- October 25, 2019
Jacob Krueger addresses the more subtle and complex form of writer’s block in this week’s podcast. He examines the...
- October 11, 2019
This week, Jacob Krueger shares some simple steps toward overcoming the common form of writer’s block and explains how...
- September 4, 2014No matter how overwhelming your day job may be, there are simple steps you can do to make the…
- June 2, 2014Keeping your writing going this summer doesn’t have to mean spending all your time indoors. Here are five fun…
- November 28, 2013There are days all writers live for: those great writing days when inspiration is flowing, every moment is…
- August 25, 2013
Writing Your Screenplay Is Like Falling In Love, Part 2 By Jacob Krueger In the first article in this...
- July 31, 2013
Are You Bouncing Between Screenplays?
By Jacob KruegerThere’s one kind of writer’s block everyone is aware of: the kind where you’re just not writing. You know the drill. You plan a time to sit down in front of your computer… and somehow find yourself reorganizing your Christmas ornaments (in the middle of April). But there’s another kind of block that’s far more insidious… I call it The Bouncing Block. And many of you will recognize it. Writers who’ve got The Bouncing Block often fool themselves into thinking they’re not blocked at all. They write all the time, a new idea every day. They just never finish anything.
The Source Of The Problem Usually Looks A Little Something Like ThisYou start out with and idea you just can’t wait to write, and you dive into it with everything you’ve got. You’re so excited. The words are flowing. The characters are talking to you. And you love what you’re writing. But then after a few days or a few weeks or a few months, you wake up to find that the thrill is gone. There are all kinds of problems you didn’t anticipate when you first sat down to write, holes in your idea you have no idea how to fix. And as exciting and original as your premise seemed when you started, you’re now realizing that it’s full of clichés, and really not so exciting or commercial or original after all. You feel disconnected from your characters, you can’t figure out what happens next, and any ideas that do come to you just seem boring and cliché…
Luckily, just when you’re starting to question if you really have what it takes, you get another idea.And this one is really good. I mean, amazing. I mean, so much better than that other crazy idea you were working on. And it starts to seem like the problem all along was just that you picked the wrong premise. So you drop that terrible old half completed script into some buried file on your computer, and jump ship to the new idea. And it’s so much better… for a few weeks. Until the whole thing happens all over again. Before long, you’re bouncing from script, to script, to script. Trying desperately to find that one truly worthwhile premise, and never seeming to get there. You’ve got The Bouncing Block.
Here’s why you can’t ever seem to find the right premise.Because all premises are bad at some point in their development—before you push through and see what’s on the other side. All ideas, no matter how simple and clear they seem when you first sit down to write, are going to reveal every flaw to you once you actually get to know them. Think about a movie like Lars and the Real Girl. The premise is probably one of the “worst” in film history. Ryan Gosling falls in love with a sex doll. And get this, it’s supposed to be a character driven drama, and we’re supposed to take it seriously. Yeah, this could have been a really terrible movie. In fact, back in the 80’s the goofiest possible version of this premise actually was made (a little movie called Mannequin). But Lars and the Real Girl takes this crappy premise, and turns it into a beautiful work of art. Not by running away from the problems, or falling victim to its limitations, but by pushing through them to find the true beauty of the idea.
Writing a Screenplay Is Like Falling In LoveFalling in love with a premise is a lot like falling in love at first sight with another person. At first, we all go through that magical honeymoon period where we can only see the best in the other person. But once we truly get to know them, we start to see all the flaws, incompatibilities and contradictions that make us wonder if the kind of love we dream of is really possible. Some of us make the same mistake in our relationships that we make in our screenplays, bouncing from relationship to relationship to relationship, imagining that some day “the right one” is going to magically appear and fix everything in our lives, rather than doing the work that it takes to have a real relationship with a real person, and make that relationship beautiful, despite all the flaws.
People who are successful in relationships, like people who are successful in screenwriting, know a secret.The premise that’s in your head is always perfect. But the one that’s on the page is always flawed. Your growth as a writer, like the growth of a truly beautiful relationship, comes not by running from those flaws, but by dancing with them. Doing the work on yourself, trusting your initial impulses, investing in each other despite all the crappy things about you both, and working toward the dream of something beautiful together. That doesn’t mean that every lover is going to be the one you spend your life with. Just like every script you write isn’t going to be the best one you’ve ever written. But it does mean that every single script you write is going to make you a better writer, and bring you closer to your real goals and the life you want for yourself. So next time you’re thinking about bouncing to a new script, take a moment to imagine what might happen if you stuck around. Stay tuned for the next installment of this series, in which I’ll be discussing how to know the right time to stay, and the right time to go when you’re working on a script, as well as some helpful tricks to bring your projects to a completion.
- February 27, 2013As any chef will tell you, there’s a great irony in the cooking of a steak. In order to…
- September 20, 2012
John Cleese: The Top 5 Things You Need For Creativity
By Jacob Krueger
As part of one of his lectures on creativity (video here), John Cleese, of Monty Python fame, spoke about what it takes to get into “the open mode” required for creativity, and why that’s so vital for creating your best work. In many ways, this relates to what I talk about with my students, when I discuss the problems with the formulaic way screenwriting is all-too-commonly taught: with all the education directed toward the conscious editing brain and very little toward the subconscious creative brain, where all the real magic happens.
This induces what Cleese refers to as getting stuck in “the closed mode” in which creativity, and great writing, is impossible.
In the closed mode, the pressure is so great, and the need to do things properly so strong, that you end up cut off from all your best instincts, and more importantly, from the fun of creating. That doesn’t mean that you just get to play around all day, sing Kumbayah, and pretend that it’s going to lead you to a writing career. It does mean that if you want to succeed, you need to find a way to balance the two modes of thinking: and to switch effortlessly them, at the right time, and in the right way.
John Cleese’s top 5 things you need for creativity.
John Cleese lists these five conditions as the five things most likely to help you get into the open mode, where creativity is possible:
5. A 22 Inch Waist
And though he may be joking about at least one of them, the way he defines these things is quite fascinating. What follows is a short summary of his points about each, as well as some of my own perspectives on his ideas.
Cleese defines space as “an oasis of quiet”. A sacred, undisturbed space that is set aside exclusively for your writing. This may be your local coffee shop, a writer’s room, an office or even a special area of your apartment. But what’s important is that this be a special, separate space from the rest of your life. A space that you keep holy. This is not the space where you check Facebook, return text messages, clip your toenails, or flirt with the sexy person to your left. This is the space where you go to write.
As Cleese points out, it’s easier to do trivial things that are urgent, than big things (like writing) that are truly important. When you set a special place aside and use it exclusively for one purpose, you allow your mind to settle, to escape all the trivialities that distract you from your most important task, and focus entirely on your writing. Return repeatedly to the same space, in the same way, with the same focus, and you will begin to induce a Pavlovian response in your mind. You’ll sit down, and instantly your mind will know that it’s time to write. It will take you less and less time to get focused, quiet your mind, and find yourself in the open mode.
Cleese defines time in two different ways, and lists it twice for a reason: not just to amplify how important it is to make time for your writing, but to point out the different kinds of time writers need in order to induce the open mode. The first kind of time relates to the nature of creativity, and the nature of play. As I discuss in my article series Breaking The Chain of Writer’s Block, all children instinctively know how to play, which means that as children, we all know how to tap effortlessly into our creativity.
But as we get older, it gets harder and harder to get into the open mode. That creativity, and that ability to play, still resides inside us. But getting access to it means that we need to first recreate the conditions of play that made it possible for us as children. As adults, and even as children, we can’t play freely all the time. There are chores to be done, teeth to be brushed, and now that we’re grown up, day jobs to be slogged through. And even with our writing, we can’t just play endlessly and forever. Eventually, we’ve got to shape our play into something that can be shared with others.
Play, by its very nature, is different from life. Which means, in order to drop our defenses and give ourselves the permission to play freely, we also need to know that our play has both a beginning and an end. That it is a limited, special time, when you can allow your creativity to run the show, without thought for the concerns of normal life, just like you did when you were a child. For this reason, a short time set aside for writing on a consistent basis can often be more productive than a full day set aside for writing on an inconsistent basis!
Cleese recommends 1 ½ hours as the perfect amount of time to play as a writer. His belief is that it takes most of us (at least at the beginning) at least 30 minutes just to settle our minds, free ourselves from the litany of our own thoughts, and enter the open mode where play is possible.
This means that you’ll be left with an hour to play, to explore creatively, to follow your characters (in short, to write) after which you’ll probably need a break. Whether that takes the form of a return to the normal world, or a switch into the closed mode of your editing brain, with which you can begin to revise and bring order to the chaos.
If you don’t have an hour-and-a-half hours to write on a consistent basis, there’s also another way to approach this. Try giving yourself 15 minutes every day to write, first thing in the morning, just as you’re exiting your dream state, and you’ll probably notice that the consistency, and the speed with which you need to write just to get anything down in that time, start to propel you quickly into the open mode, and set your mind thinking about your screenplay for the rest of the day.
The second kind of time that Cleese discusses is the time we need to explore as many solutions as possible.
As Cleese points out, what distinguishes successful creative artists from less successful creative artists usually has a lot less to do with talent than it does with the fact that successful artists tend to “stick with the problem longer” before they attempt to solve it. As uncomfortable as it is to be in a state of not knowing, the longer you can allow yourself to sit in your scenes, and experiment with different solutions, the more likely you are to come up with something that is truly original.
So, rather than racing to “solve your script,” instead, focus on exploring it for as long as possible, allowing it to reveal itself to you, taking your character in different directions, without concern for whether or not any particular solution is going to work. Then, when you’re ready to make the real decisions, you’ll know you’re building on solid ground, because you’ve given yourself the chance you need to explore the full spectrum of what your story is, and what your story is not. You can learn more about this approach to screenwriting in my article about “sketching” for screenwriters: What Picasso Can Teach You As A Screenwriter.
When John Cleese talks about confidence, he’s not talking about the false confidence of people who always need to be right. He’s talking about the confidence to fail boldly, to take risks, to play with things the wrong way before you start trying to do them the right way.
Nothing stops creativity faster than the fear of making a mistake. That doesn’t mean you’re going to ignore the craft of writing. You’re going to learn it. But then you’re going to have the confidence to let go of it for as long as you can. To keep yourself in the open mode. To try things when you don’t know if they can work, and to push yourself past the easy solutions. Then, when you are ready to move back into the closed, editing brain mode, and make a decision, you can do so boldly and effectively, with the confidence of all your exploration behind you.
Allowing yourself the confidence to play now allows you the confidence you need later to stick by your decisions, and build your script around them, rather than reinventing everything every time you hit a road block. And more importantly, it gives you the experience to know when you do hit a road block that you have the power to find your way around it, even if it seems completely insurmountable at the time, simply by bringing yourself back into the creative mode, and allowing your mind to gently explore the problem, in an open, fun, creative, and playful way.
5. A 22 Inch Waist
This one, of course, is self-explanatory. Because, come on, who doesn’t want a 22 inch waist? But it also illustrates, by example, a much more serious point. That this writing stuff is supposed to be fun. And that means you have to have a sense of humor. Being serious about your writing does not require a stiff upper lip. In fact, it requires just the opposite.
When you allow yourself to play, to laugh at yourself (and your mistakes), to explore, to have fun, to follow your non-sequiturs, to write stuff just because it makes you smile, you not only open yourself up to find the open mode, you also allow yourself to stay there. And allowing yourself to maintain that sense of humor, even as you invite your editing brain back to the table, allows you to actually accomplish the very serious work of bringing the screenplay in your heart onto the page.
If you’d like to learn more about accessing the creative mode, and learning both the art and the craft of screenwriting, I invite you to check out one of my upcoming screenwriting courses.