Many, many people with whom I‘ve been in contact during my adult life have expressed the desire to write a book, a screenplay or a stage play. Many of them have been egged on after several drinks during a highly charged round of chit chat at their favorite bar and told that they definitely should write that book, get started on that million-dollar screenplay or give themselves over to drama of the highest order in a stage play.
Sometimes the person does actually begin writing on the project. They perhaps will get ten or twenty pages written, then stop and never pick up on their thoughts again. This generally is because they have run into a brick wall that is commonly called “writer’s block”. This stuns their creativity in its tracks and the best they can say about their project is that it is a “work in progress”—an expression meaning “not going to happen.” All of their good intentions somehow fail to materialize. Their noble venture withers and dies on the vine.
I once had a woman send me her screenplay for script doctoring because she had “writer’s block.” I read what she had written and advised her to cut the “fat” by nearly 75 percent. This meant she had too much plot. You can, you know, and that’s what this blog is about: Fat and that brick wall and what causes them.
Simply put, having too much plot causes the sickness involved in writers’ block. This condition comes about when you have too many things happening in your book, screenplay or stage play. This leads to overwriting. This means that instead of saying the flower was red, you add fifty words of verbage (verbal garbage) that doesn’t MOVE your plot along one iota. If you have sentences and words that have nothing to do with your basic plot, then you’re just asking for that brick wall. The trick is to get your idea down to one basic idea and develop it in its leanest possible way. An author who is known for having been a master of this was Ernest Hemmingway.
So let’s transfer these rules to writing. You can easily overwrite—tell too much or more information than the reader needs to know OR try to write about too much and cover too much territory. A screenplay which violates these rules comes to mind. It is the 1944 Greer Garson film Mrs. Parkington. It tells the story of Greer’s character from young girl to great-grandmother. It just goes on and on and on. You could have had twelve screenplays out of what they tried cramming into one.
Some stage plays have been written that go on and on and on. Most of these were in olden times when folks had really nothing else to do except spend the day at the theater. So, an author could tell the entire life story of a character. Nowadays people start playing with their car keys in their pockets when a play hits the hour and a half mark. To hit that time limit successfully, you cannot give but one snippet of someone’s life or one life situation.
Novels are the same. Gone With The Wind comes in at 1,037 pages but what saves this book and makes it the second most popular reading selection of modern times is that it only covers about fifteen years of Scarlett O’Hara’s life. Just think if the author Margaret Mitchell had tried to tell ALL of Scarlett’s life from childhood to death. She would have easily hit 6,000 pages—and who’s going to read that?
So here’s the point: Keep your basic idea down to one episode or era of a person’s life and you will keep your project manageable. Writer’s block occurs when you are trying to tell too much. Try to be a lean writer and keep in charge of the pace of your story. Don’t over describe things, don’t tell too many details and don’t drive your story at ten miles an hour. Things have to gallop nicely about 50 to 60 miles an hour. It’s when you slow down that you’re very liable to have a flat tire or develop motor trouble.
For example. Let’s take the life experiences of my maternal grandparents. You could easily have three different screenplays on diverse events in their lives. It would be the same with a stage play and even a book. If you tried to tell my grandparents’ entire lives in either of those creative projects, you would have far too much and would be sunk immediately. What you’re looking for is when is enough enough? It’s perfect when you have a beginning, a middle and an end. (Acts I, II and III.) What causes writers block is when you begin overwriting.
Let’s get back to my grandparents as examples in how much is enough. My grandfather was going to get married to a young lady in San Antonio in 1901. His buddies took him on a bachelor’s party to Saint Louis. His fiancée asked him to buy her a real French hat to wear at their wedding. On the last day he was in Saint Louis, he went to a French hat shop. A beautiful young French lady waited on him. He went bonkers over her and in three days they were married. This could make a very decent length screenplay, book or stage play.
You don’t have to go back and tell about my grandfather running away from home and going to Mexico with a group of rag-tag adventurers looking for gold and silver. They found the shiny stuff but were nearly killed by Mexican bandits. My grandfather and only one other of his group managed to escape alive and make it back to the States. Okay, there’s another book or screenplay right there and a stage play if you were creative in how you handled it.
Nor would you have to tell about how the beautiful French bride got pregnant with her second child in the primitive state of Washington where my grandfather was wildcatting in the lumber business. She developed uremic poisoning. The baby lived but the local doctor told her she’d never walk again. She only had Indian women to help her but being a strong-willed person, she did walk again and had three more children. There you have another screenplay, book or play.
Now what if you tried putting all three stories together in one screenplay, book or play? It would be far, far too much—and that’s just what they did in that 1944 Greer Garson film Mrs. Parkington.
So, enough is when you have your first case of a beginning, a middle and an end. Remember that and you won’t run into that wall called “writers’ block.” In other words, you’ll have fun and not failure.
Oh, by the way my grandfather was S. P. Howard (Sargent Prentiss) and my grandmother was Lily Rousseau. My mother Ruth was their first child.
Cheers and good writing to you.
(Featured Picture: S. P. Howard’s funeral in 1939. Left to right: Lily Rousseau Howard (Jack’s grandmother), Ruth Howard Fitzgerald (Jack’s mother), Ripple Bowen (Jack’s aunt), Homer Prentiss Howard (Jack’s uncle), Martin Howard (Jack’s uncle) and Helen Howard Parrish (Jack’s aunt.)