10 Struggles Only Screenwriters Understand
September 29, 2023
We’ve all been there. You’re hyped to start writing, under the naively confident impression that your creative juices are flowing and you’re about to type up masterful scene after masterful scene.
Step One: Open your latest project in Final Draft.
Step Two: Write.
Step Three: Stare at the blinking cursor until the end of time.
And that’s just one scenario screenwriters know all too well. Sometimes screenwriting is sheer magic, other times it’s a downright struggle. So, for all the days that it’s the latter and you need some reassurance that you’re not alone, here are 10 things only screenwriters understand.
1. Constantly Falling Down Internet Rabbit Holes
Trust me, I get it. All you wanted to do was double check a historical date. Maybe look up something as simple as how to spell a particularly tricky word. You were only going to open the Internet for 30 seconds. A minute, max!
Two hours later, you may not have finished typing that original sentence… but you did learn an awful lot about the six wives of Henry VIII. And you definitely know how to spell miscellaneous. There might be several things in your Amazon cart now, too — but hey, who could judge? You just happened to remember that you’re running low on K-cups. And what writer can function without coffee?
Actually, hey, your coffee mug with its snarky saying looks perfect in this lovely afternoon light. You should probably snap a pic for the ‘Gram. And why not just post it now? You’re only going to open Instagram for a second…
2. Never Remembering the Difference Between O.S. and O.C.
Don’t feel bad. I have to look it up every single time, too. In fact, I don’t know a single screenwriter who can say with 100 percent confidence that they know the difference.
It’s one thing to know that O.S. is an abbreviation for off-screen and O.C. stands for off-camera. Technical definitions are great. But it’s another story entirely when you’re actually writing dialogue and have to choose between the two. When do you use one versus the other? Or do O.S. and O.C. essentially mean the same thing and it doesn’t really matter which you use?
You know what… I should just Google it.
Read More: How to Format a Screenplay
3. Debating Whether a Scene in a Car is INT or EXT
Imagine this scene. A car drives down a winding country road. The leaves are ablaze with autumn color. It’s the perfect day, so the car’s windows are down and the breeze is wonderful, but inside, John and Jane Doe are in a heated argument about the status of their relationship.
Now it’s time to write this scene, to actually type it into your Final Draft doc so that — fingers crossed — one day a production crew will bring it to life.
First element of the slugline first — INT or EXT?
And so begins the endless debate about whether scenes that take place in cars are considered interior or exterior. Your guess is as good as mine.
If you're really lost, consider looking at other similar scenes like how Antoine Fuqua handled Denzel Washington and Ethan Hawke, the story of a rookie cop's first day on the job, in Training Day. They are INT and EXT the car throughout the scene. Sometimes these choices are about the rhythm of your story.
4. Fighting the Constant Urge to Use Transitions Between Scenes
I don’t know about you, but whenever I finish writing a scene, I have to fight the very loud, very convincing voice in my head that is always screaming at me to use a transition.
“Okay, okay. Good scene. Good work,” it says. “Let’s use a FADE TO before you start the next one.”
“Ooooooooh. I see what you did there with that last line of dialogue. Now follow it with SMASH CUT TO.”
“WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!” it screams as I try to go from the last line of my previous scene to a new slugline. “YOU OBVIOUSLY NEED TO WRITE CUT TO: IN BETWEEN THESE SCENES. OTHERWISE HOW ON EARTH WILL THE READER KNOW WE’RE CUTTING TO A DIFFERENT SCENE?!?!?!”
5. Crafting a Perfect Parenthetical Knowing the Actor Will Ignore It
Once upon a time, one of my screenwriting professors told us a secret. That secret was not about screenwriting at all, but about the world of acting classes.
In this strange, performative world, those other instructors teach fledgling how to analyze a scene before they speak the words aloud. And apparently, to my great horror, one of the things they tell those fledgling actors is to cross out any and all parentheticals in their scripts.
Oh, how I wish I were joking. No, dear screenwriter, it is my terrible responsibility to tell you that your perfectly crafted parenthetical will, in all likelihood, be completely ignored.
And yet… we soldier on. Writing those parentheticals. Hoping that one day, somewhere, some thoughtful, incredible actor will appreciate and honor the words in between those parentheses.
6. Cutting a Moving, Deeply Emotional Monologue Down to a Single Line
It happens to the best of us. We spend so long — probably too long — writing an earth-shattering speech for one of our characters. It’s powerful. It’s emotional. It’s going to make audiences everywhere weep. Meryl Streep and Viola Davis are going to fight for this role because of this monologue.
And then… the note comes.
Someone — who, let’s face it, might have a point — reminds you that people don’t actually monologue all that often in real life. Maybe you should cut it down a bit? It’s a little repetitive, after all. And there’s a lot of flowery language. It’s a good speech, but come on, you could really get the point across in a line or two.
So, with a heavy heart, you press that DELETE key and watch as, one by one, your magnificent monologue gets reduced to a single, stupid sentence.
7. Getting lost AF while drafting Act Two
Are you truly a screenwriter if you don’t get so lost while writing Act Two of your script that you start to question what a story is in the first place?
8. Wallpapering Your Room With Notecards Because You Don’t Know What Else To Do
When you do inevitably get lost in the weeds of Act Two, there’s nothing left to do but crack open a new pack of colored index cards. Putting color-coded, handwritten cards up on your wall that clearly delineate the events of Acts One, Two, and Three will surely help you get back on track.
So you start by putting the major plot points up first. Inciting Incident. Midpoint. Etc. Etc.
But hold on… now that you see it up in front of you like this, hanging on your wall like some crazy murder-board but without the murder, is that actually your Midpoint?
Maybe it’s the thing on this other card, further into Act Two. Or this other thing you thought was just a filler scene. Maybe you outlined the entire script wrong. Maybe you should just start over from the beginning…
9. Trying to Figure Out How to Get Rid of Those Dreaded “Orphan Words”
I’ll admit it. I love editing and revising.
I look forward to the time when I get to go through my script with a fine-toothed comb, making sure everything is grammatically correct, adheres to proper formatting, and is the best configuration of the words on the page.
What I don’t love are “orphan words.” You know… that single word that’s just slightly too long and so it moves to its own line. Those stupid, single words on their own lines that somehow, thanks to the magic of screenplay formatting, add 10 pages to your script.
If I spent as much time actually writing as I did trying to rearrange words in a sentence to get rid of the orphan… well, I’d probably have an Oscar by now.
Read More: 5 Tips To Better Spelling and Grammar
10. Realizing You Have No Plot, Just Vibes
We all have one script we’re super passionate about that is No Plot, Just Vibes, and we absolutely refuse to give up on it. Because it worked for [insert well-known filmmaker or movie here that is clearly an anomaly], so why won’t it work for us too?
What else is there to say? The screenwriter’s struggle is very, very real.
Written by: Britton PerelmanBritton Perelman is a writer and storyteller from the middle of nowhere, Ohio. She received her MFA in Screenwriting from the University of Texas at Austin in 2023. When not writing, Britton's either belting along to Broadway musical soundtracks or making miniature bookshelves. Find more of her writing on her website or follow her on Instagram.