Five Types of Screenwriting Paralysis
August 16, 2019
“How can I get through a screenplay revision when I’m overwhelmed and paralyzed merely by the thought of working on it?”
When you’re in a place of paralysis with a screenplay revision, you’ll want to do anything but write. Nothing will seem to work in your script; it’ll feel like there’s too much that needs repairing, and you won’t feel sure how to go about it. You’ll be tangled in dread, doubt, and angst. Scrubbing grout with an old toothbrush or vacuuming the little stray bits of fuzz out of the dryer’s lint trap are dazzlingly appealing tasks in the face of writing paralysis.
At the same time, you know you don’t want to walk away. It would be too disappointing. This script must get done.
What’s a screenwriter to do?
Recognize what’s under the paralysis
Ultimately dread, doubt, fear and angst are symptoms of what’s happening deep down. In my work with writers, I usually see five main types of writing paralysis: resistance, overwhelm, perfectionism, uncertainty and past creative wounds.
Resistance is a force that opposes your desire to write. It stems from your vision, passion and love for writing and your writing career. It’s as if your feelings for writing spawn the creation of an equal and opposite force that works against you. Know this: You would not be feeling resistance if this script wasn’t important and didn’t matter to you. It’s because it’s important that you’re dreading it so much. In a funny way, you can trust your dread to guide you in the very direction you need to grow as a writer. In other words, don’t let resistance fool you into staying stuck.
Overwhelm is a common trigger for paralysis. It’s a feeling of having so much to do that you can’t imagine you will ever finish. It’s also about feeling pulled in multiple directions at once; there are so many issues and tasks, you don’t know where to start or what should come first. You become so overwhelmed by the seemingly insurmountable amount of work that you freeze and shut down. Overwhelm can usually be addressed by working in small, systematic chunks.
Perfectionism is the result of an attachment to specific and often grandiose outcomes (e.g., wild overnight success) and a fear you won’t be able to attain them, along with a fear of ridicule, failure or criticism if you don’t. You become paralyzed by the prospect of never getting it “right” or living up to the impossibly high standards you’ve set for yourself (read more here about how to break out of perfectionism and get back to productive writing).
Uncertainty is a state of unknowingness and indecision which can trigger paralysis. As a writer, a significant part of your role is to make decision after decision. If you don’t feel authoritative about making story decisions, you can feel paralyzed. Uncertainty can often be solved with story analysis, brainstorming and taking back your power as a story’s creator by reminding yourself that you are in charge.
5. Past creative wounds
You may have had past experiences where you were criticized or put down for your creative expression. These painful encounters harden and form creative wounds in your psyche. When you have these experiences, you may find that you can typically get to a certain place with a screenplay before you freeze and stop, unwilling to progress past that safe zone into what feels like dangerous territory. Journaling, working with a coach or therapist, or even just consciously coaxing yourself into, through and past the “danger” zone will help.
To understand what’s going on for you specifically, get out a pen and paper and write down this question: If I knew what was paralyzing me about this script, what would it be?
Write out any and all answers that come to you, without censoring or judging. The deeper, truer answers will emerge as you write. Keep writing until you feel as though you’ve emptied your well of concerns.
Antidote your sticking points
Odds are that as you see your responses in black and white on paper, clarity around where and how you’re feeling stuck will unfold. Insights to “antidote” each of your sticking points will likely begin to arise as well.
To encourage solutions, write out responses to each of your answers to the original question. For example, if a first response is, “I don’t know where to take the story from here,” how might you address that? A solution might be, “I’ll give myself the opportunity to brainstorm 20 alternatives and see what happens.”
The big idea here is to clearly identify specific problems you’re having and to look for ways to systematically address them. This shifts the entire conversation out of an overall feeling of paralysis into actionable steps you can take to move forward with your revision.
If these solutions don’t start to unlock the paralysis, or if you’re feeling ultra-paralyzed, get help. Talk to a coach, work with an accountability buddy, or call your therapist. Sometimes there are even deeper underlying issues going on. Sometimes you need a compassionate ear just to listen, or to delve into the story issues and help you brainstorm alternatives. Reach out to your supporters to help yourself over the hurdle so you can see your story all the way through to the finish line.
Your weekend writer’s assignment
This weekend, if you’re feeling paralyzed around a script revision, get out a pen and paper and write down this question: If I knew what was stopping/paralyzing me with this script, what would it be?
Write out your answers and see what solutions begin to arise.
Have questions you want answered?
After working with hundreds of writers over the last seven years, writing coach and Called to Write founder Jenna Avery has answers for you about how to balance your life and your screenwriting, trust yourself as a writer, fulfill your call to write, and more. Submit your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org or via Jenna’s online form and she may choose your question to answer in a future article.
Written by: Jenna AveryJenna Avery is a screenwriter, columnist, and blogger who redesigned her life and career to support her calling to write. She specializes in sci-fi action and space fantasy, and her most recent project is a post-apocalyptic coming-of-age story for a Canadian producer. Jenna is also a writing coach and the founder of Called to Write, where she has helped hundreds of writers overcome procrastination, perfectionism, and resistance so they can get their writing onto the page and into the world where it belongs. Jenna writes about writing, creativity, and calling at calledtowrite.com, for ScriptMag, for Final Draft, and teaches for Screenwriter’s University. Download Jenna’s free guidebooks for writers when you join her mailing list at https://www.calledtowrite.com/mailing-list