When you’re writing story with many elements it’s easier than you think to find yourself in a place where you have a problem continuing. It’s a difficult place to be in as a writer, frustrating, defeating, maddening and depressing.
Sometimes we need a bit of help, whether that’s in knowing the tools we can use to get through the complications, or if we don’t, maybe knowing someone who does. Fortunately for us, teacher, script consultant and story analyst Pilar Alessandra joined us to give us some insight into common things we might get stuck around and ways we can look at dealing with them.
I’ve very briefly summarised a few of the scenarios we discussed here in case they are useful but if there is anything I’ve learned from today’s session it’s there’s always someone who can put fresh eyes on your problem and help you get unstuck if you can’t do it yourself.
One of the first things to do when things get stuck, Pilar advises, is to go back to the intentions of your story. Your logline should contain the goal of your story and your outline should reflect the stages of your goal. If any of the episodes of your story hijack your goal then you have to go back to that plan.
It’s easy to get absorbed in the world you are creating, especially with sci-fi and fantasy genres. Know the tools of creating loglines and outlines to keep the story straightened out if you get off track.
What are the Stakes?
Sometimes your character’s goal doesn’t seem to have high enough stakes, that if they don’t succeed then they’ll be unhappy about that but it won’t have dire enough consequences. In those situations you can flip the coin and look at the conflict that might be created if the person starts to succeed at their goal. What might be the price of success. Create conflict that way.
When writing episodic work for characters it can seem like they don’t really change and episodes can begin to feel a bit samey. You can however use episodes like paragraphs in a story where the characters are this until such happens and then.. etc. That way you allow for character growth to be affected by story and vice versa.
Too Many Ideas
With competing ideas it’s hard to know what to focus on, sometimes there’s a story you want to write and a story you feel you ‘should’ write because it may have more chance of getting you paid etc. In that case it’s a good idea to make the story you want to write as good as the one that might get you paid. With stories of equal value race to outline both. Knowing what each idea is and what the beats are and outlining will give you a clearer idea of what you should be working on.
When does an action sequence begin and end? Can you get stuck in a set piece without knowing how to get your character out? Decide what the story of your action piece is in order to keep it contained. What is the emotion going in? Find a simile for the action (They fight like.. what? They drive like.. what?). Think of the method or weaponry involved. Who gets the upper hand. What is the emotion going out. There’s your story.
Really can’t avoid getting distracted by one thing or another? Lock yourself in an internet free room for an hour at a time (someone who loves you can facilitate this for you if necessary) and commit to working for that one hour on that one thing. Work hour by hour until you are done.
To understand the beats of your story, look at what your character/group wants, what they actually do to get it, and what gets in the way. That’s the end of your beat and a new beat begins until the story ends.
Cutting Scenes Down
Ask yourself what is the story of the scene, circle the lines to tell that story. You can afford to lose everything else though you may wish to keep some that adds flavour if you have space for it. Be sure to boil down ‘set decorating’ type description into a summary of the personality of the place (Laura Ashley lives here).
Too Much Practicality
Strangely enough being too practical or logical can sometimes cause a block. Don’t be afraid to go to extremes and be silly in your approach to writing. Keep doing it until one of the crazy ideas works or the freedom of writing anything you can think of even the crazy stuff makes your good ideas flow more freely too.
Another way to get ideas flowing freely is a concept that was made popular by writing teacher Peter Elbow who believed that one should do so regularly. Set a clock, put your fingers on the keyboard and don’t take them off for five minutes writing anything that comes into your head until it’s time to stop. It’s a way to learn to write without self-editing or the anticipation of feedback which is why it’s a good thing to regularly practice.
There are conventions we are told not to cross as writers but you do need to have emotion on the page, it’s how people understand story. Just revealing one ‘tell’ (as in a poker tell) or key action that reveals emotion means that you don’t have to puppet actors for a whole scene because once they know the character state they can work within that knowledge.
Characters Solving Problems.
At some point you will probably need your character to solve one or more of their problems but you don’t wan those answers to appear out of thin air. Sometimes an answer may come to a character by happy accident but other times you may want to reveal solutions through a personality trait or even resistance.
There are ways other than dialogue to reveal information to an audience. One way is looking to what is physically available, technology, computers, or characters out of their comfort zone. You can take someone on a journey to somewhere they might not go and reveal things through their experience there.
Running out of time to continue (let’s face it we could go on forever with the things we get stuck on) Pilar sent over a dozen writers away with thoughts on how to solve their problems in under an hour. Help exists for writers at any stage of their careers, we can all become stuck, but tools, ideas and people who know them are always worth seeking out or being reminded of. Happy writing!
Find out more about the London Screenwriters’ Festival HERE.