Writer/Director Shane Black Explains Why Screenwriting Never Gets Easier & Why That's a Good Thing
For those of us who have experienced the throes of screenwriting; from the writer's block, the sleeplessness, to the social awkwardness felt when communicating with people outside of your story world, the message from Writer/Director Shane Black is strangely comforting. After years of writing, bolstering your literary toolbox, and seeing your efforts fail more often than they succeed, Black consoles us with the promise that it never gets any easier -- but that's a good thing.
Considered one of the pioneer screenwriters of the action genre, Black found initial success with Lethal Weapon. His melancholic and edgy style as well as his knack for character development is imprinted on his works like Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and The Long Kiss Goodnight. A recent Film School Rejects article describes his presumption in his early years that screenwriting gets easier after you finish your first screenplay. Black says:
Here’s what I didn’t know when I was starting out that I now know -- I thought when you were starting out it was really hard to write because you hadn’t broken in yet, you hadn’t really hit your stride yet. What I found out paradoxically is that the next script you write doesn’t get easier because you wrote one before. . . each one gets harder by a factor of 10.
New writers approach their work with vigor and dauntless optimism, and may be convinced in the beginning that even if it seems impossible to finish a script, let alone a good one, eventually the tools you pick up as time goes on will serve to make the entire process a little easier.
But, according to Black, that's not the case. It's not a matter of "getting on a roll" or "being in the zone," because even if you're a great screenwriter, the craft itself is merciless. Even the best writers fall into slumps and have to confront massive writer's block. However, the joy of screenwriting doesn't come from its ease, but its difficulty.
And part of why writers come back to their work time and time again -- even if they feel like they can't find something to say -- is the hope of being able to dive back into the world they started to create -- to meet with the characters they've come to love and relate to. And that's just it -- it's more difficult to write something when you've lost your passion for the project.
Black describes when he applied for the Academy of Motion Pictures, and was denied a membership for his "lack of substantive work":
I thought, 'Man, people must hate me if they are not going to let me in their club after I’ve made six movies.’ So it was strange. It was almost as if writing movies had given people one more reason to hate me, or dislike or resent me. And I just want to tell a story -- I think in the back of my mind I was thinking, ‘I’m going to show them, I’m not going to write an action picture. I’m going to show them I can do more.’
And he attempted to do so. He tried his hand at writing a romantic comedy to convince others that he was serious about screenwriting. When fellow screenwriter James Brooks (Terms of Endearment, As Good As It Gets) approached him after reading several pages of his new project, Brooks knew something was amiss:
He said, 'You know, really like what you are doing but it’s wandering.' I said, 'I know, I feel like I’m sort of at sea, I’m not on quite familiar ground.' He said maybe it was because I was trying to take too much of a leap from action pictures when part of the charm of my work was melancholy and edginess.
There are some writers who can transcend genre or master several of them, but for the most part, I think most tend to play to their strengths. It's easy to see the projects that get optioned, get made, and sell tickets at the box office, and it's even easier to turn towards those approaches in times of test. But, Black says don't do it:
Brooks said he always pictured me doing something like Chinatown which was character driven with a lot of twists. I thought, 'Okay, that’s what I’ve been doing wrong.' What I really wanted to write was a murder mystery with romance in it. The edge was coming off this romantic piece and rendering it vicious and distasteful, and it wasn’t funny -- I should have written what I felt like writing.
Screenwriting is a lot like life -- it's hard -- and it will never be easy. The muscles you strengthen to run a marathon don't make the race any shorter, but at least you know what it takes to finish. According to many screenwriters, that's all you need to focus on -- finishing.
Black shows us that it's easy to lose your way when pressure is put on you to conform to what's popular -- and some may not mind the change. For those that do, however, returning to what you know, embracing your unique perspective, and reinforcing your signature style is sometimes all it takes to gain perspective and return to your work.
It may never be easy, and eventually it's going to kill you, but the journey is always worth it.
What are your experiences screenwriting? How do you deal with the challenges that you face while writing a script?