Hollywood on the Couch

The inside scoop on Tinseltown, USA.

Going the Distance: How to Survive Writing a Screenplay

Screenwriting: staying sane over the long haul

In the early 1960's, there was a hot art-house movie called The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. I think of this film sometimes when trying to help my TV and film writer patients working on long-form projects---miniseries, screenplays, cable channel movies, etc.

The running analogy is a good one, because long-form writing is like running a marathon: it requires endurance, patience, and a deep reserve of will power and commitment. Not to mention an almost Herculean ability to delay gratification.

(To continue the analogy, other kinds of script writing might be likened to sprints---sitcoms, comedy sketches, etc. Sprints require a burst of speed and power, the knock-out punch of a single idea or concept, and a quick build to an explosive finish.)

Where the long-form Hollywood writer gets in trouble is in believing that he or she can maintain over the length of the project the same vigor and intensity that's brought to a shorter piece.

Hence, when the work slows, or gets bogged down in exposition, or drifts off on tangents, the writer panics. His or her confidence flags. Enthusiasm drains away. The screenplay or miniseries is, metaphorically speaking, "put away in a drawer," often never to be brought out again.

To avoid this, here are some suggestions to help you "keep on keeping on" during those long, painful stretches that plague anyone writing a big project:

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*Pace yourself. As I said, it's a marathon, not a sprint. Sixteen-hour days at the keyboard, living on pizza and Red Bull, may get you through a TV episode or a re-write that's on deadline, but for a two-hour pilot or screenplay it's deadly. Hard on your family, your vital organs, and your outlook on life.

*Expect slow spots, things that don't work, and reverses
. Long-form story-telling has its own rhythm, in the reading as well as the writing. The reader needs to take a breath, be reminded of plot points, given a break from unending action and/or revelation. So do you, the writer. Like any extended trip, the journey through a miniseries, long TV pilot or screenplay involves wrong turns, pleasant surprises off the beaten path, some down time to remind yourself why you're even taking this route---even return visits to places and events to see what further gold can be mined from them.

Just keep reminding yourself that you're in this for the long haul, that there'll be good days and bad, pitfalls and peaks of inspiration, and then get on with it.

*Take side-trips. Stop occasionally to write a short piece---an article or essay, an email to a friend,  a blog, etc. Maybe even help a fellow writer punch-up his or her sitcom pilot or comedy monologue. This gives your long-form muscles some much-needed R & R, and helps flex those short-form ones. Just because you're running a marathon doesn't mean you want to forget how to sprint.

*Don't rush the ending (just to get the damned thing finished)
. A hard temptation to resist, but you've got to try. There's no sense laboring over a piece for months, or even years, getting the narrative, characters and tone just right, only to rush the thing to its climax because you're so relieved to finally see the end approaching. Let the reader---and you, too---enjoy the fruits of your labor; give yourself the luxury of bringing the same effort and care to making the most out of the conclusion. Do justice to your characters, your story---and to yourself.

*Finally, when the project is done, expect some post-partum blues
. You've lived in the world of your cable movie or feature screenplay so long, it's familiar, the known. Despite its myriad problems and headaches, it's what you've called home for a long time. Believe me, after bitching about it the whole time you've been writing it, when it's finally finished...you'll miss it.

Which is why, as hard as it is to write a long-form piece, as vehemently as you swear that you'll never do it again, pretty soon you'll start thinking about a new one.

It's like the end of a long, painful relationship. You swear to anyone who'll listen that you'll never fall
in love again. You don't want the grief, the false hopes, all the drama. Then, one day, you see someone in a coffee shop, or at a party, and you say, "Hmmmm..."

It's kinda like that.

 

 

 

 

Dennis Palumbo is a former Hollywood screenwriter (My Favorite Year; Welcome Back, Kotter) turned licensed psychotherapist and mystery author.

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