How to Develop a Screenwriting Practice in Quarantine

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Photo Source: Photo by Kat Stokes on Unsplash

The art of screenwriting is the art of creating something from nothing. There is a story that’s born in your imagination and is brought down through your fingers onto the page. But in order to leave your imagination and make the terrifying leap to the page, your ideas must feel safe and protected on their journey. Under normal circumstances, this is a daunting task, but these days even more so. How do you find a space both mentally and physically then to allow for that creativity to happen? It requires three simple steps. 

1. Create a safe space.
That safe space is both actual and metaphorical. You may be sharing tight living quarters with roommates, significant others working from home, children, or elderly individuals you’re caring for, so finding an actual physical safe space can be difficult in and of itself. However, the requirements for the actual safe space are minimal and usually achievable: a door that closes, and a symbol that can commence the writing time like a candle, a soundtrack, or a special pillow.

The metaphorical safe space though is more challenging. It requires your brain to be free of the worries and fears that are plaguing us every day so set boundaries for no phone and no news. Turn off notifications. Set a time limit on it. The world isn’t going to change that dramatically in the two hours you’ve set aside to write. Newsfeeds and social media are junk food in times like this so have an apple instead. 

Limit conversations before you write. There’s no way to engage with other humans these days and not talk about our fears, what we read, what we miss, or what we wish we were doing. It’s not their fault they want to talk about it, but it can’t come into your space. Increase positive stimuli too. They used to be around us all the time: work, travel, new friends, life event celebrations. Positive stimuli inspire us creatively. Without them, we have to replicate them as best we can. Books, online museum tours, music, travel shows, anything that is new and unfamiliar will trigger the creative chemicals in our brains. Force them on and everything else off. 

2. Practice the art of sitting.
Deadlines were hard enough before all of this. Now they seem nearly impossible, if not futile. The problem with deadlines is they put pressure on your creativity and usually lead it to freeze up. Once you’re frozen, you then go through the following cycle: “I wrote nothing yesterday. I was supposed to write five pages, now I’ll never finish. What’s the point anyway, if I couldn’t write five pages yesterday, I won’t today and it’s all stupid.”

Sound familiar? Stop giving yourself page count deadlines. Instead, practice the art of sitting. First, ask yourself how much time you can reasonably put in. If you get up at 9 a.m. and you have a work call at 11 a.m., you don’t have two hours. Inevitably you’ll get coffee, you’ll brush your teeth, you’ll get ready for the call, etc. Your two hours will now feel like a failure. 

Cut your available time in half. You have from 10–10:30 a.m. Great. Now in that time all you have to do is show up and sit. Open that blank page or wherever you are in your script, and simply sit. You might type. You might not. It doesn’t matter for two reasons. Even if words didn’t come out, your brain was actually working that whole time and something happened. Also, you succeeded and you achieved your goal which was to sit and you did. 

By creating reasonable time expectations and changing the reward mechanism to simply sitting, you’ll create a cycle of positive reinforcement that will make every day easier and more inspiring to write. 

3. Do not chase the industry.
You may be hearing everywhere: stories have to change, how would we shoot this, what does a post-COVID world look like? All of this talk tells you that it’s somehow your responsibility to find the solution to executives’ problems by writing the perfect thing they need. There are two problems with this. The first is that by the time you write it and finish it and they read it, they’ll have new problems. The second is your job isn’t to tell their stories, it’s to tell yours.

The industry is one big pendulum of taste that is constantly swinging. If you chase it, you’ll always be behind. Instead, write what you want to write and eventually, the pendulum will swing your way. If you don’t love the story you’re telling, if you don’t have a fundamental need to tell it, if you don’t have a clear understanding of why your story is important and what you want your audience to feel, how on earth can you expect anyone else to care? 

This town would not exist without screenwriters. It would cease to exist if we didn’t continue to birth stories from nothing but our imaginations and translate them to the page. Know that you are vital. Know that you are necessary.

So wake up, shut that door, think about the stories that move you and not anyone else, and practice the art of sitting. I promise the pages will follow.

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The views expressed in this article are solely that of the individual(s) providing them,
and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Backstage or its staff.

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Alexa Alemanni
Alexa Alemanni is an actor and screenwriter. She has written for TNT’s “The Librarians,” sold to UCP for TNT, and played Allison on “Mad Men” for which she won a SAG Award. She teaches screenwriting at USC & NYFA and at her own studio: Bad Pitch Writers Lab.
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