The Pyromania of Writer’s Block

I took a screenwriting class in college, mainly because it was the only class in the Film and TV track that wasn’t wait-listed. Most of us didn’t realize the final project would involve writing a compete, full- length screenplay, so we showed up without prepared ideas. That was OK, the professor promised, because we were there to learn fundamentals.

Most of what got shared in class was boring, with moments of brilliance. My own mediocre offering was a very forgettable rom-com that was light on both the romance and the comedy.

The only pitch I remember well was a Diehard-meets-Speed action flick involving the takeover of a mall. In the first scene, a corner store explodes. We talked about what a blockbuster that could be and kicked ourselves for not coming up with an equally high-concept plot.

That guy was the first to bring in a scene to read aloud. We were blown away by the visuals as he panned along the busy mall, showing one person after another after another reacting to the tragedy with shouts of horror.

It did seem to be a very long reaction shot, so the teacher reminded us all that one page should equal a minute of screen time. Then we moved on.

Over the next weeks, we talked about character growth, supporting casts, plot progression, etc. We covered all the standard writing topics, then studied some famous movies.

Shortly before Thanksgiving, the professor reminded us that we should each have had around half of our script written. He asked if anyone was struggling and we mostly all admitted it was much harder than it seemed. To my surprise, it was the kid with the best idea who was the most panicked.

The professor asked him what he was struggling with most and I will never forget his answer.

“The mall just keeps blowing up.”

See, he kept trying to write what happened next, but every time he pictured the scene, he saw more faces, more reactions that he wanted to include. He just kept adding to the same scene and could not find a way to transition out of it.

I have thought of this so many times over the years, as I’ve tackled problems in my own writing. Many times, I’ve stopped working on a project because I can feel there is something wrong, but can’t put my finger on where it went amiss.

This is usually when my husband finds me sitting with open notebooks and sighing and he asks, “Is your mall still blowing up?

And he’s almost always right. Writer’s block usually comes from either not knowing what comes next or not being interested enough in that next scene to write it.

So what’s the solution?

Ask yourself the same thing the professor asked that kid. “What if the mall didn’t blow up at all?”

He was aghast, as were those of us who had been excited at his concept. That opening was his best idea. If he threw that away, what did he have left?

It turns out, he had an entire story left, about a detective, a terrorist group, and some kids working in the mall who became more than stunning visuals. No, you won’t have heard of this movie. It was just an undergrad assignment, probably long since deleted. But for me, it was a better learning experience than the screenplay I wrote myself.

Next time you paint yourself into a corner, remind yourself that you’re a writer. Then delete the corner.

Frequently, if you back up to the last scene where you were excited about the story and start rewriting from there, you can launch into a new direction. When that doesn’t work, as hard as it is to accept, the best solution is to go back before the scene you loved so much and start writing again. This time, let your characters make new decisions.

Cutting a scene you loved is never easy. You’ll have to remind yourself how wonderful it feels to finally type those two golden words: The End.

Photo credits: Jose Peña, Steve Johnson and Elisa Ventur on

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