Note: this article first appeared in MovieMaker Magazine, and is reprinted with permission.
A COMMON PROBLEM discussed by many professional writers, as well as first-timers, is “writer’s block.” Apparently, they define this as getting stuck at a certain point in the story. Associated phenomena include headaches, nervous stomach, and various forms of anxiety, insomnia or lethargy. These “stuck points” are often marked by nagging doubts about what’s been written so far, endless rewrites of the last scene and, ultimately, questions about whether the whole project should be shelved.
Because I’ve frequently worked with and interviewed writers who don’t experience these blocks, it might be interesting to list some of their successful techniques.
1. DON’T LOOK BACK. Francis Ford Coppola told us that when he takes on a large, complex project, he starts on page one and keeps writing. He never looks back and rewrites a scene or act until he’s done with the entire first draft. He said, “How do I know my characters fully unless I’ve seen what my characters go through and how their situations are resolved? Once I’ve learned that, I can go back to page one and rewrite the entire script, informed by knowing in advance the eventual outcome.”
Coppola also has an interesting tip on what to do when you’re uncertain of what the next scene should be. He offered, “Put a line in the script, like ‘Need a scene here.’ Then go onto the next moment. If still no clue, put another sense, ‘By now they ought to be in bed, so now I’ll write a bedroom scene.’
By the time you get through the bedroom scene, you may know what would have to have happened just before it in order to get them in bed. So, the second time through, you can fill that in.”
2. EMOTION FIRST, ENCODING SECOND. Many excellent writers of dialogue do not try to get it exactly right in the first draft. They have to get to know their characters a little better before they know exactly how they’d talk in a given scene or situation. Then, when they’ve finished their first draft and understand their subjects better, they go back to the beginning and evolve a specific dialogue style for each person. That’s called the “encoding” process.
So, on the first pass through your script, it’s okay to simply write down what characters are thinking and feeling. By the second pass, you’ll be familiar with how each responds and can better shape individual dialogue patterns.