Get A New Story: Ready, Set, Write

Every time you sit down and open Final Draft, the blank page stares back at you, defying you to fill it with words. Nothing comes.

You’ve got a high concept. You’ve brainstormed your plot points, you’ve created a step outline. You’ve written detailed scene summaries and descriptions of the world, the characters, the backstory.

But you’re not writing the actual scenes.

What’s stopping you?

Hmm, maybe you need to do a little more research. Wasn’t there a film with a similar subplot? Maybe you should watch it before you start, or do some more research. Or rework the outline. Or read another screenwriting book, or take another class?

No.

That’s not it.

More research (world-building, outlining, etc.) isn’t where it’s at.

What’s getting in your way is fear.

It’s fear disguised as not “being ready.”

Research and prep work have become the smokescreen to obscure the dread you feel when you think of actually writing New Words on the page.

No one wants to admit it, but the act of committing yourself to working through your draft is terrifying — at least on some level.

What if you get it wrong?

What if you have to start over?

What if it’s not good enough?

The difference between stalling and needing more prep work

How can we differentiate between stalling and not being finished prepping our projects?

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that NO prep work is required. But what I am suggesting is that it is all too easy to busy ourselves over the backstory and prevent ourselves from getting started.

It becomes a way to obfuscate the fact that we are actually procrastinating.

On some level, only YOU will know the truth about whether or not you’re procrastinating or advancing your work and solving story problems.

Why you might be stalling

The most common reasons I see people stalling — even after doing a generous amount of prep work — are:

  • Fear of not living up to their story idea or generating quality enough work.
  • Thinking they can, will, or have to solve all their story problems in the preparatory stage.
  • Believing they can figure it all out in advance.
  • Feeling overly invested or responsible for getting it “right” (and by “right” I mean perfect, which is paralyzing).
  • Expecting they will find their voice or tone for the story by thinking about it.

Write before you’re ready

In the (ahem, possible) event that you are actually procrastinating, here are some things to keep in mind that might help you get started writing before you’re “ready”:

1. Think of outlining, world-building, structuring, and plotting as an iterative, interactive, integrated process with actual scene writing.

Then it becomes like a system of checks and balances, rather than something you have to solve before you begin. Work first with the structural elements and background, then the actual story, then back to the overview. Each will help you elevate the other.

One of the writers in my Writer’s Circle says she has realized she — at times — retreats into outlining and index-carding to avoid writing new words, and has learned to force herself to write just a few hundred new words each day, even when the bulk of her writing time for the day is spent on the overview for her project.

Dance back and forth between the two to keep your writing moving.

2. Expect to rewrite.

Don’t expect to create polished material straight out of the gate. No one who is serious about the craft of screenwriting expects to nail it on the first pass. Going in with the knowledge that you’ll improve the draft as you go will give you permission to write without fretting. That way you don’t have to be “ready,” you just have to write.

(One of the biggest mistakes I see writers making is comparing their work with the finished, polished work of others. I can’t tell you how many writers have now said to me, “I was in the bookstore, and I opened up this book and read the first line and it was AMAZING and I thought, ‘I can never write like that. I may as well give up now.'” Do not compare your first draft work to the finished work of other professional writers. MAYBE they came up with that line of genius dialogue on the first pass, but maybe they didn’t. The odds are higher that it came to them on one of their many passes through their work for dialogue, for character, for setups and payoffs. A script is something that is built over time.)

3. Get it down.

As Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way says, “Art is not about thinking something up. It is the opposite — getting something down.”

If you’re willing to take a spiritual perspective on story telling, look at this as having a muse (as Elizabeth Gilbert describes in her well-known TED talk, “Your Elusive Creative Genius”). Your job is simply to receive the story and record it — to be the scribe. Laboring over the preparatory work perpetuates the illusion that you have control over the story. Yes, do the very best work you can to create the very best possible version of the story, but start by getting it down.

4. Recognize that you discover much of your story through the actual writing of it.

The other thing that happens for writers is that very often we don’t figure out what we want to say — we don’t understand the story ourselves — until we actually put the words on the page. From one of Pixar’s 22 rules of storytelling, “#3: Trying for theme is important, but you won’t see what the story is actually about til you’re at the end of it. Now rewrite.” Waiting to write until you’re “ready” puts off that knowledge just that much longer. Writing now will teach you so much more about what you’re truly trying to accomplish.

5. Similarly, recognize that you won’t settle into your voice or the tone for the script until you are putting words to the page.

Seth Grahame-Smith (Dark Shadows, Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter) in an interview with ScreenwritingU describes how when you first start working creatively, it’s like turning on a rusty faucet that hasn’t been used for years, and all the water comes out dirty. After you’ve been writing for a while, “the more you keep the water flowing…,” he says, “then the more clear the water runs, and you do reach a point as a writer that’s very satisfying place, where what you’re putting on the page is what you’re actually thinking. And that’s really rewarding. But you have to keep at it. You have to exercise it…. Otherwise it will never happen.”

Give yourself the chance to clear out the crud by putting words down until you figure out what you want to say and how you want to say it. Don’t keep it bottled up in your own brain where even you can’t evaluate and elevate it.

Take the plunge

Writing before you’re ready can feel a bit like diving into a cold pool on a chilly day. But just like ripping off the band-aid, sometimes faster is better. Notice whether you’re staying with the prep work because you’re avoiding the new words or if you’re truly making progress with your project. If you’re not, it’s time to take the plunge.

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