Rebecca Norris reveals how she got out of her writing rut and encourages other writers to shake things up and reinvigorate the process.
I’ll admit it: I’ve been in a writing rut. That’s not to say I haven’t been writing. That’s writer’s block. I have been writing, but I haven’t been 100% sure why I’m writing what I’m writing or what I’m even really writing about. I’ve started scripts lately and then just haven’t had the desire to see them through. Perhaps you’ve been in my shoes yourself?
A quick consult with Professor Google informs me that a rut is 1. “a long deep track made by the repeated passage of the wheels of vehicles, and 2. “a habit or pattern of behavior that has become dull and unproductive but is hard to change.” I also read that a rut is “the noise made by deer during mating season.” I’m positive that’s not the rut I’m talking about, but, if you’re a deer, I guess that’s a pretty fun rut to be in.
That Google search got me thinking. My rut does feel like a pattern that has become dull and unproductive—a repeated passage that my wheels have traversed over and over. The ground beneath my feet feels a bit worn these days.
As screenwriters, there isn’t an endless array of different formats through which we can tell our stories. After all, the writing is supposed to (hopefully) end up onscreen. So there’s screenplay format and teleplay format, and some variations within for comedy and drama, as well as web and mobile and game. No matter what the device the project will ultimately end up on, the idea is the same: tight, sparse narration, cinematic style. It’s all about the visuals…within budget of course.
But what if I want to dive deep into the inner feelings and backgrounds of my characters? Or what if I want to pen an epic pirate ship battle on the high seas and not give a crap how much it might cost?
I finished a writing assignment several months back, and since then, I’ve been left with a gaping Now What? in my life. Do I start on another feature? Or pilot? Or web series? The motivation just hasn’t been there, and I’ve been trapped in the valley of indecision about what to do next.
I’ve been having ideas—plenty of them. I write them down on post-its throughout the day (much to the chagrin of my husband, who comes home to see post-its scattered across the kitchen table), and I text ideas to myself if I’m out of the house. But they haven’t been screenplay ideas; they’ve been ideas for just about everything else.
I’ve had ideas for children’s books (having a toddler and reading 4,000 kids’ books a day will do that to you), podcasts, short stories, novels, poems, and plays. Instead of basking in the glory of being an idea machine, however, I’ve been in the dumps about it. Why am I not having ideas for screenplays?
If I’m honest about it, maybe the reason I’ve been in a writing rut is because I haven’t been answering the call to bring these other stories to life. Instead of going with the inspiration as it comes, I’ve been trying to squeeze my ideas into a screenplay mold, and then find myself coming up short. Taking an idea for a 12-page baby board book and contorting it into a 100-page feature screenplay doesn’t necessarily work. And an 8-line poem does not a TV series make.
I’m starting to realize that not every story immediately begs to be told on the screen. For example, a picture book may not necessarily be viable as a TV series or feature film, but that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t make an outstanding picture book. A story deserves to be told in whatever format it is meant to be told in.
Ironically, it’s highly possible that work in another genre can ignite success in Hollywood. You may not know that the Dreamworks Animation feature The Boss Baby and the subsequent animated series on Netflix started as a tiny board book for toddlers that fits in the palm of your hand. The franchise that is Annie started as a poem by James Whitcomb Riley, and of course went on to become a comic strip, radio show, Broadway musical, and three feature films. And we all know of the countless novels, short stories, and stageplays that have been adapted into screenplays (and now TV shows) since the inception of film.
It’s actually much easier to get your screenwriting produced if it originates as something else, particularly if that something else comes with a fan base. Food for thought next time you’re banging your head against a wall, hoping to be discovered by a fellowship or contest for the umpteenth year in a row. Wouldn’t it be nice to turn the tables and be the owner of a hot piece of IP that producers are clambering to get their hands on?
Major screenwriting contests are actually recognizing this, and have added in competition categories for other formats besides screenwriting, such as podcasting, novel writing, and playwriting. Great storytelling knows no bounds, and a fresh new voice can pop up in any medium.
The truth is—it’s become a bit cumbersome to always write in the same format. I’ve known that I wanted to play around with genres for awhile now, so I finally took action a couple of weeks ago and submitted three poems to a children’s magazine. I’ve also been submitting a play that I wrote to playwriting competitions and development programs around the U.S. And I finally started a novel that’s been percolating for the past couple of years. It’s all a work in progress, but I’ve been enjoying the feeling of freedom I have from being bound to one particular format.
If you're reading this and have been stuck in a writing rut, I hear you. It's not fun. I encourage you to think outside your own personal writing box and see if you can't find some inspiration in a new place.
The important thing for me going forward will be to tell my stories in the way that best shows them off, and let the rest happen naturally. And hopefully reinvigorate my writing process and traverse some new ground along the way.