It’s...it’s...THE BLANK STARE!!

A little observation yesterday...

So I was at a coffeehouse, seated across from a guy who was at a laptop and working on—yup, you guessed it—a screenplay. At least I think he was working on it. I say this only because each time I glanced over at him all he seemed to be doing was admiring the screen of his laptop. I mean, if he had actually been writing a screenplay, wouldn’t there have been some actual fingers upon keyboard action going on? Well, maybe this fella was just having an off day. Or maybe he had more pressing matters on his mind. Or maybe he was just stuck on what to write next. Actually, that’s probably the most reasonable explanation.

Believe me, I see this sort of thing often: the glassy-eyed stare, agonizing over just the right word, just the right sentence, just the right line of dialogue. The writer will type something, delete it, write it again, delete it, then...the blank stare. OK, sure, fine, I can understand agonizing over individual lines of action and/or dialogue when you’re at work on a fourth or fifth draft, or fine-tuning your submission draft, but if you’re in the midst of the first or even second draft, well...

I'm a firm believer in racing through early drafts, especially the first draft. Stalling out can be the death knell. When you hit a snag, it’s important for you to put something down—anything—and move forward. For instance, let’s say you have a scene where a character reads a poem. Don't stop and spend hours coming up with just the right poem. Simply write Insert Great Poem Here and move forward.

If your character tells a really funny joke, don't pace back and forth trying to come up with the joke. Simply write Insert Really Funny Joke Here and move on.

If you get to a scene but you're not quite sure how it's going to wrap up, just write notes to yourself (i.e., “Joe realizes he was wrong and tells Jill how much he truly loves her”) and move to the next scene.

Or if you have a police captain bellowing orders to his men, and you don’t quite know the appropriate cop jargon, don’t worry about it at this point. Just slap down something that sounds halfway decent and you’ll fix it later.

The point is, do not stop the progress of the script. Vomit up those ideas. Just get ‘em down. Think of the first draft as a long crawl across a scorching desert. Your only goal is to get to that oasis on the other side. Stop in the middle and you're D-E-A-D.

Believe me, I’ve seen my share of screenwriters get frustrated and overwhelmed by relatively insignificant moments in a script, then they'll stuff the script into a deep, dark drawer. So do yourself a favor: on that first draft, quit staring at that blinking cursor and move forward, forward, forward. The oasis awaits!

And while I have your undivided attention...

Pssst. How’d ya like to sit down to coffee with 16 working screenwriters? Great! And hey, you can do it without leaving the comfort of home. Yes, my book Q & A: The Working Screenwriter – An In-the-Trenches Perspective of Writing Movies in Today’s Film Industry is available online wherever fine books are sold. That’s right, ladies and gents, Allison Burnett (Autumn in New York, Resurrecting the Champ), Katherine Fugate (The Prince and Me), Brent Maddock (Tremors, The Wild Wild West), John Rogers (The Core), David J. Schow (The Crow), Stephen Susco (The Grudge), and ten other working scribes have much to say—and they’re saying it to YOU. Question is: Are you listening?

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3 comments:

Mark Mika said...

Absolutely KEY advice! I struggled with this the first year I was serious about writing and the "Blank Stare" of frustration and agony was a constant companion! It's a miracle my sanity, and my laptop survived!

I find now that exactly as you described getting the thing down on paper is crucial in the first draft. I don't sweat diaglogue or crucial moments (insert here) but just concentrate on structure and plot points that move the story forward. The fun stuff seems to come of it's own volition in the revision process. Waking up suddenly.. UREKA! or taking a shower, jogging, etc etc.

Thanks Jim- Damn dude, I wish I would have found this site earlier in my struggles- you'd have saved me a few bottles of aspirin and a quart or two of rum!

peace

Matt Hader said...

Excellent advice.

Let 'perfection' come later in a rewrite...No is the time to fricking write!

Alexy said...

staring at my laptop is all i seem capable of doing. great.