How to Cure Writer's Block with Active Structure (Part 2)
How to Cure Writer's Block with Active Structure (Part 2)
Now that we have an outline, there are two more steps we need to undertake before we’re ready to start actually writing the movie. Remember, we’re taking that big, huge action that defines the story’s arc as a whole, and we’re breaking it down into pieces that are small enough to wrap our heads around. Moving a mountain is impossible, but moving pebbles is easy. Right now, the rocks are still a little big for our backs to carry.
First, you want to take the story you’ve just written and write it up as a four-page treatment. Devote one page to Act I, one page for Act II through the midpoint, one page through the Turning Point II, and one page for Act III. Cover all the basic points described by your outline, and start exploring some of the things your characters will physically have to do to get from one point to the next. Keep your treatment about the things your characters are doing, and in particular let your protagonist’s efforts drive the story through those plot points.
Don’t let the story come and find your character. Let your character go find the story. If you write anything that even somewhat resembles a coincidence, delete it and try again.
Secondly, I strongly suggest that you write two pages of “stream of consciousness” exposition on every major character in the story - no less than 2 characters, and no more than 6. If the details of your story are going to hinge on how your characters pursue their missions, then the choices and impulses your characters are acting on had better be specific. All you’re doing here is getting past the obvious impulses and the observations that are defining your characters right now. Basically, you’re warming up.
Understand that these pages don’t have to be good. Frankly, they don’t even have to make sense. Set a timer. Give yourself 30 minutes per character. If you don’t know what to write, start asking questions on the page and answer them. What games did they play as a child? Who do they hate the most, and why? What did they learn from their parents? All I’m asking for, really, is word vomit. Write down a bunch of stuff about the characters you need to get close to, and then either destroy these pages or bury them in a deep, dark hole. Nobody should ever see this stuff.
All of this, from the logline through the vomit pages, should take you a week. In week two, we start cranking out actual screenplay pages.
At this point, we’ve got a pretty good idea of how your protagonist’s efforts carry them from the beginning of the film through their arc, all the way to the ending. We’ve also got a sense of how the other characters are creating conflict, through their own efforts and missions. Now, we need to actually write the screenplay.
Make a list of all the things your protagonist needs to do, to get from the first action of the movie to whatever it is they’re doing at Turning Point I. Each of those actions, basically, is the logline of a scene you’re going to write. Maybe you’ll need to let one of your antagonists do something as well, in order for the conflict to work…
...but generally speaking, you want your protagonist to be working towards their goals in the same scenes, at the same time, as the characters who are driving your conflict. Every scene is about something your protagonist needs to do, right? Start your scene right at the moment they start doing that thing, and they discover that this other person is somehow in their way.
Whether it’s through discussion, gunplay, swordplay, or whatever, both of these characters are trying to get the thing they need to move forward with their mission - understanding that for one of them to succeed, the other has to fail. If your character succeeds in achieving this step in their mission, the scene is over and it’s time to move on. If they fail, then the scene is over and they have to try to get what they need by some other means.
Don’t start a scene before the conflict begins, and don’t carry a scene past the resolution of that conflict. Late in, early out. That’s how we do it. Keep your focus on all the tiny things your character needs to say and do to get what they need to move on with their mission…
...and be specific in how they do it. If they need help from someone, and if the scene is about asking for that commitment, then a compassionate person will go about making that request in a very different way than a bully would. If these people are siblings, that conversation will be very different than it will be if they are mortal enemies. Here is where your trust in the process starts to pay off. Here is where the audience finally starts learning about these characters.
Write those scenes. Writing Act I should take you a week. Once it’s done, write a list of all the actions your character will need to perform to take them from Turning Point I through the midpoint. Then, write the first half of Act II. Using the same techniques, you’re going to move on to the second half of Act II, and then Act III. Each quarter of the script should take you about a week. All in all, this is a five-week process.
If you always know what your character needs to be doing, then you always know what you need to be writing. If you’re stuck, maybe you lost the line of action. Look at your outline, your treatment, and your action lists. Where did you stop writing about what your character is doing, and start writing about “what happens?” Once you find that place, you’ve found your problem.
Alternatively, maybe you just need to know your characters better. If you don’t understand how the actions they’re taking actually work, that’s a research problem. In the case of a science-fiction or a fantasy movie, you may need to write up a document that establishes the rules of how things work. Either way, you’re just figuring out how a person does the thing your character has set out to do.
Maybe you’re lost because you don’t know your characters well enough, or because your characters aren’t motivated enough to finish what they started. Write another two pages on the character you’re having trouble with. Dig for those answers. Something will come up.
Your rough draft is like the first time you take the subway to a new job. Focus on the street signs, and on making sure you board the right train. Don’t stress out about all the little details. Just make sure you get to where you’re going. In the words of the prolific and exceptional Mr. Bill Martell, “Don’t get it right. Get it wrote!”
Once you’ve hammered that down, and getting to work becomes a simple matter of muscle memory for you, you can start looking for all the little details that breathe life into your story - or as I like to call them, the “loose change.” With each subsequent rewrite, you’ll be able to get more specific in how your characters do the things they’re doing, how they communicate, how they plan, how they act on the fly… all the way down to little details like vocal cadence, or what they’re paying attention to at any given moment, or how they lookout for the people who are helping them succeed.
On your first pass, you’ll be lucky to get to work on time. By the time you’ve walked this route enough times to know it well, you’ll have found enough loose change on the ground to buy yourself a decent lunch.
Writing is rewriting.
Sending an actor out in front of an audience without an urgent, personal, overwhelmingly challenging action to perform is exactly the same thing as sending a musician out on stage without any music. Passive writing forces an actor to play out the “naked at school” nightmare in real life. Don’t ever do that to them.
Maybe the audience won’t notice your writing. Maybe the actors will get the credit for those performances… and they should. After all, they’re the ones going out there and performing. With that being said, screenwriters do benefit in some very important ways from embracing an active structure.
Passive writing is the reason so many writers get rewritten on their own projects. Even if they don’t articulate it, good directors and good actors will always feel undermined or unsettled by a passive script. Without that active structure supporting them, there’s no grip for the habits of their craft to find traction on. Maybe they won’t realize that you’re asking them to sell a story for you, but they’ll feel it.
It feels gross.
If you empower them in their craft, then the opposite will happen. Without so much as a secret handshake, they’ll know that you’re one of the people who “gets it.” Your work will be putting the needs of the show before all other considerations, and they’ll be supported in delivering the best performance they are capable of by the structure you provide. You’ll make them feel safe. You’ll make them feel happy, and excited to work.
With that kind of support, putting on a show for an audience becomes less of a job, and more of a celebration. Your audience will feel that release of energy, in the most subtle and profound ways imaginable. Your performers will flourish, and so will your movie, and so will your audience... and you become the person who gave them all permission.
About the Author
Tennyson E. Stead is a master screenwriter, a director, a worldbuilder, and an emerging leader in New Hollywood. Supported by a lifetime of stagework, a successful film development and finance career, and a body of screenwriting encompassing more than 50 projects, Stead is best known for writing an...