9 Reasons Why You Can't Finish Your Freaking Script

Based on an unscientific poll of screenwriters I know, the following seem to be the biggest roadblocks:
1) You’re spreading yourself too thin with your full-time job, social life, family responsibilities and/or other interests that prevent you from finding enough quality writing time.
2) You’re working on too many scripts at once. Halfway done with this one, a third of the way with that, stuck with no third Act for another.
3) You’re so infatuated (or obsessed) with your idea that it’s turning into a creepy little Pygmalion scene or your psychotic Frankenstein monster. You just can’t let it go. You’re constantly tweaking and revising the same scenes over and over again.
4)You’re spending too much time thinking about the deal you’re convinced you’ll get or making notes about which stars to get the script to.
5)You get mad at the script, as if it’s a recalcitrant child who won’t listen.
6)You somehow expect the screenplay to fix itself.
7)You’re waiting for your Muse to do her part and you haven’t realized that she’s like that girl/guy who dumped you and left town without a forwarding address.
8)You have negative people around you who are discouraging.
9)You’re just lazy and more of a slacker than you thought.
Whichever point(s) above applies to you, there’s only way to deal with your inability to see a first draft through to the end: confront it.
It’s almost like going to therapy. You acknowledge your problem, figure out why you’re letting yourself be victimized by it, then take the necessary steps to get out from under it. Owning up to what you’re doing wrong (or not doing) is the first step.
Some problems are easier to deal with than others. If your brother or a parent or even a significant other ridicules or minimizes you for pursuing a screenwriting career, you must turn a deaf ear to the negativity. Let them carry on, smile and keep writing. It’s your dream, not theirs.
If you come to the conclusion that your biggest problem is laziness, i.e., you talk about writing a screenplay more often than you actually do it, you must give yourself a wake up call. Stop goofing off. Stop wasting time. Instead of going out drinking with your friends, shopping at the mall and doing all those things you do to avoid sitting at your computer and grinding out five more pages (even if they’re so-so) find a mirror, stare long and hard into it and remind yourself that writing screenplays isn’t a day at the beach.
It’s hard. Very hard. And it takes discipline, concentration and tenacity to finish one. In my next post, some solutions to getting around what's blocking you.

“I don't like the way this script of ours has turned out. It's turning into a seedy little drama.” (Network)

The ultimate goal of every screenwriter is to sell a script and get it made. However, the primary goal of every screenwriter should be to finish the first draft of a screenplay.
Without a first draft you’ll be stuck in a place worse than Development Hell. You’re left without food or water in a dark, sad, bleak place that I call Undeveloped Hell. And what’s even more galling is that you’re the Gatekeeper.
Never forget: a bad first draft is preferable to a brilliant unfinished 49 pages that have been gnawing away at you for two years.
Completion of the first draft is everything. Even if it’s barely 85 pages with a meandering second act, no real plot twists in Act Three and an ending that’s not only unsatisfying, but so wrong it belongs in a different screenplay. Even if it’s way too long (and you’ve known it’s too long ever since you hit Page 118 and you haven’t gotten to the end of Act Two.)
But too short or too long, at least you got to the Fade Out and you’ve typed in The End. Only then can the real work of revision, rethinking and fine-tuning begin. But getting to that completed first draft is the hardest part for most of us. If you can get a handle on why you’re not moving forward to completion, it might help you break through the miasma.
In my next post I’ll get into what I’ve found to be the biggest roadblocks that bring screenwriters down.

That's So Funny I Forgot To Laugh

Finding your genre is The Fourth Rule of Writing Funny.
            When we go to a Farrelly Brothers movie we expect a certain kind of product. Gross out humor in largely unrealistic, high concept plots with a handful of genuinely inspired lines and moments. Woody Allen films, especially his early and mid-career efforts offered a witty, neurotic take on the human condition, especially romance. His fans knew that they were going to see a unique, intellectual kind of creativity and wit. If Judd Apatow’s name is on a film be it as writer, producer or director we know it’ll be something high concept with an abundance of sex jokes, but with an undertone of sweetness. So finding your genre is The Fourth Rule of Writing Funny.
            The thing is, depending upon the kind of comedy you’re writing, you may not need to be as funny as these guys. Romantic comedies need laughs, but not necessarily six per page. Take two Reese Witherspoon films: Sweet Home Alabama wasn’t a laugh a minute. Neither was Legally Blonde, although it was funnier and had a higher concept. But both had compelling stories.
            Guy comedies (or buddy comedies) need more laughs than a romantic comedy. Think I Love You, Man, Wedding Crashers, The Pineapple Express or Role Models.
            Let’s look at television again. I used to hear people refer to Sex and The City as a sitcom. It wasn’t. It was a drama with occasional laughs and humorous situations. No one watched Sex and The City for the humor (and nobody went to the film version expecting to laugh out loud for two hours), as opposed to Seinfeld, The Office, Curb Your Enthusiasm and of the current season Modern Famly. Same with Entourage. Is it a sitcom? No. Parts of every episode are hilarious, but it’s really a drama with occasional humor that comes from character.
            Sitcom writers have an expression for the parts of a script where there are intentionally no laugh lines: laying pipe: information crucial to the plot is given.
            Comedy screenplays are allowed to have some laying pipe sections, but not many. And there should be on in the first 15 pages. You have to keep the laughs coming.
            So if you want to write a big, broad comedy (The Hangover, Tropic Thunder, Dodgeball, Liar, Liar) your script better be funny as hell from first page to last.
            If you want to write a romantic comedy or something serio/comic (serious topic with laughs) or a comedy/drama (lighthearted story with a serious or sentimental turn) you don’t necessarily have to have 3-6 laughs per page. Once again, here is where having a solid story will supercede lots of laughs.
            Can someone be taught to write comedy? Yes. Just like someone can be taught how to cook. If you take cooking classes, read a bunch of cookbooks, watch The Food Network and spend enough time in the kitchen trying out recipes, you’ll be able to prepare a meal that you won’t be ashamed of.
            Learning to write comedy is pretty much the same. Take a class on sitcom writing, improv and/or stand up. Read books on comedy writing (Writing The Romantic Comedy is very good, as is What Are You Laughing At: How to Write Funny Screenplays, Stories and More). You can study comedies (you’ll learn more from the bad ones, than the good).
            If you don’t want to collaborate and if your heart is set on writing comedies, just keep staring at the scene that needs punching up until a funny line pops into your head. Then do it again and again and again. Just don’t try to analyze what’s funny or figure out where it comes from. 

“Total absence of humor renders life impossible.” Colette

            A strong story without a lot of laughs is preferable to a weak story with five jokes per page.
            Many comedies falter because of a flimsy or dimwitted plot. Ultimately, no matter how many laughs a script has, if the story isn’t absorbing enough for somebody to sink her teeth into, it won’t get read to the final Fade Out. As we’re laughing at things your characters are saying and doing, we must care about them and root for them to get whatever it is they want (no matter how goofy). If that want isn’t there we’re not going along for that ride no matter how amusing it might be.
            There’s an old maxim in baseball: “It’d rather be lucky than talented.” When it comes to a comedy screenplay, I’d rather have a solid story than plenty of laughs. Laughs can be put in. Maybe not by you, but if it’s a great story your chance of getting an agent or a deal has just gotten closer to the goal line. If you have a 103-page script with tons of laughs, but a mediocre story, well, it’s much more difficult to punch up a plot.
            Which is why The Third Rule of Writing Funny might be something to consider.
            Two heads can be better than one.
            Let’s say you’re a serious, reliable screenwriter with a clear understanding of not only the 3-Act Structure, but 5-Act and 7-Act structures, as well. You know that characters should be three-dimensional, have internal and external conflicts and be properly motivated.
            You’ve immersed yourself in Christopher Vogler so you know the 12 Stages of the Hero’s Journey inside and out. You’ve read all the screenwriting books (especially mine, The Screenwriter Within), gone to the important seminars, studied, analyzed and deconstructed films, read the key biographies and autobiographies of screenwriters and subscribed to the best screenwriting magazines.
            There’s only one problem: you are incapable of writing a funny line of dialogue. Unfortunately, all the ideas you come up with are way too serious and downbeat (like that bio-pic on Damien the Leper you’ve been mulling over the three years).
            If you are this guy or woman, you need to get together with a certain kind of person. The off the wall, rapid fire, life of the party, grown up class clown who has the ability to write jokes, great set pieces and funny lines and is hilarious 24/7, but if his or her life depended on it, couldn’t come up with a story or write a script.
            It’s the perfect convergence of talent.
            Check the credits on sitcoms. You’ll find at least one and often two or three writing teams on every show. Same with screenplays. It’s fair to assume that most of these teams got together because they each brought their strength to the table.
            Finding your writing soul-mate isn’t easy. It’s like finding someone to marry. You have to look around, see how you get on and hope that it works. If it does work you’ll both be in a much better place than going it alone.

You Want To Write Comedies, But You're Not Funny. Oy! Let's Talk

            As the saying goes, “Funny is money.” The person who can write funny has a definite edge over the person who finds it difficult.
            So if you’re humor challenged when it comes dialogue, what can you do about it? In my experience, writing funny, original dialogue comes naturally, just as spontaneously adlibbing funny, clever remarks does. You can either do it or you can’t.
            I wish I could say “Take a comedy writing class” or “Read a book on how to write funny stuff” or offer you some inspirational words of wisdom on finding your inner standup comic.
What I can offer you is something Tim Allen said in a TV Guide interview upon being asked about his sense of humor, specifically his ability to be funny. “Being funny is a gift to me. I don’t know where it comes from. It’s magic and its marvelous and I’m terrified it will all go away.”
Where does it come from? Who knows? Where does superior natural athletic prowess come from? Why is one 6’8” kid who plays forward on his high school team better than fifty other 6’8” forwards on other high school teams? For every Lebron James there are 10,000 kids who aren’t quite good enough.
The First Rule of Writing Funny
            Just because you can say funny things doesn’t mean you can write funny things.
            Writing funny is different than saying or doing funny tings. Lots of men and women who crack up their friends and co-workers are incapable of writing funny dialogue. Adolescent boys who can’t get attention from girls by excelling at sports, their looks or intelligence resort to goofball antics either physical or verbal. But that only goes so far and lasts so long. The kid whose talent is shoving a slice of pizza up his nose will be trumped by the boy who has figured out that girls get bored quickly with silliness and prefer someone who can amuse them with wit.
            This funny boy will likely blossom into a funny man and will find that his gift will be a big plus in his social life. And it will come in especially handy if he sets his sights on being a screenwriter. In real life most people can’t tell a joke or a story, especially a funny one. They lose their focus, deliver the punch line too soon, go off on a tangent, leave out on important detail or sink into a meandering blur. They’ve lost their audience. As the author of a screenplay that’s a comedy, your audience is much tougher and unforgiving: agents, producers, development people, creative executives and managers.
            You have to keep that agent laughing from the first page—especially the first page—because if she’s enjoying herself by the time she gets to the bottom she’ll definitely turn to Page 2. And if you keep the laughs coming for the next ten and the rest of the first Act you can feel pretty confidence she’ll finish the entire script—provided you have a compelling story.
            Find out The Second Rule of Writing Funny in the next post.

“Bad fortune enlightens and good fortune deceives.”*

            The following is a true story:
            A screenwriter friend had finished a screenplay. A comedy. I read it and thought it to be quite good, funny and commercial. He had a handful of people he could ask for help in getting representation. The first person he called came through for him in spades. He couldn't help him find an agent, but he had access to a major Hollywood player.
            This individual, himself a producer, had become friends with the sister and brother-in-law of a big time Hollywood director.  Hearing the director’s name, the screenwriters hopes soar. Those hopes soar even higher when he is told by the producer to drop off his screenplay to the office of the director's brother-in-law.
            Residing near the brother-in-law’s office, the screenwriter decides to drop off the script in person. He gets there and a receptionist greets him. He holds up the envelope containing his screenplay and asks if she can get it to so-and-so. But she misinterprets what he says, asks for his name, picks up the phone, calls the brother-in-law and says there’s someone here to see him. The screenwriter doesn’t say he just wanted to leave the script.
            A secretary comes out, and before the screenwriter can say a word, says “Mr. So and So will be with you in a few minutes. Come with me.”
            The screenwriter follows her into a small meeting room where he is told to wait.
            After a few minutes the brother-in-law arrives. Again, the screenwriter is prepared to simply formally introduce himself, hand the guy the screenplay, thank him for getting it to his famous brother-in-law and then leave.
            But the brother-in-law wants to talk. So they talk. For more than an hour. About movies and stars and the big time director. The screenwriter feels comfortable with the and the conversation goes so well that the subject of getting together for lunch in the future is brought up.
            So far, so good.
            Now for the bad news. The brother-in-law proceeds to explain that he will not be giving the screenplay to the big time director to read, but instead to the big time director's sister
            Yes. Sister.
            This stuns the screenwriter. The brother-in-law proceeds to explain that the sister reads scripts for her big time director brother—-scripts that come to her via people she meets in her business, which (now this is important) is not show business. The sister is in a field that is far removed from Hollywood and literally has nothing whatsoever to do with the ability to read and judge the merits of a screenplay.
            The horrible truth is all beginning to fall into place for the screenwriter. If the big time director’s sister likes the screenplay she will pass it on to her brother. But what the screenwriter start to wonder is whether or not the big time director will actually give any credence to what his sister’s opinion of a screenplay is.
            Why should he? The big time director is so big time that he has his own production company receiving scripts from the best agents and managers representing the best screenwriters…so why would he give a damn what his sister who’s not even in show business thinks about a script? He wonders, like, "duh!"
            Despite his misgivings, the screenwriter gives his screenplay to the brother-in-law, they shake hands and part in a friendly “We’ll get together soon” manner with the brother in law saying “My wife will get back to you after she reads the screenplay.”
            The screenwriter forces a smile and leaves.
            The instant he walks out of the office his heart sinks. His gut instinct is that nothing will come of this. He goes home and Googles the big time director’s sister and, as he suspected, finds not one mention of her film credits or anything to do with show business. He does, however, find several hits concerning the business in which she is in.
            Despite his misgivings, he decides to put a happy face on the experience. He started to imagine that the big time director's sister will love the script and pass it on to her brother and that he will like it and a phone call will be made and a meeting and a six figure deal and the house in Malibu and...
            Five months passed. There was no contact. The screenwriter's happy face scenario turned into a sad face, but not a defeated face because screenwriters cannot allow themselves to be defeated. That would mean giving up. And that particular screenwriter doesn’t have it in his genetic make-up to give up. He’s a big believer in living and learning, being cautiously optimistic and having a healthy cynicism about these things.
            But most importantly, this screenwriter has had a valuable experience from which he can draw upon the next time he has the chance to meet someone who might help further his career. As the philosopher Boethius* says, “Bad fortune enlightens and good fortune deceives.”
            This screenwriter’s emotions will be a mix of cautious optimism and healthy cynicism, but he’ll go in with eyes wide open, a little wiser and a little tougher.

This Is The Business You’ve Chosen

Most screenwriters are clueless and totally ill equipped to function as businessmen and businesswomen in Hollywood. They have the talent, but not the know-how to make their career happen.
I’m not talking only about young screenwriters fresh out of film school or kids with a dream from small town America. I’ve encountered people in their 30s, 40s, 50s and upwards who’ve been successful in other fields, but when it comes to making something happen with their finished screenplay, their naiveté is disturbing.
I get it. I was like that too.
Hardnosed cops and high-powered attorneys are intimidated by 25-year-old development executives who’ve never had a creative idea of their own in their lives. Type A stockbrokers fall to pieces as their script is turned into mishmash by a producer who should be working the late shift at a 7-Eleven. Psychiatrists, all kinds of doctors, seen-it-all journalists, firefighters, real estate biggies, housewives, bookies and loan sharks behave like 12-year-olds when their phone calls aren’t returned.
People can learn how to write a screenplay, but there are no books or guidelines on how to be a screenwriter with the savvy, shrewdness and savoir-faire to navigate through the rocky road of selling a script and getting it on the screen without losing one’s dignity.
Being a screenwriter is much more difficult than writing a screenplay. I know from personal experience. I’ve written eight, had three optioned, sold one and did an adaptation of a hit play that got made. If someone is doing it right, being a screenwriter is an all-consuming job in and of itself. Just as a screenwriter learns how to write a screenplay by doing it, the same must be said of learning how to be a screenwriter: by doing it. But if someone doesn’t know how, you’ll be at a disadvantage in Hollywood.
This is the business you've chosen.  You know where you've heard that before:
“Moe Greene was a great man...Someone put a bullet through his eye. No one knows who gave the order. When I heard it, I wasn't angry; I knew Moe. I knew he was headstrong, talking loud, saying stupid things. So when he turned up dead, I let it go. And I said to myself, this is the business we've chosen. I didn't ask who gave the order, because it had nothing to do with business."
                                    Hyman Roth to Michael Corleone
In my next Screenwriters Rehab post I’ll report on an amusing, but disturbing cautionary tale of a young screenwriter.

Welcome To Writers Rehab!

There are three stages in the life of a writer: getting a project written, getting a deal and getting it produced or published. Writers don’t have much control over whether their script, screenplay or manuscript becomes a fact, but you can control the first two points.
You can’t get anything written if you’re not writing.
Not being able to write is at its core a mental problem. Unproductivity is it’s own form of addiction. The easiest thing in the world for a writer to do is avoid writing.
 As the saying goes, writers like having written.
 But when you’re so bogged down in your inability to push forward with a project, complete a first draft (let alone revisions and a polish) or even get started on a new idea, you know you’re in trouble.
 Not only do you find yourself unable to write, you don’t want to. You’re immobilized or close to it. The easy way around it is to find ways to avoid returning to the battle zone. And it is a battle zone. Until you finish the first draft your battle with whatever you're writing is a love/hate relationship.
 This is how Writers Rehab can help you. To get you back on track, motivated and ready to approach your writing (and your writing career) with a new resolve and attitude.
What’s the attitude? Being more professional. Work on your novel, screenplay, TV pilot or play as if you’re being paid to do it. As if you’re on a deadline and a check for $200,000 is waiting for you.
Parkinson’s Law: work expands to fill the time. No deadline, self-imposed or otherwise, and it’ll take you two years to finish a script. Throw in a 3-week deadline with the promise of a paycheck and you’ll finish in 21 days. 
I’m not trying to simplify the writing process. Sometimes it’s just not happening. Too bad. You need to make it happen.
In sports it’s said that the difference between an amateur and a professional is that the pro plays when he’s injured.  As a writer, you have to bite the bullet and confront whatever’s preventing you from writing.  There are many reasons.
In subsequent posts I’ll get into these reasons and offer solutions, tips and a few tricks to get you out of the doldrums and back into your screenplay.
Welcome to Writers Rehab.