“The chains of habit are too weak to be felt until they are too strong to be broken.” ― Samuel Johnson
Your writer friend drops a finished screenplay in front you; brass fasteners fastened, corners already curling up.
“You didn’t!” you say. “You couldn’t have!”
“Believe it,” they reply. “I went up to mountains last week. Left it all on the page.”
Disgust, admiration; contradictions are banging around in your brain. Does the math even add up? How many pages is that a day? And then, they ask. You knew they would. It still feels like a stab in the back.
“How’s your script coming along?”
You can’t judge your writing commitment or abilities based on the output of others. Every writer is different. Every screenplay is different. When you’re in a movie theatre, munching popcorn and watching your story flicker and move, you won’t remember which scenes you wrote on the good days and which you wrote on the bad days. Results are the only thing that matters and the best way to get results is via a writing routine built on steady progress and achievable goals.
200 words per page + 10-pages = I’m going to write 2000 words a day!
Setting an intense daily writing goal isn’t self-motivation, it’s self-sabotage. Think about how complex a screenplay is. Are you writing a dialogue-heavy ten-pages? Do you have a major set-piece to work through? Some days will feel easier than others but there are no easy days. Don’t fall into the trap of unrealistic expectations. Instead, start off with a zero pressure daily goal.
But that will just give me an excuse to procrastinate!
It won’t. Psychology says so.
Motivation increases naturally as we approach an end goal; a runner nearing the finish line, a coffee drinker two hole-punches from a free drink, anyone a year from retirement. It’s a behavior pattern known as the goal gradient effect and it absolutely applies to screenwriting. Half a page puts you half a page closer to THE END. It’s very common for screenwriters to struggle with the first act; the cursor may blink and pages may drag and that’s okay. You’re still getting to know your characters and the nuances of your story. By the time your second act is escalating the pages will be flowing by as fast as you can type them, but in order to get there, you’ll need to make incremental improvements.
Maybe it’s our competitive culture, maybe it’s our impatience; whatever the reason, human beings (not just screenwriters) love an extreme makeover. No more nights out at the bar! I’m going to save all my disposable income! And lose weight! And mend my broken relationship! Cut to three months later, you’re sitting at the bar, newly single, noticeably heavier and mad at yourself for failing to do impossible things.
Nonsensical, give 110%, motivation doesn’t work for screenwriting or life in general. In order to improve on a sustainable trajectory, you need to think in terms of 1% improvements. Not literally of course, simply incremental and achievable.
Day 1: Write ½ a page and walk away
Day 2: Write ½ a page in the morning + edit for 10 minutes in the evening
Day 3: Write ½ a page + edit + read what you’ve written aloud
If writing were easy, no one would work in a cubicle. You’re going to have days when the words won’t come. That doesn’t mean you can’t improve. Look for the 1% in the development process of screenwriting; edit, perform, tweak your character profiles, update your outline. Positive momentum exists outside of your page count.
In your everyday life, breaking bigger goals into daily tasks is often a matter of simple math. You could study for 90 minutes every Tuesday or for 15-minutes six times a week, the time commitment would be the same. With screenwriting it is not that simple, the creative process never is, but there are effective ways to systemize the time you spend on your creative efforts.
Review Your Outline
Break your outline down beat-by-beat. It will give you a long list of micro-goals that you can then use to make consistent 1% improvements. Don’t set a fixed number. Instead, consider the complexities of each micro-goal and plan accordingly.
Identify the Challenges
As a writer, you know where you shine and where you struggle. Make note of the sections that will be the biggest challenge and allow yourself additional time to work through them. If the action and dialogue in those scenes does not directly impact the upcoming scenes, move on and loop back during your editing sessions. Forcing it only leads to frustration.
Include Non-Word Count Related Goals
Editing is forward momentum, character development is forward momentum, mental mapping upcoming scenes is forward momentum; new pages provide a sense of accomplishment but don’t overlook the importance of your tangential creative efforts, they are crucial to the development of your story and deserve to be included in your screenwriting routine.
Anticipate External Factors
Life happens. You can either plan for it or get irrationally annoyed when it does. Be honest with yourself about your week ahead. If you have a dentist appointment at 5:30 in the evening and dinner plans at 8:00, don’t try to squeeze in an hour of writing in between. It’ll never happen so why set yourself up for disappointment? When you’ve hit the big time and can spend your days writing from your poolside cabana in the Hollywood Hills feel free to write whenever inspiration strikes. Until that happens, set a routine and forgive yourself for the occasional life-being-life related miss.
Practice Cognitive Reframing
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) helps people take a step back in order to examine how negative thoughts and feelings impact behavior patterns. Using the example mentioned above, you fail to write for an hour in between your dentist appointment and dinner which leads to feelings of anger and disappointment. You decide to self-medicate by binge watching Chernobyl until 3am which of course leads to increased feelings of anger and disappointment because you know that the odds of meeting tomorrow’s writing goal have now significantly decreased.
You don’t need to lie on a couch to practice certain tenets of cognitive reframing. Instead, look for ways to turn positivity into positive action. The dentist was necessary and chatting about the story over dinner helped to clarify a couple of sticking points. Now, go to bed earlier than usual, get up earlier than usual and edit for half an hour in the morning—just enough to stoke the creative juices before your afternoon writing session.
Miss once, shame on life. Miss twice, shame on… You know where this is going. Breaking your writing routine on successive days can quickly lead to negative habits. A solid writing routine and positive daily progress is a mental game. Even when your goals are achievable and attached to a 1% improvement plan, you still have to put your fingers on the keys and make magic happen. If sitting down and getting started gives you trouble, lean on pre-programmed reminders (aka guilt trips). Set an alarm on your phone, put sticky notes on the fridge if you’re the old school type or rely on the motivational features included in a professional screenwriting program like Arc Studio Pro to keep yourself on track.
You have a natural writing pace; embrace it and challenge yourself to get better, not faster. The techniques mentioned above are intended to help you become a more well-rounded writer. Use them to set achievable goals, make incremental improvements and avoid the bad habits that come with missed days and negative reactions. When you give yourself the time and structure needed to maximize your creative potential the on-page results are extraordinary.
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