Monday, August 02, 2010

Dealing with writer's block, or "getting stuck"

Okay, this is long. Looooooong. Looooooo-oooooooo-oooooooooooong. But I get asked about this a lot, so I wanted to do it justice and talk through how I deal with it, so… tough luck, I guess. Also, there's some swearing.

Contains some spoilers for Severance, the Region 2 DVD of which is only £3.99 at now, or £1.99 second hand from their marketplace, and blimey, some Amazon marketplaces even have it for a penny. For Region 1 folks, Amazon US has it new for $5.82, or used for $1.44. So why not pick up a copy? [/shamelessplug] Also spoilers for Raiders of the Lost Ark, a *much* better movie that you really, really should have seen by now, and mild spoilers for Serenity, Die Hard, and Jurassic Park 3.

In a previous post, I had a bit of a rant about writer's block. A lot of people declare that it doesn't exist, but it does, if by writer's block you mean "getting stuck", because that's basically what it is. Well, when I get stuck, I have a few things I try to get me started again. I said that the next post would be about those things. Er. That was back in March 2006. I got stuck while writing this, and put it off. Yeah, I know. But hey, better late than never. Make sure you've read that original post first, as I'll use it to address the different ways of getting stuck. Go on, I'll wait here. Are you back? That was quick. Okay, now you can read on.

Disclaimer: These are all things that work for me. It is not a "how to write" guide. Just some of my own personal writing process, which I feel weird and self indulgent writing about, but lots of people wanted to know. Feel free to ignore this and do something completely different, in fact that would be a relief because it takes responsibility away from me. Your mileage may vary. And when I say "mileage", I mean "arse".

--I have no idea what happens next
--I can't figure out how to end this

These are the most common ways to get stuck. Obviously, this shouldn't happen in a script, because you'll have worked the story out in an outline first. But you could be stuck on the outline, or maybe the script has veered off from the outline a bit and you need a brand new thing to happen next.

So you think of a few things that could happen next, but they're all predictable and obvious. Say the baddie pulls a gun on the goodie. How does the goodie escape? Your solutions: the goodie leaps on to the baddie, or leaps out of the way, or pulls his own gun, or reveals that he secretly took the bullets out of the baddie's gun earlier - all been done. How can he realistically escape? It has to be something surprising, outrageous, something you couldn't possibly see coming. Great, now you're even more stuck.

Sometimes it helps to make things even worse for the goodie, and see what happens. For example: The goodie has no way out, but his friend turns up to save him. Very convenient - oh, but the friend betrays him, and pulls a gun too! And the building is on fire! Now the goodie has two guns and a fire to face, and your stuckness has reached epic proportions. But if faced with two guns and a fire, you'd probably just jump out of the window. Why not? So you make the goodie jump out of the window. Gun and fire problem: solved. Sure, you now have a new, even bigger problem to solve, but hey, at least you're into the next bit and away from that pesky baddie with a gun. How does the goodie survive the fall?? You'll think of something. Just make things even more impossible than before, add more complications - and maybe one of those new complications will give you a way out.

That's another possible solution - getting the goodie out of a bad situation by using the tools of that bad situation. The classic example is the goodie tied to a chair inside a burning building. It looks like certain death - but instead of inching away from the fire, the goodie shuffles towards it, and holds the rope next to it - the rope catches fire, burns, and the goodie is able to free herself. She gets mildly injured in the process, so it's not an easy fix, but she did it using the tools of the bad situation - the fire, the rope. Now she can dive out of the window to escape, and give you another story problem to solve (see above).

Raiders of the Lost Ark is a textbook example of this - Indiana Jones gets into a series of bad situations, which just keep getting worse. He uses the things around him to get out of trouble, and then gets into even more trouble. Trapped in an underground cavern, with loads of snakes, he uses one of the statues to break through a wall - and almost gets killed in the process. He realises the Ark is being loaded on to a plane - he has to get on that plane somehow. He sneaks to the plane - but a huge German guy (Pat Roach, legend) catches him. But no, it's worse - the German wants to fight him, too. But no, it's worse - the pilot's trying to shoot him while he fights. Luckily Marion knocks out the pilot with some blocks of wood - which were stopping the plane from moving. Now the plane is moving, and Marion's stuck inside the cockpit. *AND* the fuel is leaking, and about to catch fire. Marion escapes, but the plane blows up. And now the Ark has been taken away in some truck. And so on. Anything and everything that can go wrong, does - and then gets worse. It's great fun.

--I don't know where this is going
--60 pages in, and I've run out of story
--I have nothing to say with this script, it's not about anything
--I have 8 weeks to write this, no more, and if I'm not finished it by then, I'm fucked, oh shit, 3 weeks left, I haven't even started properly yet, where the hell do I begin?

Either you've had the idea, and are trying to figure out what the hell happens overall, or you've run out of story. For both, the solution is to go back to your original idea, and let it give you the answers. So let's take a silly idea for a movie: "MonkeySpank, the Movie". A man is turned into a monkey for 24 hours, and framed for murder. How do you spin a 90 minute movie script out of that? Is it enough? What happens? What is it about?

My usual process, once I have an idea, is fairly simple. I brainstorm everything and anything that could possibly be related to that core idea, writing it all down in a stream of consciousness, sentences, fragments, paragraphs, asking myself questions, answering them, jokes, dialogue lines, random scenes, characters, anything at all, even if it doesn't fit. It usually looks a lot like this next paragraph:

There could be a bit with a car chase, where the monkey has to learn how to drive, maybe it steals a special toy car for kids so it can reach the pedals. Maybe the murderer knows the monkey is the framed man, and is trying to kill it, but maybe an animal rights group is trying to stop him, or maybe there's an outbreak of MonkeyFlu and the government has ordered a cull on all wild monkeys, so the police are after him too. How did he get turned into a monkey? Does the real killer have magic powers to curse people into monkey form, or is the hero a scientist who invented a transmogrification machine? Hey, maybe the monkey guy was the scientist and the killer threw him into the machine and turned him into a monkey to steal his idea, maybe the machine gets out of control and starts changing other people, maybe animals become humans, etc etc.

I write pages and pages of this. Just thinking it through, working out things to do, things I want to say. I research real life stories related to the subject, find links, photos, songs, anything that might come in handy. It allows me to be completely creative without limiting myself, letting my mind explore the idea, characters and world fully. I write down *anything* that could be in the story, don't second guess it. I'll think of things that would never occur to me if I just went straight to an outline first. Now, most of that couldn't possibly be in the same film, it'd be a total mess. But it gives me options. I can spin random stuff off from any of it, come up with random characters who want different things, random tangents, and so on. And after several pages of thinking up stuff, some of it will come together, some pieces will naturally stick to each other, and a proper plot will start to form. Once I've figured out the best plot line to take, I can ditch anything that doesn't fit (or make it fit), and keep everything that does. Hopefully, that'll avoid me picking one particular plot line, and getting stuck by trying to follow it through. Now I can start putting it all into an outline, usually 3 to 6 pages, keeping it fairly lean and not too detailed - I've got all the detail I need in the brainstorm notes, the outline is to help pitch the story, and/or a guideline for me when writing the script.

Sometimes it doesn't work like that, sometimes I'll come up with a fully formed idea with a beginning, middle and end that just needs fleshing out. Sometimes it'll be a character I want to see, or a scene, or just an image. Sometimes I'll think of the ending first, and work backwards: the goodie traps the killer in the transmogrifier, turns him into a chicken, and cooks and eats it. How do I get there? How would a monkey trap a man in a machine? What would he need to set up? How would he lure him there? How would I do it, if I was in that situation? And so on. But the brainstorm process will hopefully prevent me getting stuck later, as I'll have lots of possible solutions, and can always go back to my notes and find things to use.

--I have the beginning and the end, but how the fuck do I come up with a middle bit to connect them?
--I'm doing the middle bit, but I'm just making shit up to try and connect acts 1 and 3
--I'm halfway through this, but it's shit

Ah, the Act 2 slump, or "getting stuck on the middle bit", to give it the proper title. Okay, so at the start of "MonkeySpank, the Movie", the guy gets framed for murder and turned into a monkey. At the end, he unmasks the real killer, clears his own name, and gets turned back into a human. But in the middle bit?? No idea. You've got some random things from your brainstorming sessions, but is that enough? So I put myself in the main character's position. If I found myself in that situation, what would I do to try and sort myself out? I'd probably try to communicate with someone - but I can only make monkey noises. Okay, so I'd probably try to write things down - but my monkey dexterity only helps with running and climbing, I can't really hold a pen properly. Well then I'd point at things - but how would I get people to take me seriously?? I'm a monkey!

I think of everything I might try, and make the main character try them too. But I make sure he fails, or is stopped by the baddie. That way, the goodie is constantly active, trying to solve his problems, and constantly getting thwarted. The audience will be thinking of all the sensible things they'd do, and will get annoyed if the characters don't try them. One of my biggest complaints when watching movies are characters with no common sense. Why don't they just call the police/get out of town/leave the creepy cabin in the woods/etc etc? Well, why don't they?? Let them try! Then throw obstacles in their path. It'll keep it surprising and exciting. Give them missions to go on, plans to try, places to investigate. Keep them active.

As soon as the first injury happens in Severance, and they find the coach, I thought "well, if that was me, I'd just get the fuck out of there" - so they do. They get on the coach, and leave. But a creepy man puts a spiky thingy on the road to blow the tyres, and it crashes the coach. They're too far away from civilisation, so they have to go back to the cabin to barricade themselves in. The whole time, they're trying to get out of the situation, to save themselves. You've got to make sure the characters have lots to do, and that they behave realistically (in the context of the story setup). Come up with interesting, complicated characters, throw a load of mayhem at them, and see how they react. Some will surprise you. In Serenity, Mal comes face to face with the main villain, the Operative, who is unarmed and just wants to talk. So Mal does the sensible thing, and shoots him. In Die Hard, John McClane is barefoot, only has a handgun, and is faced with a large group of terrorists - so he hides, and tries to call for help.

--I need character A to be in location B, but the way I've written it, character A would *never* go to location B, and I can't just do it for the sake of it, so how the hell do I make it convincing?

This is another variation of "getting stuck on the middle bit". Outlines are great, but sometimes, when you get down to script level, you'll realise that a plot point doesn't actually work. This happens a lot. So you improvise. You've already put yourself in the goodie's shoes, try putting yourself in the baddie's shoes. Pretend the baddie is the hero, the main character. What does he want? How will he accomplish it? What would you do if you desperately wanted the goodie dead? Pretend the goodie is the baddie, how would you punish them, and stop them achieving their plans?

Sure, character A would *never* go to the creepy old sawmill, but what could possibly drag them there? Are they taken there at gunpoint? Is their friend trapped there? Do they find out that the only possible solution to their current problem is hidden under a floorboard in the sawmill? You can show the character's reluctance to go there, just force them into it, and have them complain along the way. For example, Dr Grant in Jurassic Park 3 refuses to go back to the island ever again. They promise him a large amount of money just to fly over it, so he can point things out from the air - they won't even land. He reluctantly agrees, then they land anyway. They lied, and now Sam Neill is stuck on the island - and it's not even the right island, he was only ever on the other one (by the way, for fun, try to count the amount of dramatic camera moves towards Sam Neill's face as he makes an ominous statement, there are TONS of them). In Serenity, the crew constantly try to keep themselves out of trouble, but things just get worse and worse (see above about making things worse for your heroes), until they have no choice but to face the threat head on (keeping it vague despite the spoiler warning, cause I just couldn't bear to ruin it for even one person).

--I've had about a hundred ideas over the past year, and every single one has been shit, didn't go anywhere, and was a complete waste of time
--I've spent months working on this outline/idea, but it's just fallen to pieces and won't work, so it was a complete waste of time
--I can't think of anything good, interesting, or original

Okay, this one is just moaning and feeling sorry for yourself. We've all done it, and still do it. But you haven't "lost your words", or are unable to write anything ever again. You've just had a run of bad ideas. Nothing is a waste of time - if you're writing or thinking up ideas, your writing brain is working. It'll be even stronger when you finally come up with something good. Stop overthinking it. For several months when writing Severance, before I knew anyone would buy it and make it, my brain kept saying : "Why would you bother writing a horror film, when there's stuff out there like Halloween, The Thing, The Exorcist, A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Haunting, Alien, etc? *Anything* you come up with will pale in comparison, what's the point of writing some shitty slasher movie when it's been done SO much better before, SO many times?? Ooh, you've got a character about to open a door but he's scared the killer is on the other side, gee, never seen THAT before…"

This is your inner critic. You must ignore it. You must kick it to death and set it on fire. Like the best horror villains though, it will of course come back to life and attack you again. Ignore it, don't worry about other movies, follow your own path. Come up with the best possible version of *your* story.

--This ending isn't working, and I don't even know why, I just know it's no good
--I've solved all the problems, it's technically perfect, but it's just not interesting or "alive"

If you're still stuck on one idea, or one script, write something else. Anything, another story, another idea, brainstorm it again, or brainstorm something else again, go for a walk, watch a movie, have some cake, read a book, read a newspaper, research bizarre occurrences, fill your mind with other stuff, and the ideas will come. If the script is done, but a bit lifeless, go over it again, do another draft. Throw in some jokes, some scares, some surprises. Every decision everyone makes, ask yourself: would I, as an audience member, see that coming? Is it plausible? What if they did something else? Do characters just accept decisions without argument? Did they achieve that too easily? Make it harder for them.

Watch a bad movie. How would you fix it? What is the most annoying part of the plot? What would make it good? Analyse where it went wrong. What common mistakes do bad movies always make? How can you make sure your story doesn't make them? Watch a great movie. Why is it great? Any tricks it uses particularly well? Would any of those apply to your current problem?

Do anything and everything you can, overload yourself with sensory input, and *something* will spark off an idea somewhere that might come in handy. Even if it's for something else entirely, by the time you finish writing it down, your brain will be in a creative place, and ready to come up with more ideas. You can't force ideas out of nowhere, but you can get yourself into a state of mind where ideas are more likely to occur to you.

--They're going to hate this, it sucks
--I suck
--I'm ugly, too
--They're going to realise I'm a fraud, I lucked into this whole thing, I'm a big, sucky, ugly fraud

Sure, they might hate it. But have you given it everything you can? Have you made sure the plot twists are surprising, that the characters behave realistically? Have you poured your heart and soul into it? Have you done your absolute best? Are you an exhausted wreck? Then you've done your bit. If they hate it, they'll tell you why, and maybe you can fix it based on their notes. Or maybe they're wrong. Or maybe it just sucks and can't be fixed. There's only one way to find out. Send it. It's always better to know.

You will always feel like a fraud, sorry, that never goes away. If it's any consolation, I'm now convinced that this entire post is absolute shite and way too long, and am considering just not posting it, or cutting it back to the first few paragraphs. But if I start fiddling, it'll never, ever be done, and it'll be another 4 years before I come back to it. So here it is, for better or worse.

Oh, and you're not ugly. I promise. Although you are now significantly older than you were when you started reading this post. Sorry about that.