Heidi’s Blog

Put Clay on the Table

We all felt a rush of joy and accomplishment when news broke that the WGA and AMPTP had reached an agreement to honor the value of our work. And then, like so many writers, I felt an “oh no, I didn’t get enough done during the strike” wave of anxiety. “Everyone will be querying now; everyone will be looking to fill slates!” I’ve seen other writers scramble to write a draft under pressure, and what happens when that draft doesn’t live up to our own expectations. “It needs to be perfect!” shouts the inner voice. And that’s when we get blocked.

We have just returned from our 2023 screenwriting retreat in Italy, where I was blown away by how much work the writers got done. There was some quality heavy lifting, digging into the pain and motivations of characters and story development. As we worked through each day’s assignments and discussed new tools, the writers worked hard to keep up and push themselves. When they started doubting themselves, it was because they were trying to mentally write several drafts at once.

Aside from haiku, screenwriting has more rules and format restrictions than any other form of writing. Of course, it’s good to keep them in mind as you lay down your rough draft. However, worrying about them too much can distract you from allowing yourself to just write.

At PageCraft, we encourage a lot of foundation work to know exactly what each scene’s function and purpose is before we write it. That ensures less wasted effort on pages we’ll just end up cutting. But there must still be room for exploration. “I’m not sure this is quite right,” was the most common thing I’d hear from one of our stopped writers.

“Write it anyway,” is my answer. This is a rough draft. It doesn’t have to sparkle perfectly in a polished format yet. It can have on-the-nose dialog. You’re just feeling your way through the voices now – you’ll submerge those obvious lines into subtext later. It can have overwritten action and scenes that start too soon and end too late – you’ll carve these into stronger scenes in the next draft.

When writers give themselves permission to write crappy dialog or saggy action, they allow their subconscious to explore what might be. When that part of our creative brains trusts that we’re not going to tell it to shut up, it’ll let all kinds of things flow. Have you ever heard a writer say, “I don’t even know how I got that scene; the characters just started talking to me.” Seek those moments.

“Put the clay on the table” became the refrain of our retreat. If you think of your script like a sculpture, the rough draft is the phase in which you put clay on the table. Everything you’re not sure you need, every turn you’re not sure will work – think of them as lumps of clay. You can’t sculpt from material you don’t have, so do your next draft a favor and give yourself raw material in this draft.

Strikes aside, we know that every production company is always looking to find gold, and every writer is always looking to put their work in front of the right people. Dismiss those panic voices saying you haven’t done enough. Relax, and focus. Give yourself crazy, misshapen, rich raw material to work with. You’ll carve beauty from it soon. Go put clay on the table.