A lot of what we talk about here at Scriptshadow comes from a reactionary place. We assess someone’s work and then discuss how it either a) worked or b) didn’t. And if it didn’t, we discuss how it could’ve been fixed, or how it could’ve been done better. This is all well and good, and we certainly learn a lot from it. But it doesn’t address one of the hardest things about screenwriting: the blank page.
Staring at a blank page is a whole different ball of wax than trying to come up with a solution to a bad scene.
There are two types of “blank page” problems. There’s the “On the fly” blank page problem and there’s the “Outlined script” blank page problem.
The “On the fly” problem refers to writers who are writing their script on the fly. They didn’t start off with an outline. They had their idea and figured they’d jump straight into the script. This method is notorious for leading to a lot of blank page problems. Since you didn’t outline, you have no idea where your script is headed, and when you don’t know your destination, it’s hard to map out a route to get there.
For this reason, the writer eventually runs out of scenes (curiously, they almost always peter out around page 45), and subsequently start “grasping at straws.” They write to shock, they throw a twist or two at the reader, all to energize what they perceive to be a dying story, not realizing that it’s the lack of direction in the first place that’s the problem.
To these writers I say, “This is why you outline.” You outline to destroy the blank page. If you’ve already figured out your ending, and you’ve come up with a general idea for the majority of the scenes in your script, you’ll at least come into each scene with a plan. And plans mean less blank pages.
If outlining scares you, here’s another option. Make sure that every character in your screenplay HAS A GOAL. If you give every character a goal, then every time you cut to one of those characters, you’ll know what scene to write to push them closer to that goal.
If you know, for instance, that your 5th most important character, Tracy, is desperately trying to make enough money to pay for college tuition next year, then you know to put her in a few job interviews. And if she doesn’t get hired, and subsequently gets more desperate, you know she might start doing some unsavory things to get that money.
On the contrary, if all you know about Tracy is that she’s your main character’s sister, then when she comes around, you won’t know what to do with her, and the story will drift or come to a stop when she arrives.
To use a recent example, look at Mad Max: Fury Road. The goals were clear from the start. Furiosa wanted to get back to her hometown. And Max wanted freedom. The bad guy, of course, wanted to get his five wives back. Every scene was dictated by the desires of those three characters, which is a big reason why not a single scene in that movie felt wasted.
Now if you’re a seasoned screenwriter, outlining is a huge part of your process. And for the truly hardcore, you’ve likely outlined every scene in your script (scene 1 to scene 60!). To these writers, having no idea what to write next isn’t really the problem. The problem is HOW to write what you write next.
Let me give you a real world example. A couple of weeks ago, a writer came to me needing to write a scene that took care of two things – introducing his main character’s wife, and conveying the fact that the two were struggling financially.
Notice that we know what to write, but we don’t know how to write it. I mean sure, we could take the obvious route. Our main character comes home from work, and there his wife is, at the dining room table, bills spread about everywhere, looking dire. Does the job, right? Sure.
But is it a good SCENE?
Any time you give us the same scene/solution that the average Joe on the street could’ve come up with, you’ve given us a boring scene. Even the best version of that scene gives us information (exposition) and nothing more. Which puts us right back at the blank page. So what the hell do we write?
I’m going to let you in on a big secret here – the key to writing a scene that destroys the blank page. Are you ready?
You want to approach your scene with the goal of injecting some conflict into it. And by conflict, I mean an imbalance that needs to be resolved. Maybe one character is mad at the other and starts yelling at them. Maybe one character is mad at the other and is passive aggressive towards them. Maybe one character is hiding a secret from another character. Maybe the two characters are avoiding talking about something. Maybe the characters desperately want to be together but can’t for some reason. Maybe the characters are fighting off a common enemy.
Conflict comes in many forms. But the important thing is that once you include conflict in a scene, you move away from merely conveying information, and you instead add an element of entertainment. Telling us that these characters are in financial straights is boring. Having one of the characters fed up that they’re in financial straights and taking it out on their partner in a passive-aggressive manner, now you have a scene.
I can already see it. The wife doesn’t NEED to have these bills out for when her husband comes home. But she wants to make a point. She’s reminding him that he can’t keep ignoring their reality. They’re in financial straights and he’s got to do something about it. He shakes his head, storms by her, and all of a sudden we have tension in the air. We have conflict. We have a scene, even if it’s a mere quarter of a page long.
But let’s say that one of the things you ALSO want to convey in this scene is that our husband and wife characters love each other very much. Having them pissed off at each other may make for a juicier scene, but it conveys the exact opposite about their relationship than what you want. Okay, that’s fine. Just shift the conflict so that it’s external.
Maybe our husband gets home, and the neighbors are, once again, playing their music loudly. As our couple work out which bills they need to pay first to stay above water, the music only seems to get louder, until the husband can’t take it anymore. He storms over to the neighbors and tells them off.
Remember, the most boring scenes in any script are the scenes where nothing’s happening. And “nothing’s happening” is universal code for “No conflict.” So always look for an angle into the scene where some kind of conflict is taking place, even if it’s subtle. Assuming that you know what needs to happen next in your script, the right level of conflict could be the key to busting past that blank page.