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Beat Writer's Block

Updated on April 8, 2010

This is expanded version of an answer I gave on Yahoo! Answers about writer's block and how I have overcome it. Although it is about script writing in particular, it works with any fiction. If you suffer from this problem, I hope these words help.

There are plenty of course and books on this subject but I have found the ones I have used to be no help because the vast majority of movies/TV/plays being produced do not follow the ideas of these books/courses – in fact, they do the very opposite - and yet they got made. If anything, the guideline for succes seems to be cliche, cliche, cliche. And it is getting worse – with awful re-makes and sequels as Hollywood chokes on its own lack of imagination. Robert Kee may go and on about the importance of good screenplay writing but too few of the people making movies are listening, so why should you?

The best advice I ever got was from an interview with the band Winger on how to write a great song - but it is applicable to all writing. He said: take a great song that already exists and change something, does it still work? If it does, keep it. If it doesn't, go back to the original song and change something else. Each time you do this you are learning what makes a great song and, more importantly, what does not.

I have modified this advice which is why I have the opposite problem to writer's block. When I look at a blank page, I freeze because of all the possibilities there are to write about. It really is very easy to get ideas for scripts. Here are some examples:

  • Have you never seen a movie/play that you were unhappy with? So re-write it and change the parts that you were unhappy with. Are you still unhappy, then keep changing. The most extreme example of this that I know of is Blade Runner by Ridley Scott. It is based on Philip K Dick's “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”. However, if you read that short story, you will see that the only things that Mr Scott kept were the names of the characters and the Voigt-Kampf test.

  • Have you seen a movie/play that you were happy with? Take a part (the main character or the plot line or even a minor character) and put it into a new setting. Does it still work? Take Shakespeare' Romeo and Juliet and stick in New York - result: West Side Story. My favourite for this is Shakespeare's “The Tempest”. It seems entirely happy to be twisted out of shape: it has been set in a secluded mansion in the present; or even set on a distant planet in the future with robots and laser guns (“The Forbidden Planet”)

  • My particular bugbear is where you get a great beginning and then the ending goes wrong. So I re-write the ending from the pointthat  I felt it went wrong to see if I can do better. An example of this is Stephen King's “The Fog”. It starts off well with a strange fog descending on a town and trapping some of the residents in a supermarket. It then quickly unravels as the people separate into the two usual groups: the rationalists and the religious zealots and then he just follows the same old cliches that he has used in previous movies. Now I may be being unfair To Stephen King and Americans may indeed act that way in a crisis; I do not know how people inside the Louisiana Superdome reacted to Hurricane Katrina although the story of Hurricane Man and the Mississippi Motel claims that the usual response was to get drunk. But even if Stepen King is right, do I really want to watch yet another Stephen King movie going on about it? This is a rich vein of possibilities on how people react to family, friends and strangers in a time of extreme danger. To see a better job of it, look at Alfred Hitchcock's “The Birds” or watch any of the original George Romero zombie movies. I hve often said that they are less horror movie and more treatise on current American society and American views.

  • A variation of the last one is: you have seen a great movie/play, can you continue the story? This is not a sequel where the next film is a repeat of the first. It is a continuation form where the story left off. There are two great examples of this: the James Garner movie “Support Your Local Marshall” that follows on from his adventures in “Support Your Local Sheriff”; and the classic is Godfather Part 2

  • How about take a real life story. Does it work as it is, then write a screenplay about it and you will get something like “”The French Connection”, Cool Runnings” or “Apollo 13”. If you do not like the way it went, change it and turn it into fiction. You can still use the tag “based on real events”

  • If all else fails, take a great book and re-write it as a play/screenplay. There have been enough of them and most of them were rubbish. The book “The Devil's Candy” is the story of how the book “The Bonfire of the Vanities” was changed and changed and changed as different actors, producers and even demographic advisers were brought in. As a book on how Hollywood works to destroy a story, I have not read better. My friends would be surprised at my suggesting this as I despise bad adaptations. And I do. My opinion is that anyone who tries to re-write a classic is claiming to be a better writer and I just do not think Peter Jackson is a better writer than JRR Tolkien, for example. But when a screenplay writer acts like a translator, it works much better. When a translator is moving something from one language to another (or in this case, one medium to another), they do their best to keep the original intention of the source. It is quite obvious that some things work on the page but do not work on the screen. I am told that there is a whole page in Les Miserables where Victor Hugo writes about a girl standing under a lamp post. In a screenplay, the same section would read something like “Street: night. Girl stands under light of lamp post”.

Another piece of advice I have came to me from the artist Paul Gulacy. I must quickly add that I have never spoken to the gentleman, it was something I learned from his artwork. He drew an american comic called “Shang-Chi, Master of Kung Fu”, only when he drew it, his characters were modelled on Hollywood actors and actresses. So Shang-Chi was “played” by Bruce Lee, one of his team was “played” by a young Marlon Brando and one was even “played” by Marlene Dietrich. It occurred to me that having a real actor or actress there in the part of one of my characters was a real good way of making it real in my head. Just the very act of asking “Who would be perfect to play this person and why?” gives me a better idea of who that character is

Finally, I have a friend called John who I can chat through problems with. The great thing about John is that he does not think the same way I do and so will usually come up with something I had not thought of. Sometimes I use it and sometimes I do not but it is a great help just to talk through the blockage. I strongly suggest you get someone just like that because even when you do not have a writer's block, it still helps to talk through your plot. Too may times, I have come up with an idea that sounds really great in my head only to sound really stupid when I explain it to someone else. And John is a good enough friend that he will tell me when something is crap.


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