Reader Question: How to balance screenwriting theory and the actual writing?

April 18th, 2012 by

From Traci Peterson:

I’m an intuitive/organic writer discovering the sometimes overwhelming scope of Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung’s influences on character and story.

Any suggestions on how to balance the two in order to get the first script down?

It can be overwhelming, especially on the front end of the process where a writer studies various theories, paradigms, and approaches to the craft. This is a necessary thing, at least for most writers, but how to make sense of all that information and intellectual stimuli? And then more to your point, how to balance all of those ideas with the actual practice of writing a story?

First off, I need to lay out my standard line: “There is no right way to write.” Every writer is different. Every story is different. Blake Snyder may work for Writer A, but not at all for Writer B, whereas Robert McKee may work for Writer C, but seem like a foreign language for Writer D.

Whenever you hear talk about a “writer’s voice,” this is part of that process. You learn what you learn, sort it out, pull together what works for you, and that becomes a key part of your voice.

With that frame, let me offer two words of advice on the matter. The first is a macro take, what we may call “A Writer’s Odyssey.” The second is a micro perspective, what we may call “Write Here, Write Now.”


The very first moment we open a book, read an article or take a class about screenwriting, we begin an odyssey, our own Hero’s Journey. Along the way, we may experience something like the stages below:

Some things we learn, stick. Others, don’t. Some things we learn, help. Others, hurt. We cross thresholds, we get knocked back. We feel high, we feel low. Things make sense, things confuse the hell out of us. But all along, we are learning how to think about the craft.

Along the way, we are also writing. Much of what we write doesn’t work. Some of it may downright suck. But the more we learn and process what we learn, the more we write and process what we write, we advance along in our odyssey, hopefully getting better as screenwriters.

Now I don’t believe this odyssey ever ends, we are always on the road to discovery. However whenever we write a script, I like to think of myself as having gone around the circle and wound my way back home. It’s important to claim that, to assert to yourself, “I’ve learned what I’ve learned, know what I know, I feel passion for this story, and I’m going to write the hell out of it.” You are home now. Don’t worry about what you’ve learned in the past or what you will learn in the future, just be here now as a writer in direct contact with your story in the present.

[By the way, after we finish a script, we go back out on the odyssey, learning more stuff until we come back home to write the next one.]


All that stuff you’ve learned, all the theories, paradigms and approaches, you can use them in prep-writing as you wrangle your story. But along the way of prepping your story, you increasingly need to trust your gut. Great stories require all aspects of the writing psyche, but perhaps nothing as important than your instincts. Ideally as you work your way through story prep, your gut will be taking over the decision-making process.

Once you type FADE IN, it’s time to take all that theory, all those approaches, all those paradigms, and set them over there. Clear them out of your consciousness.

Be. Here. Now. Just you. Your story universe. Your characters.

Engage all that narrative material directly, then —

Write here. Write now.

Naturally your theories, paradigms and approaches will creep into your mind. Don’t freak out. They’re trying to help you, they’re your friends and they’re useful in their own way. Just very nicely tell them, “Hey, theories. Thanks for dropping by. But you know what? I’m gonna go with my gut right now. You remember, we’ve talked about this. You were there to help me during prep. You’ll be there to help me after I get done with this draft. But right now, I’ve got to write now. So why don’t you and approaches and paradigms go off and play a few rounds of miniature golf or something. I’ll catch up with you in a month or two. Ciao!”

When you are page-writing, that’s all you’re doing. Engaging your creativity with the story universe and those characters, a direct experience of each scene in the here-and-now.

Dare I say it? You go… into… the… story… and write what emerges.

Now when I say to tell your theories and what-not, you’ll be calling on them in the assessment part of the rewrite stage, I mean that. You will want to apply that stuff in helping you pull the story together. Use them in prep, use them in analyzing your drafts and figuring out what to do in rewrites. But when you are page-writing, go with your gut. And write here, write now.

How about it, GITS readers? What Traci asks is a hugely important question. How do you find the balance between screenwriting theory and the actual writing?

5 thoughts on “Reader Question: How to balance screenwriting theory and the actual writing?

  1. Zyxpsilon says:

    Let me quote this; “…but perhaps nothing as important than your instincts.”

    That’s *IT*. You can have all the knowledge or the skills in the world – the only resource anyone can hold and control is imagination.

    Not thinking, not even reasoning. It’s a reflex created by the mind. Creativity is by definition instinctive.
    As a child, we’re all growing with and along it… the sum of anyone’s present has an origin – past experience(s).

  2. I’ve never thought of theory or the various methodologies as anything other than scaffolding on which to hang one’s ideas. At some point, the scaffolding has to be pulled away and whatever’s left behind has to stand on it’s own.

  3. Julie Gray says:

    I agree – set it and forget it. Learn that stuff, but then put it out of your mind completely until or unless you are analyzing a part of your story – then you may check your story against story paradigms you have learned But remember this: story theory is instinctual and hard-wired for humans. Somebody just wrote it down and called it fancy stuff :)

  4. Josh K-sky says:

    A good way to make sure you’re not using too much theory is to use too many theories. When I outlined the script I’m in a second draft on now, I went through the story using the Hero’s Journey, using the Blake Snyder Beat Sheet, using Scott’s Narrative Throughline, and even did a gloss using some of Robert McKee’s squares. Each tweaked it a little, but the overall effect was to get the story out. With that patchwork scaffolding to tell the story, the characters showed me how they needed to depart from it.

  5. Excellent point, the “book learnin’ ” scaffolds, frames, outlines before the actual writing.

    This conundrum caused me to worry there was a fundamental lack in my first draft writing process. Who do I listen to Blake/Campbell/etc. or BERNIE, (65) the Prison Guard who wants a dramatic entrance on page 98?

    *sigh of relief* I’ll go with Bernie.

    Great post and replies–thanks for answering my question, Scott and GITS!

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