Writing can often seem like an impossible task. (For example, it took us 15 minutes to write that last sentence.) And for screenwriters, things are particularly complicated. More than any other form of writing, screenwriting has become rigid and formulaic. There is Syd Field’s three-act structure (beginning, middle, end), and Robert McKee’s five-part formula (introductory event, complication, crisis, high point, denouement). And it gets more complicated from there: 7-part formulas, 22-part formulas — the rules go on and on.
That’s why Christina Kallas’s Creative Screenwriting comes as such a relief. The book is a textbook-like argument for a form of screenwriting that follows a fluid emotional structure, rather than a rigid plot structure. It is a case for freedom in screenwriting — where the form conforms to the story, rather than the other way around.
“Why creative screenwriting?” Kallas writes. “It probably sounds like an aphorism, but inspiration can get lost in the shuffle of so much know-how. Knowledge is necessary; but unfortunately the more we know and the more we learn, the more we begin to control and tame our imagination.”
Kallas’s book is in-depth, with references and theoretical arguments that span from Aristotle to Jung. Worthwhile stuff for sure. But for our purposes, we want to share three of Kallas’s “tricks” for unlocking creativity in your writing. Think of them like escape hatches under those piles of “thou shalts” that have been heaped on top of screenwriting. Think of them as exercises in creative freedom.
We don’t believe these tricks are all you need to become a better writer. Like Kallas says, “The secret of writing is writing itself.” But we do believe they will help you access the more true and vital writer inside of yourself.
Here are three screenwriting tricks to try.
“Our fear of being uncreative is exactly what leads us to be uncreative.”
One of the biggest hindrances to being creative, Kallas explains, is trying to be creative. When we find ourselves racking our brains for creative ideas, that’s an almost sure sign that nothing truly creative is going to happen. “Conscious thinking often functions as the biggest enemy of the creative process,” Kallas writes. “The more we try to be original, the more we distance ourselves from what makes us who we are, with the direct consequence that our work becomes mediocre, because it is false and has no substance.” In other words, our fear of being uncreative is exactly what leads us to be uncreative. Likewise, our fear of clichés leads to our use of clichés.
Kallas’s trick to overcome this tendency is twofold. First, she suggests that we stop second-guessing our first ideas. Stop trying to make them “more creative” or “more original.” That is an almost guaranteed way to invent unfamiliar characters we don’t understand — so they come across as fake.
Instead, Kallas suggests we write about our friends, our neighbors, our families, people who seem “normal” to us. By treating the “normal” and the “commonplace” with honesty, it will become fascinating, original, one of a kind. And we won’t have pulled out all of our hair while attempting to make it so.
The second trick is to adopt a lack of responsibility for what comes out of our brains. Separate ourselves from it, let it be what it is. Kallas writes:
The idea of a lack of responsibility may initially frighten us….As artists we feel responsible for the material we produce, and as a result [we] want to control and adapt it, because it does not measure up to our principles, or because we do not consider the material original enough. Yet if we try to do that, once we control and adapt, we will create the mathematical certainty of the opposite of what we intended.…The fact is that from the moment we assume that art is an expression of our ego, we are lost.
So stop trying to be so creative, trust the things you come up with, and don’t let yourself think it has anything to do with who you are as a person.
“While failure is guaranteed, the fear of failure is what gets in the way.”
“One of the most helpful tricks of creative screenwriting…is viewing human relations as a power game,” Kallas explains. “Events are of secondary importance in the relations between characters, as well as in human relations. What is important is whether someone ranks themselves, consciously or unconsciously, higher or lower than their opposite.”
Seeing the world this way automatically adds a dramatic edge to even the most ordinary situation. Suddenly, stories spring up all around us. Kallas suggests doing this exercise: “Spend a whole day in ‘status mode’ — observe, listen, watch from a distance, discuss, note dialogue and situations until you begin to grow antennae for the often quiet, hidden status game that surrounds us.”
Once we understand that this struggle for status is constant, it takes some of the creative weight off our shoulders. There are dramatic situations everywhere, calling for our attention. “A storyteller should forget that he is busy creating stories and begin to think in terms of function,” Kallas says. And then she quotes Keith Johnstone (a British and Canadian pioneer of improvisational theatre): “If I say, ‘Make up a story,’ then most people are paralyzed. If I say, ‘Describe a routine and then interrupt it,’ nobody has a problem with it.”
Again, the trick is to stop thinking in terms of “making up stories.” Instead, writers must understand the status structures all around us — and then disrupt them.
“Creative work must be as natural and easy as the five senses — thinking about success is often the biggest obstacle.”
Writing comes with a certain amount of guaranteed failure. It’s why writers are usually eczematous alcoholics. But while failure is guaranteed, the fear of failure is what gets in the way — leading writers to overthink, try to be too creative, and eventually lose all motivation to write. In order to create our best work, we have to approach writing with a certain amount of fearlessness, nonchalance.
“Creative work must be as natural and easy as the five senses,” Kallas writes, “and thinking about success is often the biggest obstacle. One of the most difficult things we must learn is to stop wanting to control the future, to empty our head and to wait and see what will come…”
So how can we get to this place? How can we empty our heads, calm down, and put something on the page? Kallas suggests simply trusting the law of quantity. Out of everything you write, maybe one in ten pieces will be any good. That’s the way writing works. So the secret is to do a lot of work, build a certain amount of waste into your process, and go into it expecting to be a failure — take the pressure off and just let yourself write.
Kallas: “The goal of the failure trick is to minimize our fear, because if we expect success, if we plan for it, if we put our hopes on it, this also means that we need success — and that we are afraid of failure. That fear blocks us. It is not so terrible to fall after all. At least we will be moving forward!”
Writing is such a mental game. In a lot of ways, it’s like playing a sport. You’re at your best when you’re calm, relaxed, fearless. But when you start trying too hard, the whole thing falls apart. (And just like in sports, it takes years to become a decent writer.) Hopefully a few of these tricks will help you get into that creative place more often — to no longer fear the commonplace, to see the drama in every moment, and to stop being afraid to fail.