Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.” – Neale Donald Walsch
When the above quote appeared in my Twitter stream, it gave me pause.
“Comfort zone” is an expression we use often but rarely contemplate how it affects our daily choices, both as writers and humans. “Comfort” implies safety and security—a warm and fuzzy place, akin to your grandma’s lap, with the smell of chocolate-chip cookies baking.
Why would anyone want to push past that?
Because getting comfortable in your comfort zone is dangerous. Very dangerous. Resisting change paralyzes your writing and personal growth.
Let’s call it what it really is: The “familiar zone.” Living life in familiarity isn’t living. It’s existing—insert yawn. A New York Times Best Selling author doesn’t write familiar stories; they push their characters farther and explore new worlds, often having their work rejected over and over before finally finding a publishing champion. I wouldn’t use “comfortable” to describe that life.
What is holding you back from pushing past the familiar?
Time to get on the therapy couch.
Be honest about your comfort zone. Perhaps it’s writing novels. Or short stories. Or memoirs. What happens when you think about writing a poem or a screenplay?
Does it make you uncomfortable?
Good. Hold onto that scary feeling, you’re going to need it.
Write What You Know… or Not
Time to explore what scares you most about writing something different… or writing something more emotionally honest. Beginning authors typically protect their protagonists in an attempt to bubble wrap themselves, since most our heroes share our own personal wounds.
You are not your character. Push them off a cliff and see what they do!
In Robert McKee’s book Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting, he declares, “True character is revealed in the choices a human being makes under pressure—the greater the pressure, the deeper the revelation, the truer the choice to the character's essential nature.”
When Vince Gilligan created Breaking Bad, he pushed all boundaries. Just when you think Walter White, cancer-ridden, chemistry teacher turned meth dealer, can’t be in a worse scenario, the writers push him to the edge, forcing him to make tougher choices. Unpredictability was the secret to the show’s success. They created the worst, most uncomfortable situations to put Walter in with every scene. They grabbed us by the throat and heart.
Newsflash: Gilligan doesn’t deal meth, but he not only wrote one hell of dealer in Walter White, he also made us root for him never to get busted.
Writing the familiar bores readers. Unlike Walter, our daily lives aren’t that interesting. We can relate to our characters, but must always write with emotional honesty.
Toss the Outline
An outline drives the story in a certain direction. But when you write the first draft, the story should take you on the ride. Sit back and resist the temptation to take control. Sure, the new direction may not end up in the final script, but that’s why it’s called a draft.
Webster’s defines “Draft”:
PRELIMINARY VERSION, rough outline, plan, skeleton, abstract; main points, bare bones.
Stop trying to make the first draft perfect. Give yourself permission to write with reckless abandon. Write like you’re naked. OK, maybe put your pajamas on. You get the point.
Don’t Overthink It
We all know writers who change their story’s beginning multiple times instead of pushing through the scenes to type THE END. Resist the urge to edit until you have fleshed the entire story out. By the time you’re done with the first pass, you’ll discover many elements that need to change in draft two. To truly understand your deeper story, vomit the words out on the page. JUST DO IT! Don’t waste time tweaking scenes early on, because those scenes may not even exist in draft two.
Fun fact: I don’t write the beginning until I’ve written the ending. None of my stories have ever started the way I imagined.
Don’t Look at Your Story with “Pleaser Vision”
Having the disease to please sucks the life right out of you and your writing. It’s impossible to make everyone happy. Once you write that outline, there’s a tendency to want to stick to it in order to please yourself by validating your earlier ideas.
Whenever we cling to something too tightly, we risk crushing its beauty.
Instead, feed it. Nurture it. Think of your outline as a caterpillar and the first draft, the cocoon. Once it enters the chrysalis phase, that’s when the beauty happens. On the rewrite, the cocoon pops open and the gorgeous butterfly takes flight. If you keep the cocoon wrapped too tightly around the caterpillar, you’ll kill it.
Nature is a lot like writing—organic and inspiring. Be flexible and embrace what can organically happen when you open yourself up to change.
Change is Hard
We get married to ideas. We resist killing our darlings. We’re hesitant to write new genres. We stay stuck. Here comes the tough love… we choose to stay stuck.
Going out on a limb here, but I suspect many of you have a hard time guarding your writing time and say “yes” when you should say “no.”
If writing is your dream, who do you think is going to make that happen? Glenda the Good Witch? Um, sorry, Dorothy, but you had the power all along. It’s up to you to sit your ass in that chair, outline or no outline, and write the damn story. Sit. Breathe. Let your story flow.
Stop fighting with yourself. Let the writer in your win. You deserve to pursue your dreams. Maybe no one told you that before, but I’m telling you now.
Comfort zones keep us from facing our fears, growing, and pushing our limits. To get through them, take baby steps. The first is grueling. The second, a little easier. The third, a piece of cake.
Let Your Hair Down
Go on an adventure of discovery—discover your characters and your story. Pour emotions on the pages. Dig deeper into characters and don’t be afraid to write on-the-nose and ramble. Do whatever it takes to explore the world you’re creating. After all, explorers don’t always use maps. Sometimes the best treasures are found when you go off road.
Every time one of your characters makes a choice, ask, “If I were in this circumstance, what choice would scare me the most?” Then make your character do that. No reader ever wrote a book review that said, “The choices the hero made ripped my heart to shreds, kept me on the edge of my seat, twisting and turning in ways I never saw coming that I couldn’t stop turning the pages… so, don’t buy it.”
I challenge you to get uncomfortable in your zone. Write something that scares the hell out of you. Push a character to a place that makes them choose the unexpected. Challenge their coping skills. While you’re at it, push yourself in your own life to do something horrifying and totally out of character—short of murder, of course.
Get comfortable being uncomfortable. It’s the only way to live… and the only way to write.
Get more advice on how to elevate your writing routine with Karl Iglesias' Screenwriters University's class, Mastering the Essential Habits of Highly Successful Screenwriters
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