or “I don’t have time to solve that.”
If you’re noticing, someone else will too. It makes a difference.
And when you come across those uncomfortable parts, flag them. Take note. Fix your script when you come across those things that need tweaking. DO NOT pass them by. If you do, you won’t be doing your story justice.
Along those same lines, when you give feedback to other writers, speak up about things that bug you. What I find more often than not is that when I point out something that feels off to me, the writer invariably says, “Yes! That was bothering me too. I just wasn’t sure what to do about it.”
And when you receive notes, listen with your inner writer’s wisdom. Even if you don’t like the note, is it right? Don’t be afraid to do the hard work to make the script as excellent as possible.
Get it done well
As Croasmun says, “An easy way to think about this is to have three different stages of completeness for your script — A satisfying draft, a contest draft, and a producer’s draft. The satisfying draft is where you’ve finished the story to your taste and love how it is told. The contest draft is one where you do a lot of editing to make sure it reads well for someone outside of you. And for a producer’s draft — the script isn’t finished until everything (structure, plot, character, situations, etc.) is the absolute best it can be. If you are committed to that, you’ll have real success in this industry.”
Remember, it’s not just about getting it done, it’s about getting it done WELL. In a culture where, as Carrie Fisher says, “instant gratification takes too long,” it’s all too easy to want to cross the finish line without care for how we’re running the race. But it matters, because in an industry where screenplays are a dime a dozen, elevating every possible aspect of your work is what will make your script truly shine.