How to Overcome Writer's Block and Finish Your Second ActOutlining, rewriting, and showing up, day after day.
“It’s OK to admit it’s hard. If it were easy, everyone would do it. Getting stuck is part of the job. Like hair in your shoes for barbers. Just accept it and keep going, keep going, keep going.”
Allow me to invoke a mindset that likely will feel familiar to you if you’re a writer.
There’s a certain magic that happens when you’ve got a new screenplay idea brewing, right? As the idea swirls around and starts to take shape, it’s like a zap of energy that electrifies your writerly soul, opening the door to countless creative possibilities. You feel like you’re ready to conquer the world, one word at a time.
That energy buoys you into Act One. You’re so busy introducing a new world, creating new characters, and dreaming up new scenarios that you hardly realize how quickly you’re progressing through the first act. You’re having the time of your life setting the stage. You sail past the Inciting Incident and first Pinch Point, through Plot Point I, and POOF!
You’re in Act Two.
And suddenly it feels kind of… Cold. And quiet. And lonely. That super good, I’m-gonna-change-the-world idea you had just twenty-some pages ago suddenly has given way to a feeling of… Oh no. I’m starting to feel panicked?!? Is this idea even any good? Should I keep writing?
Ugh! Why does everything feel so daunting all of a sudden?
The truth is that writing the second act of your screenplay can be intimidating. It can break the wave of momentum you were riding at the beginning of the screenwriting process.
You know how when you start a new school year, everything feels sparkly and new, until one day, you realize that nothing’s new anymore and you’re just kind of going about your business as usual? Yeah. The second act is those no-longer-new days.
Act Two may seem like a vast, open ocean – you’re shipwrecked and there’s no land in sight. But you have to start swimming if you’re going to have any chance of reaching shore.
The second act is where most of your film happens. In many cases, it’s what separates a good film from a mediocre one. So how do you stay motivated while you’re writing Act Two? Let’s discuss a few approaches here.
I. Outline! It’s much easier to get where you want to go when you have a roadmap.
Have you ever embarked on a long journey into the unknown without any sort of map? No Google, no travel guide, no signposts. Perhaps you were inspired by a sense of adventure and excitement, even a bit of bravado, or maybe a romanticized notion of “going with the flow”.
It works out sometimes, but often, you wind up getting lost, your head spinning, unsure of where to go or what to do.
I’ve done that before, and I’ve felt that way – while trying to write the second act of a screenplay!
In screenwriting as in road trips, it’s much easier to get where you’re going if you know what route you need to take. Outlining your story can make tackling that second act a lot (a lot!) less intimidating and more manageable. You might think of an outline as a sort of very basic to-do list. It tells you what you need to accomplish, beat by beat, in order to come out of the writing process with a coherent Act Two.
In fact, let’s pause here for a moment to highlight a resource that will help you understand that beat by beat. Our Screenwriting eBook, available for free at the bottom of this page, will help you understand traditional Three Act Structure, including the glue that holds a second act together.
Even once you understand classic story structure, it can be hard to figure out how to end a screenplay. Some writers find it helpful to decide in advance where they want to end up. What’s the last thing you want the audience to see? Hear? What’s the resolution of your story? Does the protagonist reach their goal? How? What happens to the antagonist?
Bearing these questions in mind, you could do your outlining backwards.
So let’s imagine that your screenplay ends with the main character walking up to a castle they’ve been trying to get to for the whole film. The last thing we see is them opening the door and walking inside.
If we were outlining backwards, we’d ask ourselves: What did the main character do right before they walked up to the castle? They probably hiked up a path of some sort. Well, how’d they find the path? A fellow traveler led them to it. Where’d they meet the traveler? At an inn on a stormy night. And so on and so forth, asking yourself “What happened before that?” and “How and why did it happen?”
Of course, the shape that an outline takes is different for every story. Whether you outline backwards or forward, it’ll help you map the trajectory of your story. Final Draft puts it this way:
“In the same way an artist first sketches his subject before he commits paint to canvas, you must also sketch out your entire story before you commit words to Final Draft…
The great thing about the outlining process is that it’s freeing. When you outline you can make tons of changes to your story without the pressure of writing or rewriting the actual screenplay. You’re free to play with your idea and get your plot points structured correctly without stressing about writing snappy dialogue or finding a cool way to describe your car chase.”
II. Embrace the idea of “first draft”, friends.
Let’s do some self-reflection, here. You’re good at that, right? You’re a writer. As writers, we know that we can be, well… Let’s just admit it. A little precious at times. We can get really in our heads about what we’re writing and that it needs to be – what? I’ll ask you. Which of these five things do you feel like your writing needs to be?
1. The best thing ever.
2. Amazing in its first draft form.
3. Completely perfect.
4. All of the above.
5. None of the above.
For many of us, it’s obvious, right? (4)! But allow me to let you in on a little secret… The real answer is (5).
As the adage goes, most of writing is rewriting. It. Is. True.
Say it with me: “Most of writing is rewriting.”
And although we “I have to do it perfectly the first time” writers don’t always like to hear that much of our work is going to be reworked at some future date, there’s actually a tremendous amount of freedom to be found in the rewriting process. If you’re kind to yourself, you can let your ideas flow today, uncensored, because you trust that when you revisit them down the line, you’ll refine them and uncover even more hidden depth.
It’s really important to acknowledge, boldly and specifically, that it’s totally okay – normal, natural, common – to not feel even remotely close to 100% “done” with your screenplay upon completion of a first draft. The first draft is really just the beginning of an amazing journey of discovery you’re about to set out on.
As you begin the rewriting process, you’ll experience breakthrough moments wherein something clicks into place. That piece of your script that felt drab or clunky or uninspired at first suddenly will find a new expression that forges new connections and meanings, setting off creative fireworks in your mind.
Melissa Donovan shares some great insights into rewriting. Although she’s discussing novel writing, many of the same lessons apply to screenwriting:
“A book is a massive undertaking. It’s not unusual for writers to spend over a year on the first draft alone. If you’re writing a novel, you have a lot to think about: characters, plot, scenes, action, dialogue, description, themes, and story arcs. Even if you have a general idea of what your story is about, once you start fleshing it out, you’ll run into all kinds of problems.
These problems can slam the brakes on your writing progress. If you’re also paying close attention to grammar, spelling, and punctuation or working out the most minute details of every scene as you write your first draft, you’ll find yourself stopping every few sentences to iron out the wrinkles. When you do that, you risk losing your train of thought. If you’re deep into a scene, you could lose its entire flow because you’re worrying over minutiae that could be dealt with later.
During revisions, you can shave off the excess, editing your piece down, or you can build on the narrative, fleshing out the details. You can clean up the grammar, get rid of the typos, and fix everything that needs fixing. Every time you go through another revision, you make the manuscript better. All that rewriting leads to a clean, polished project.
Most writers seem to get the best results with this method.”
Trusting that future version of you to accomplish great things in the rewriting process will free the current version of you to let the ideas flow and just WRITE your first draft.
When you’re not super worried about everything being perfect – when you hold everything a little more loosely – you’ll spend less time getting stuck in your head and more time keeping your energy up. You’ll realize your outline, scene by scene, laying the foundation for a stellar second draft.
III. Want to push through that Writer’s Block? Take a break – then keep on writing.
Speaking of getting stuck in your head, we must discuss that most pestilent of problems: Writer’s Block. You know that fatigued “Oh no what have I done” feeling we identified earlier? The one that sets in when you first sail out of the port of Act One and into the open ocean of Act Two?
Yup. It’s a common symptom of writer’s block.
If you struggle with this, one of the best things you can do is stop sitting there and thinking about the fact that you’re feeling “blocked”. Writer’s block is the kind of monster that gets emboldened by its own power. The more you stare at it and dwell on it, the stronger it becomes.
Mystery writer Brad Meltzer lends some perspective:
“Every writer gets stuck. That’s just part of the job. The phone only rings when you get in the shower. So when I’m stuck, I go in the shower: I take a walk, or a drive, or call a friend.
The best advice I ever got was from a fellow writer who said: ‘It’s OK to admit it’s hard. If it were easy, everyone would do it.’ Getting stuck is part of the job. Like hair in your shoes for barbers. Just accept it and keep going, keep going, keep going.”
If you feel yourself starting to get blocked, consider:
- Getting up and taking a break.
- Trying to write a different scene than the one you’re working on now.
- Trying to write something else completely unrelated for a little bit.
- Talking it over with a trusted friend; ideally someone who’s a writer or filmmaker themselves, so that they can give you some fresh, professional insight.
- Balance “creative output” with “creative input.” If you’re feeling stuck, sometimes it can help to take in something inspiring. Watch a movie, read a book, go to a theatre performance. Stoke your creativity, and where possible, observe how other artists solve the puzzle of their second act.
Most bouts of writer’s block are fairly fleeting. If you can power through and get something accomplished today – even if it’s not exactly what you initially set out to do – then chances are you’ll break through the block.
I’ve often said and really feel that one of the hardest things a writer must do is show up again after an especially challenging day of writing. Sure, the day you feel blocked is hard, but mustering the courage to return to the table the day after that? That’s what makes you a professional writer.
Whatever you do, don’t let yourself off the hook. Show up. Writer’s block doesn’t mean you’re not a writer – quite the opposite. It means you’re a writer in the process of working through a story problem. And the only way to do that is to write. So make sure that no matter how hard today is, you come back tomorrow.
Steven Pressfield says it best in his potent book The War of Art, one of our favorites here at Lights Film School: “The most important thing about art is to work. Nothing else matters except sitting down every day and trying.”
The more you write, the more intimately you’ll get to know the challenges that await you throughout Act Two, and the better you’ll become at conquering them. Don’t beat yourself up when you get stuck. That’ll serve only to discourage you. Like Meltzer says, it’s fine to admit that it’s hard!
You. Can. Do. It. I promise you can! Screenwriting is one of those creative pursuits that’s somehow exhilarating, intimidating, frustrating and rewarding all at once. When you’re feeling discouraged, try to remind yourself that you’re doing this because you have a passion for it. Remember those moments when you find “the zone” and the words start flowing.
And if you think that feels good, just wait until you’re holding your finished screenplay in your hands – after which the cycle resets, and you get to do it again.
Lauren McGrail, with
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