Beat Writer’s Block

Some days, when you’re writing a script, are just downright awful.  Right? You sit there staring at the screen or the paper and you’re… What?  Empty, stuck, stumped?  If it goes on too long you become convinced that you’re blocked.

Oh, damnit, now it’s got a name.  Now you’re really in trouble.

Well, actually you don’t have to be. Not if you act.  Or, even better, PLAY – and a really useful thing to play is the ‘what if?’ game. You can play it alone – or with a writing partner or script editor – whatever.

All you need is a pen and one of those 500 sheet square memo note blocks you get from the newsagent. Don’t use index cards, they suggest way too much commitment (and cost too much) for what you’re going to do with them.  The other resource you need is time. Make a contract with yourself to sit for a specified period – half an hour, two hours, whatever’s comfortable.  The only deal is you can’t get up, unless it’s to go to the loo.  No getting coffee, or any of that, ‘I’ll just check the letterbox/hang out the washing/split the atom’ stuff we all go on with.

Make a contract with yourself
to sit for a specified period

Just sit – and speculate about your characters: what if he does this; what if that happened to her. It can relate to your script or work at a tangent to it, but always think of the ‘what if’ as an image, an event, a scene – something you can see.  For instance – what if your main character… steals a sports car and it breaks down in the middle of Sydney Harbour Bridge?    Scribble the idea (that’s two, actually) in as few words as possible on a memo sheet, chuck it on the table and think up something else.  A different example… what if your central character is a very calm and brainy kid – and suddenly she gets a REALLY BAD mark on an essay – what does she do?  That, in turn might trigger other ‘what if’s’ about how it happened; or a whole cascade of things that happen as a consequence. And so on.

If nothing comes at first, don’t worry, just sit.  It will.  The brain is an amazing place and sometimes you just need to give it a little space – and time.  So stick with the contract.  Think stuff up, be specific, write it down, put it aside and on to the next.  Don’t judge, just imagine.  It can be stuff about the story – or not. It’s a way for you to push outward from the situation that’s bugging you, but inward toward the characters by way of events to which they must, perforce, have a response.  That, in turn, creates story.

The brain is an amazing place and
sometimes you just need to give it a little space – and time.

The process itself might get you moving again and excited about your screenplay.  The bits of paper can become a resource for new scenes or developments in your story.  Or they can give you new ways of thinking about what you already have.

You can cook up whole film stories and treatments using this game.  Same deal.  Crap paper, time contract, free float ideas about the story and the characters.  Take a couple of days and you’ll wind up with 100 bits of paper. At least.   Or more.  It’s up to you.

The next step needs to be done in a room with the windows firmly closed – for reasons which should become obvious – and a large flat surface.

Now, as a screenwriter you’re always asking the key questions: What happens?  Why? How? and With what consequence?  So, with that in mind, start to arrange the bits of paper.  Look for a flow of cause and effect.

You can do it as a two-stage operation.  First divide the bits loosely into what might happen in acts one, two and three.  Then, act by act, arrange the bits in an order.  Look for things you like, puts stuff you hate aside, but don’t lose it – you never know when it will become useful. Look for gaps that will emerge between events that you like. Invent something to fill those gaps. Keep rearranging…  Story will emerge.  Trust the process.   If you spot a great pay-off, cook up a great set-up – and a development beat as well.  Find where they fit.   Slot them in.  When you are sort-of happy with the flow of the piece, number the bits of paper.  That’s when you can open the windows again and that’s when you head for the computer and do a brief one-liner outline of the screenplay you’ve just invented on the dining room table.

Story will emerge.  Trust the process.

Michael Brindley and I used this technique to help a client who was stupendously blocked.  She’s a terrific writer, she knew who her characters were and she was very clear about the theme she wanted to explore, but she was two years behind deadline, she’d already spent the money and she had no idea how to structure the film – or even quite what the story was.  Talk about a panic!  So we spent Saturday at the kitchen table playing ‘what if?’ with her and her characters, freewheeling around what the characters might do – how, why and with what consequence.  By the end of the day we had 122 bits of memo paper.

The next day was spent arranging and rearranging those bits of memo paper on a big table.   Looking for gaps, discarding ideas, scribbling new ones to fill the gaps, shifting and shaping the material so it began to become the story this writer wanted to tell.  By afternoon tea time she had 88 bits of memo paper that, in sequential order, were her story.  That’s when we brought out the index cards because now she had something to commit to. The beats/ideas went onto the index cards and off she went.  It took her two months to finish the screenplay she had been panicking about for two years.

‘What if?’ beats the block.  Every time.

-Karin Altmann

Karin Altmann is the head of ScriptWorks, a team of script and project development specialists based in Melbourne, Sydney, New York and London. She is a scriptwriter, documentary maker and former Project Manager at the Australian Film Commission (now Screen Australia).


2 thoughts on “Beat Writer’s Block”

    • I agree that this is a problem, but the generally accepted definition of writer’s block is the inability to produce anything. Norman Mailer declared, ‘There’s no such thing as writer’s block, only ego block’. He could well be right, but the effect is the same. The writer is stuck, staring at blank page or screen – immobilised.


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