It happens to the best writers – and it can be lethal. The story starts to feel flat. The emotions false. The scenes mechanical. Soon you wonder what you even saw in the idea.
The issue is not one of technique or skill, because the most skillful writers can fail because of it. You need to ramp up your mental game.
Most often, the problem lies in focusing too much on the outer story of your script or novel. You need to refocus the writing – to engage with the inner story.
And stop playing safe.
Most writers put most of their effort into the outer story. They read the books and go to the seminars on structure and expend great effort on developing their three acts and their turning points. Or, if they prefer, on their non-linear fragmented structures, their flashbacks and parallel narratives.
Either way, they are avoiding dealing with the heart of their stories – the very thing that attracts and holds both the audience – and the writer. The inner story.
The inner story is where you face your character’s flaws, issues and vulnerabilities. But – and this is why most writers avoid it – those flaws and issues will also be your own. To write them honestly and powerfully you have to stop playing safe and risk facing the reality of the flawed person you really are.
This applies equally to mainstream blockbusters and indie movies, to cinema and to TV, to novels and short stories. A good story comes from a writer facing themselves and taking risks.
Conversely, one constant fault with the majority of treatments and scripts I read at Euroscript is the failure of the writers to engage with their own flaws.
Here’s one method for sharpening your mental game and getting back in touch with the heart of your story.
Step One – Identify the inner story.
This can be easier said than done, and I spend much time in workshops helping writers find what their script is really about under the surface.
Here are some places you’ll find clues: look at your central character’s major flaws? How do they change? What are they able to do at the end of the movie that they couldn’t at the start? What do they fail to do at the end that brings about their downfall? What it is that would solve their problem, if only they did it?
In Almodóvar’s All About My Mother, the outer story concerns a mother’s attempt to find the (transvestite) father of her son and correct the wrong she did by not telling him about his child.
However the inner story deals with a woman achieving emotional maturity and coming to terms with the truth about her life and herself as a mother.
In Being John Malkovich, Charlie Kaufman tells the outer story of an ambitious puppeteer who tries to make money exploiting a portal that takes people into John Malkovich’s head.
The inner story explores issues of manipulation and the difficulty of letting go.
Step Two – Look honestly at your own issues
Write down anything that comes to mind about how these issues show up in your own life.
This is the time to be honest, even if it hurts. How have you failed to deal with them? How should you have dealt with them? What’s stopping you?
This honesty is what we want from our writers. You face your vulnerabilities, so that audiences (and producers and directors) can find the strength to face theirs. But it only works if you’ve really faced them.
Almodóvar and Kaufman could only write their scripts because they were brave enough to face their own flaws.
Step Three – Make your characters face those same issues
Once you have identified the key issues, you put them at the heart of every scene. Comedy, drama or thriller, your dilemmas become the characters’ and vice versa.
The issues, being live for you, will bring the whole script to life again. The characters’ dilemmas will release energy and engagement for you, and for your readers.
Envigorate your mental game
If you want more ways to bring life and energy to your mental game, check out my workshops.
You’ll discover a new approach to how you think and deal with things. You’ll get practical exercises to help you understand what makes you tick as a writer or film-maker – and get back in touch with your passion and self-belief. And you’ll learn faster and more effective ways to develop characters and scripts.