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How a screenplay can save the day! Getting over writer’s block

It was famed author Joseph Heller that said, “Every writer I know has trouble writing.”

I believe this is true whether you’re a student writing an essay on Hamlet, an aspiring screenwriter attempting your first script, or Stephen King. Go watch 1998’s Best Picture winner Shakespeare in Love (seriously, it’s really good). You’ll find that even the Bard himself grappled with writer’s block.

Perhaps you think you have a winning idea—hell, maybe you know you have one—but getting the words out is as excruciating as squeezing the last bit of toothpaste from the tube. Or maybe you can’t even bring yourself to begin, like a racehorse that hesitates at the starting line. Unfortunately, writer’s block, procrastination and lack of motivation are occupational hazards for writers. They come with the territory. But luckily, it can be cured.

A simple online search will turn up dozens of articles with supposed remedies for this unfortunate affliction. Some even claiming that writer’s block does not exist (it does). Every writer is different, and different techniques will work for different people, but I am going to share the solution that did the trick for me. And it involves screenwriting.

Allow me to explain.

Last year, I wrote a novel—a fantasy/adventure titled Sapphire. (I’m currently working on getting it published, but that’s another story; this is a post about writing, not publishing.) This was an idea I carried with me for years, based on a story I dreamed up way back in the eighth grade. In fact, that very year, thirteen-year-old me was so possessed bythis idea that I maniacally typed out a mammoth manuscript in a matter of months. Then titled (rather lamely) The Stone, it was crude, it was immature, and the writing was crap, but I had gotten it down on paper. The bones were there.

Fast-forward to high school, then college. I may have tucked the 180-page abomination that was The Stone away to collect dust on my shelf, but the story never left me. In fact, over the next decade, it grew and matured as I did. As if it had put down roots, it remained firmly planted in the back of my mind, where I constantly expanded and refined it, like a sculptor molding a hunk of clay. Over time, I became attached to these characters and their story, and I’d come to know them so well that they felt almost real to me. I knew that this was the story I was meant to tell.

During this ten-year period, I tried more than once to write a second draft. I never got very far. There were a handful of promising leads and false starts, but I could never seem to find the motivation. I couldn’t recreate that lighting in a bottle that I’d somehow found as an imaginative little kid. Something else would come along and distract me, I’d become discouraged by my lack of progress, or life would simply get in the way. Eventually, I began to wonder if this novel would ever actually get written. Until I decided to write it as a screenplay.         

For me, screenwriting is much simpler and more straightforward than writing prose. With prose, you get to be expressive and use flowery language and fancy metaphors, but screenplays are, by nature, succinct and bare-bones. Setting. Action. Dialogue. Repeat. They waste no time and contain only what is absolutely necessary to set the scene. Therefore, they can be written much faster when you’re not bogged down with trying to conjure vivid descriptions and interior monologues. And so, I set out to write the screenplay for Sapphire, thinking it might prove easier.

And I flew right through it.

The script ended up being almost 200 pages, which is longer than any screenplay has the right to be. One page of script usually equals about a minute of screen time, so my movie would’ve been over three hours. But I didn’t write it to be a film—I wrote it to use as an outline. And it could not have worked better. I sat down at my computer with the finished script by my side and went through it page by page, adapting the story from screenplay to novel format.

With my screenplay as my guide, the work was cut out for me. I had already done the hard part of hammering out the plot, dialogue, and action. All that was left was to flesh it out and add meat to the bones. And suddenly, what I could never bring myself to do before had become a walk in the park. After all these years, Sapphire is finally finished and I am looking into publication. And, thanks to my exercise, I now have the screenplay too (although it would need a great deal of shortening).

The point of this story is that there are a million different tricks out there. It’s all about finding the one that works for you. I used screenwriting as a tool to overcome my writer’s block. You could even approach it from the other way around—if you’re a fiction writer who wants to attempt your first screenplay but are more talented at writing prose, try writing it as prose first and then adapting it like I did. Perhaps my technique will work for you. If it’s not for you, that’s okay—keep trying different solutions until you find the right one. If there’s one thing I learned from my experience, it’s that the answer is out there, waiting for you. You have a story inside you that’s dying to get out and, like me, you will find the means to tell it.

Sometimes you just have to get a little creative.              


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