95% of Writing is Problem-Solving

By April 29, 2016Blog, Featured

Billy Ray, screenwriter of Captain Phillips and The Hunger Games, was interviewed on the WGA’s podcast last year. Among other words of wisdom he had about screenwriting was this quote:

“If you are a mechanic, you wouldn’t go to Starbucks for two hours and wait for your muse to tell you what to do with a carburetor. You would just get under the hood, and fix the goddamn carburetor. And 95% of what we do is problem-solving. It’s really not waiting for a moment of artistic inspiration. It’s problem solving. ‘I need this character to get from this place in his arc to that place in his arc. How do I do that?’ And that’s all it is. It’s just grinding. And you want to be the person who does it the most, and the most cheerfully.”

This might sound kind of harsh or workmanlike on the surface, but really, in a way, it’s freeing. Because one of the biggest things that gets in the way of writers — and I definitely have suffered from this — is being too emotionally tied to what you write, to where your script IS you, and if anyone criticizes it, it’s like they’re condemning you, or at least your baby — which you are so egoistically connected to, that you can’t quite view it objectively.

It’s not so easy to avoid that trap, because the process of diving in deep with a story and characters — and nurturing it for months, while imbuing it with ideas and emotion that you worked hard at and feel strongly about — does tend to create a level of profound and sensitive identification with one’s work. And hearing people question elements of that can be really painful.

But it’s unnecessary pain, which gets in the way of doing one’s best work. And it only feeds that nefarious force inside you which Steven Pressfield, in The War of Art, calls “resistance” — that voice that tries to talk you out of pursuing your dreams, because “what’s the point, you can’t really succeed at it.”

What if, instead, we separated ourselves from our creations? What if we saw each of them more like machines we have built, which we know will need adjustments, perhaps large ones, before they will finally be able to go out into the world and be valued and essential products for millions of people? That can take some of the emotionality out of the whole process of getting feedback, and being faced with rethinking and rewriting.

So can this notion that all we really do is get under the hood and do the work. I love this idea that there’s nothing necessarily so personal, exalted, or fraught with emotion — and a sense of one’s personal value being on the line.  Instead, I can just sober-mindedly ask, “What needs fixing here?” And then set about trying to fix it. Knowing that it probably won’t be perfect on the first or second try, and being okay with that. And willing to do the work.

In a way, a screenplay or TV pilot script is like an idea for a business. It’s a bold suggestion of a potential product that could go out into the world and positively affect huge numbers of people. I’ve read a few articles about what entrepreneurs face in meetings with potential funders and business partners. It sounds like they face an absolute storm of criticism, and questioning of every aspect of what they have come up with. Much like screenwriters do.

Maybe for them, it’s easier to achieve emotional distance from their creation — knowing that the real goal is for it to be of great value to the world at large. Which is clearly no easy thing to achieve. And they know that there is a process for arriving at a place where it has the best chance at doing that. That process involves feedback from — and partnership with — a lot of smart and experienced people who give input along the way, and have to ultimately come on board, in order to help shepherd it through to possible eventual success. How is any of this that different from screenwriting?

I know, William Goldman wrote in Adventures in the Screenwriting Trade that “nobody knows anything,” but I think he meant that no one knew what will be a hit movie at any given time in the marketplace. Not that nobody knows anything about story, character, writing or what makes something potentially compelling and effective. Actually a lot of people know quite a lot about such things. And the consensus of opinions from such people are usually worth taking very seriously when writing and rewriting — with the understanding that no one person’s opinion is sacred, and success is never guaranteed. John August and Craig Mazin talked about how this quote often gets misapplied in an episode of their Scriptnotes podcast.

I agree with Billy Ray that the process of shaping an idea or script — to the point where it gradually impresses more and more such people who can help it move forward — is almost entirely one of problem-solving. It’s as simple as identifying what the problems are, and fixing them. And that’s what most writing is.

You might ask, then, “what is the role of ideas and inspiration?” I would say that ideas come when the writer has decided they’re looking for an idea, or a solution of some kind, and opens up their mind to one coming. The writer poses a question to whatever part of our mind generates and delivers such things, and then listens for the answer — or brainstorms their way to one. Really this is just a form of problem solving.

From the moment I have an idea for a script, I am immediately faced with problems to solve — questions about how to make it work, what should happen when, and a myriad of potential decisions to make. You could say that each of these is a “problem,” until a solution has been decided on and executed. And we build a script piece by piece, solving each of these “problems” as they occur.

Maybe that sounds too negative. Maybe it’s more attractive to say that the process is one of continually generating ideas and answers, of digging deeper and finding the best choices in order to populate a story and script most compellingly. But either way, my point is that you can demystify the process — and take some of the emotional sturm and drang out of it — by seeing it as one of rolling up one’s sleeves, looking at what needs to solved, and then solving it, one decision at a time.

And finally, by remembering that when others weigh in, it’s not you they’re weighing in on. It’s this machine of emotion, story and character that you have constructed. And it will probably need input from people like them — and your continued problem-solving efforts — over some length of time, before it will finally arrive at its best possible version. At least, this is what I tell myself when I submit my work for feedback from people. And it seems to go a lot better that way.

This post originally appeared on Hollywood screenwriter Erik Bork’s blog and consulting website Flying Wrestler. Bork is best known for his work on the HBO miniseries Band of Brothers and From the Earth to the Moon, for which he wrote multiple episodes, and won two Emmy and two Golden Globe Awards as part of the producing team. He has also sold series pitches (and written pilots) at NBC and FOX, worked on the writing staff for two prime time dramas, and written feature screenplays on assignment for companies like Universal, HBO, TNT, and Playtone. He teaches screenwriting for UCLA Extension, National University, and The Writers Store, and offers one-on-one consulting to writers.

He originally got his start as an assistant to Tom Hanks, who gave him the opportunity to help him write and produce From the Earth to the Moon, after reading some sitcom spec scripts he had written. He is currently represented by Creative Artists Agency.