What Screenwriters Can Do When Lost in the First Draft

by Jason Hellerman - updated on April 13, 2016

"Help, I’m stuck!"

Those three words are what writers fear the most. We’ve all had it happen, whether it happens on page 50, 150, or even page five. You get to a point in your story and you have no idea where to go. This wandering can usually be cut in half if you have a decent outline to work off of but like many writers, I find the story wants to take certain turns I never anticipated and those can lead down the rabbit hole. Soon, you're far away from where you wanted to be and have no idea how to get home.



Shaking the sense of dread is never easy but there are lots of things you can do to get back on track. One thing I like to monkey around with is having the character do something that completely changes the story. Something that makes a scene or character go insane. Something you honestly cannot come back from and that will change the course of events forever. It's actually really fun.

This sounds ludicrous but think about the way Marian “dies” in Raiders of The Lost Ark, Cypher giving up Neo and Morpheus in The Matrix, or the way Han Solo was frozen in carbonite in The Empire Strikes Back.


Those were distinct choices to go against the grain of the traditional narrative to reveal layers of the people involved as well as break up the middle of the story and remind us that these people are dealing with life and death.  They enforce the humanity at stake and are genuine surprises.

Another tactic that helps and can be fun is changing the gender of some of your leads. Go back to page one and make it Indiana Jane – Sarah Skywalker – anything to make the challenges and scenes feel fresh. A lot of times you will see the story with new eyes and subtext.

If these tricks don’t help then maybe it’s time to step away for a few hours.


Long walks or bike rides really help get the brain moving. Just make sure you take your notebook with you in case.

Head to a part of town you’ve never really seen before, try a new coffee shop, or change up your routine. I can’t tell you how many times it’s helped me to leave my normal coffee shop and take a tour of Los Angeles.

In the end what you’re looking for is the elusive muse. Inspiration. There’s no tactic or remedy that is universal. Lots of the Beats got stoned, Brendan Behan used to get piss-drunk, Hemingway used to fight. Sometimes you have to get a jolt. I prefer caffeine to a punch in the face, but I’m always game for a pint. Who knows, if I'm stuck long enough I may ask my roommate to lace up his boxing gloves.

What if nothing works?

Keep writing. Try and get back on the roll that got you where you were. If all else fails open a new document and write something new. It’s all about persistence. Resilience is your friend.


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