You’ve done it. The walls are papered with colored index cards, you’ve put together your special writer’s mix tape (or CD, or iTunes mix, or however you kids do it today), and you just raced through Act One in record time. Who knew it would come out so quickly? It felt great! That first scene, where the girl’s walking down the street and then the guy comes out and then there’s a weird sound and she’s all, “Whoa!” and he’s all, “You wanna live, you better do that thing,” and we’re all like, “Holy crap!” IT’S GENIUS.
Awesome. Only eighty-some pages to go.
On to Act Two, or as we in the business call it: “The Stuff That Happens In The Movie.”
Act Two is where most unsuccessful screenwriters run aground. And I’m not measuring success in terms of sales or number of projects produced. By successful I mean those who can finish one script, rewrite it, then move on to the next one. If you’re like me and most screenwriters I know, it’s easy to get lost along the way, to go back to the beginning, to second-guess every decision so far and never finish. Surviving Act Two means fighting a battle on two fronts: The technical front and the psychological one.
Honestly, I could probably write a ninety-page Act One, that’s how much I dread Act Two. It happens more often than you’d think. Next time you see (or don’t see) another sprawling slice-of-life multi-character dramedy about the intersecting lives of Angelenos, you’re probably looking at the product of ten abandoned Second Acts.
When you’re staring up at Act Two, even if you’ve marked out every scene, it can still look like an impossible climb. Just referring to everything between pages twenty-five and eighty as a single act is a little cruel, so break it down even further. Shakespeare’s plays were all written in five acts, and he was pretty good at structure, so you might as well copy him. Split up Act Two into its own three acts. Imagine that your second act is its own movie with a sad ending about characters we already have a handle on (but want to see grow). Break down The Empire Strikes Back (which is Act Two of a larger story) and you’ll see what I mean. My point is that it’s better to take on your script in manageable pieces and just focus on the task at hand.
Now that I’m done haranguing you about your structure, let’s assume you’ve taken that step, and you’re still stuck somewhere around page sixty-eight.
Don’t start rewriting.
Never rewrite ANYTHING until you’ve reached the end.
You might suddenly realize that Sharon should be named Bob and that she-now-he should be a baker instead of a Mossad assassin. Fine. Starting from now, change her name in the smart type menu and keep going. You can fix it later.
Pages 30 - 40 are all wrong? Keep going. You can fix it later.
Accept that your first draft is going to be a disaster. It will set you free.
I write all my first drafts in longhand. I tell people that it’s because the process is more “organic,” and that Elmore Leonard does the same thing, and that makes me feel cool, but it’s hooey. The real reason is that my handwriting is worse than a three-year-old’s, and editing my own scribbles is such a massive pain in the rear that I can’t be bothered to try until I reach the end.
Procrastination is all about our fear of failure. “What if I finish and it stinks?” Then you can fix it. “What if I rewrite it and it still stinks? What if it’s fundamentally beyond help?” Then move on to the next script. We all have a pile of awful screenplays rotting in the basement. Call it an educational experience. But finish.
My advice? Use your fear and self-doubt to your advantage. Get angry! Get stubborn, get defiant. I’m going to finish this sucker.
We get stuck when we let our fear of failure take over, that’s when we wander off-course. We turn on the tv and tell ourselves it’s research. We go to TMZ.com and convince ourselves we’re learning about the entertainment industry. I’m just as worried about Britney as the rest of you, but you’ve got to get Sharon/Bob to the G8 Summit/brownie sale.
This is as much about lifestyle as it is craft. Now is the time to establish your routine, your process, whatever you like to call it. Pick your favorite place to write. If you need silence, stay at home. If you’re like me and can’t spend more than five minutes writing at home before getting another snack or going all Sleeping with the Enemy on the kitchen cabinets, then find a place to use as your office. Join the rest of us in keeping the coffee house culture alive.
Establish a system of rewards for yourself. Silly, superficial things. Finish your first draft and it’s cheeseburger time!
But if you get stuck again, you have to be ready to change it all up, because sometimes what you think is a “routine” is actually a rut. Maybe try the Starbucks across the street. Clean your disgusting apartment, get feng shui with that—a cluttered space leads to a cluttered head. Instead of letting yourself go, get spiffy. Put on some nice clothes before you sit down to write. In other words, act like it’s, you know, your job.
Oh yeah, and DISCONNECT YOUR WIFI. Pretend your laptop no longer has that capability. Turn off your phone or better yet, leave it at home (gasp).
And if all else fails, sometimes you have to be prepared to take a more scorched earth approach. Not long ago I had a conversation with a successful actor/writer about the creative process, and we had both reached the same unfortunate conclusion: You will never be as prolific as you were when you were lonely and broke. This isn’t just about endorphins and the muse and being a tortured artist. This is practical. It’s easier to write when there is NOTHING ELSE TO DO. When your car breaks down and you can’t afford to go out to eat, or pay the cable bill, or see a movie, and no boy/girl wants anything to do with your self-pity, you GET A LOT DONE. If you’re already broke and lonely, GOOD FOR YOU! You’re halfway there.
But if you’re settled, comfortable, you know... happy, you might have to make some temporary sacrifices. When I’m killing myself trying to work out a second act, I can’t wait to get done. But any night of the week I’d much rather be making dinner with my wife and watching The Wire on DVD (seriously, have you seen that show? IT’S SO GOOD). It may be time to make a deal with your friends and family, and use the free time you’ll have with them as the carrot you’re reaching for. They’ll understand. If anything, they’ll be glad to have you finish your draft, take a shower, and stop whining about how hard you have it while they’re trying to find out if Detective McNulty is ever gonna nail Stringer Bell. Lock yourself in the bedroom after dinner or, if you have the means, check into a cheap motel in the middle of the desert (without cable or wi-fi). You’ll be done before you know it, you’re just gonna have to go a little Barton Fink to get there.
And when you’re finished with that first, messy draft, you’ll have a whole new appreciation for the support system you’ve built around yourself. You will be proud of yourself, and they’ll be proud of you, too. You’ll be able to say, “I built this. It took way longer than I thought it would, and it rattles like a second-hand Yugo, but you know what? I can fix it.” While you’re at it, make a list of all the ways you’ll show your friends and loved ones how much you appreciate their putting up with, and more importantly, inspiring you.
But don’t make that list now. You should be writing. And so should I.
David Ross is the writer and director of the feature film “The Babysitters,” starring John Leguizamo, Katherine Waterston, and Cynthia Nixon. The film premiered at the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival; it was subsequently purchased and released by Peace Arch Entertainment. He is also the writer of “The Woods,” directed by Lucky McKee. David is currently preparing his second directorial effort while working as a script doctor on other projects. He has an MFA in screenwriting from the American Film Institute and earned his undergraduate degree from the University of Detroit, Mercy, where he studied acting. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife and cat.