Have you ever worked and worked and worked on a project, only to hit a dead-end? I have. More than once. There’s nothing more frustrating than  investing huge amounts of time and effort into an idea, only to discover you don’t know what the characters and plot want.

There’s a million tips and tricks out there, but what I’ve discovered recently addresses the problem at its root: often the quality of your writing is negatively affected by your attitude. That’s not a major revelation, sure, but I think you’ll be surprised at how I learned this.

Real Conflict

I had to scrap a string of writing projects recently, all seemingly because they became too big and complicated for their intended format. We wanted to tackle a 3 part web-series, much like Joss Wheadon’s Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, so it was super-important that the story be clearly portrayed in 3 fifteen-minute episodes.

After hitting yet another dead-end, I thought it would be helpful to break down Dr. Horrible and other similar web shows in terms of their main conflict. This is what I came up with:

“Dr. Horrible must choose between joining the Evil League of Evil or Penny, the girl of his dreams.”

Nothing ground breaking, but if you’ve seen the show, its simplicity cuts you to the core. I then looked at the last three projects I worked on, including the 2009 John Gray short film:


“SuperRay must choose between escaping into the outer reaches of space or saving Carl from a life of slavery.”

Project Logos:

“Ben must choose between escaping his life by committing suicide or saving Cecil from the bio-tech lab that hunts him.”

John Gray:

“John must choose between escaping into this work or mending his broken marriage.”

See a pattern? If I were to write out the conflicts I attempted in my three previous stories, they would all boil down to this:

“Character X wants to escape vs. face their destiny and responsibility”

The problem is that good conflict occurs when a character has to choose between two equally desirable (or negative) outcomes, and he can’t choose both. In Dr. Horrible’s case, he has to choose between his lifelong ambitions to join the Evil League, and the girl of his dreams, Penny, who is an avid humanitarian. He can’t have both, and his inability to choose has dire consequences.

If my characters have to choose between doing the right thing or giving up, of course they’re going to step up and do the right thing. That’s not much of a choice.

The Eye Opener

What does this have to do with my attitude? I wrote out the above conflict as a statement that any one of my characters could speak, and it looked like this:

“I don’t want to do this, but I have to.”

I about dropped my pen because in that moment I realized that that statement perfectly summed up my attitude while writing those stories. As clever and creative as I thought I was being, my frustration with having to push through difficult stories when my time could be better spent elsewhere leaked onto the page and soured my scripts.

When asked about his experiences crafting a story, Joss Wheadon said that for him “writing is pure joy,” and it shows.

Making Some Changes

If you’re like me and find that your negativity is holding you back, what can you do? I’m still growing in this area, but here’s a few things I’ve already found to be helpful:

  1. Be a fan! Watch and re-watch the shows you love. Share them with your friends. Talk about them.
  2. Read voraciously. The more awesome stuff you have in your head, the more awesome stuff you’ll put down on paper.
  3. Collaborate. Write with good friends. Sometimes the back and forth and bantering is all I need to get through moodiness.
  4. Put down stuck projects for a while. Try writing something totally different.

Have you experienced attitude related writing issues? What did you do to break through?

Dan Baker

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Dan works out his social anxieties by producing and directing films. He's a proud New Mexican, and prefers green over red.

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