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THE CRAFT: Professional Screenwriters on Blocking Writer's Block

Stuart Perelmuter shares tips from professional writers, Eric Roth, Simon Kinberg and Stephen Susco, on how they beat writer's block.

Stuart Perelmuter is a produced playwright and co-wrote the movie Fake ID with Gil D. Reyes. A self-proclaimed Superman freak, Stuart has published articles on creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.

Originally published in Script Magazine January/February 2010

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It may look harmless enough now, but this article began as every writer’s greatest fear: the blank page, no ideas but bad ideas. Yep, writer’s block.

Writer’s block is something we all face with trepidation—each time a project begins and often throughout, a nightmare that never eases, not with success nor accolades, fame nor riches.

Eric Roth, who has three Oscar® nominations and a win for Forrest Gump, dreams of writer’s block. Most recently, he saw a text message of undecipherable symbols; a manifestation, he believes, of his fear that he won’t find the words to express himself. Even though he feels “more at home writing than anything else,” he admits to “banging my head against the wall, cursing, screaming, kicking ... ”

Likewise, Simon Kinberg—whose last three films have done as much to stimulate the economy as any federal bailout (with a combined gross of more than $1.1 billion)— agrees. “Even when you’re not in the throes of writer’s block, you’re always living in fear of it. It’s a little bit like an addict who kicks the habit but knows one glass or one puff can bring him right back.”

The degree to which a scribe can overcome block might be the difference between life as a career writer or a cater waiter. However, with advice ranging from “just work harder” to “take a nap,” and “map it out” to “preparation equals procrastination,” there is no one great cure-all.

writer's block

Building Blocks That Block the Block

“I wake up every day and say, ‘This is the day it’s not going to come,’” admits Kinberg. But, as we see in the latest adventure of Sherlock Holmes (who, at 122, has never looked so spry), the words always come to Kinberg, thanks to a method “that is organized around doing everything possible to avoid writer’s block.”

Three-fourths of Kinberg’s writing time is spent in preparation—outlining, beating out moments, developing characters, “so that by the time I sit down to write interior, location, character’s name, dialogue, I have essentially already written the scene.”

Even with such preparation, Kinberg doesn’t feel the potentially deadly pressure to “write the perfect scene,” because he knows he’ll be revising later. In making writing the middle step between story construction and rewriting, he has mitigated the pressure to come up with something good. “But,” Kinberg confesses, “that’s a lot of work to avoid the terror of the blank page.”

He also concedes the pitfalls in over-preparation, particularly “when you find yourself on the Internet or watching movies, doing things you pretend are vaguely related to what you’re writing, but are really just ways of hiding from your writing.” Writers must be aware of the fine line between preparation and procrastination. “If writer’s block has a gateway drug,” Kinberg observes, “procrastination is that drug.”

Roth, however, insulates himself from temptation. He says that “Research can sometimes be a good way not to write,” and eschews overplanning. He finds it “exciting when I don’t know what will be,” allowing him to dive into the creative process headfirst and explore.

Says Roth, “I’ve written things where I’ve started off and gone halfway through and said, ‘This just isn’t working.’” Only then, with 60 pages or so written, can he start anew with a theme firmly grasped, ready to craft a story that is “as good as you hope it can be.”

One trick everyone seems to agree is critical to block blocking is a disciplined routine. Write in the morning, or at night, or some combination with breaks in between. But sit at the computer, typewriter, notepad, or Etch A Sketch® at the same time each day.

In order to avoid the pull of alternate amusements, Stephen Susco, the writer behind the highly successful Grudge series, divulges a truth we all hate to admit: “Deadlines always help.”

Write it Bad

Writing half a movie and starting over may be unique to Rothians, but writing garbage is another virtually universal step in the process. “When I get really stuck,” Kinberg confides, “I just say to myself ‘write the worst possible version of that scene.’”

The worst, as in: Bad isn’t good enough, he wants to write “the worst.” On this point Roth agrees with Kinberg, espousing a “gambler’s mentality: Bid bold and go down.” If writer’s block is having nowhere to go, then what better cure than having nowhere to go but up—a predicament that, by definition, begins at the bottom?

Like a healthy crop, a script needs fertilizer for strength. Permission to stink up the place can free us from where, Kinberg believes, “a lot of writer’s block comes—the pressure to write that perfect scene.”

If you’re saying to yourself at this point, all I’ve done is put a terrible script on paper, the job hardly seems done, you’re not alone. Susco calls the revising process “the most fertile territory for writer’s block.”

When Roth gets stuck in the revising process, he likes to change the weather in a scene, thereby transforming the mood. His “trick” worked brilliantly in such films as Forrest Gump and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, but if you’re set in L.A., you know you can’t always rely on a change in the weather. So, where does that leave us?

You’re Only as Good as Your Feedback

In terms of note-taking, Susco says, “The times that have been most productive are when I’m sitting in a room with a bunch of actors and a director, and everybody’s kicking it around. Because then, it becomes collaborative; we’re all in this together.”

What’s that? Not Stephen Susco and don’t have the ability to talk things out with Sarah Michelle Gellar, Bill Pullman, or Brian Cox? Fear not.

“Collaborators can be a movie star or studio head,” says Kinberg, whose Mr. & Mrs. Smith gave the world Brangelina. But, collaborators can also be “your best friend, teacher, or the busboy where you’re waiting tables.” The trick is less finding someone to read your work than determining what feedback is valid and to what extent. Whether it’s determining if a note is right or wrong, or fixing a problem with no solution in sight, most writers need to take a step back and look at a project with fresh eyes.

“The brain is like any other muscle,” Susco opines, “it needs rest.”

Sometimes, that just means taking a break from a particular project. Both Susco and Kinberg like to work on multiple projects at once. Stuck on one? Go to another, return later to the first with a fresh perspective.

Of course, sometimes only a literal break will do. Susco’s favorite counter-blocks include showering and going for a nice long drive, giving his mind room to roam.

When you return from your reverie, it’s important to leave your ego at the door and remember that your only job is to serve the story. As Roth observes, “Once you start analyzing what makes you good at something, you are no longer within it ... you’re lost.” But, if you focus on the story, write regularly, give yourself enough space for perspective, and listen to yourself and others, you might find writing becomes, says Kinberg, “not only less scary, but fun.”

And once the writing becomes fun, you’ve finally blocked the block.

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