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What Can Screenwriters Get Out of Therapy?

What can screenwriters get out of therapy? Here’s the simple answer: Therapy can help screenwriters lead happier, more fulfilling lives by providing a way to develop a stronger sense of awareness about how the things they do and say contribute to any feelings of unhappiness or dissatisfaction with their lives, to discover the unidentified reasons behind the decisions they make that put themselves in situations that they identify as unhappy or dissatisfactory, and ultimately shine a light on their path in life that can lessen the power behind the forces that lead them to feel bad or guilty or unsatisfied or depressed or anxious about that path.


Okay, so that’s so simple. In fact, one could come up with a much longer answer if one wanted to, but if one was to try and focus more on how being in therapy can help screenwriters become better screenwriters, one might ask a question more like this: How can being in therapy help screenwriters become better screenwriters?


I’m glad you asked.


Let’s say you’re watching a movie where the main character does something that we might consider “out of character”. What exactly does it mean to act out of character? It’s a phrase that we use all the time, but we don’t always think so deeply about what it really means or how it can be defined differently by different people (which is another approach we use in therapy, stopping and thinking more deeply about phrases we use all the time and assume we all have the same definitions of, but I’ll save that topic for another article). 


To me, a character acts out of character when they do something that seems to be less  in line with how we think that character would truly react in a given situation, and more in line with what the screenwriter needs that character to do in order to service the plot. 


The first situation that comes to find for me after reading the previous sentence is the horror movie heroine who, instead of jumping in her car and driving directly to the nearest police station, walks up to the slightly ajar front door of the creepy house to investigate the source of that muffled plaintive wailing. Now, a character doing something so plot focused in this situation doesn’t necessarily bump me. It’s not like I’m not buying into this moment because the screenwriter hasn’t set up that this heroine has an insatiable sense of curiosity caused by a childhood experience where information was withheld from her that caused a traumatic situation, and because of this traumatic childhood experience she often avoids taking the logical action in order to satisfy this extreme curiosity in such situations. No, I’m okay with what this character does in this situation because it’s a horror movie, it’s a genre piece, and that’s what characters in these movies do. 


The characters doing things out of character moments I’m speaking of more specifically are less specific. I’m not going to list here moments from individual movies where characters do things that I sense are in the service of the plot and thus frustrating to me as a viewer, mainly because I can’t think of any specific moments like that right now since I often feel strongly about them in the moment but then quickly forget about them after I leave the theater or turn off the tv. But trust me when I say I have seen movies where I feel frustrated when I feel like characters do things I feel are out of character. 


However, a feeling of frustration does not always indicate a sense of dissatisfaction with a character’s actions. Many times a feeling of frustration ensues after seeing a character do something that we don’t want them to do, but it’s still extremely satisfying to see them do it because we understand why they are doing it. The husband who has a loving wife and a happy life who throws it all away by engaging in an affair that is doomed to be discovered. The gruff hero who, after getting the money promised to him by the princess who just needed a ride to a distant planet but now finds herself outnumbered and outgunned by the villain’s henchmen, decides to help her against his own better judgement. The athlete who has all the physical tools to rise to the top of his field but finds himself taking actions that are so self destructive and in conflict with this goal that he struggles to succeed. We say that these characters are their own worst enemies because they do and say things that undermine what they think it is that they want to achieve in order to be happy. Characters with arcs like this frustrate me, but this frustration feels good, and I think that’s because even though the character is doing what I do not want them to do, they’re doing it for reasons that we can understand, that makes sense based on who we know them to be. They are taking actions that are in character. 


When I was a young screenwriter (Final Draft on floppy disks old) I read everything I could about the process of screenwriting. One of the many schools of thought I encountered was concerned with the different approaches to developing stories. On one side was the approach where a screenwriter worked out the story beat by beat, figuring out everything that needed to happen before commencing with the actual writing of the script, developing a reliable road map to follow during the process. On the other side was the approach that involved developing the characters first and then exploring what happens in the story based on what motivations and desires the characters revealed to the screenwriter as the more mysterious and unpredictable exploration of these characters and what they wanted took place. 


For my whole career as a screenwriter, I was firmly in the first camp. I loved to outline, to work out every detail in the story, think of every twist, to have some jokes already written that served both the comedy and the theme, to have a well thought out road map ready before I ever got into the car. Today, after working as a therapist, I think that if I were to sit down and write a screenplay I would fall into the second camp. I would have a general idea of what the story might be, but I would focus more on the characters, thinking about what makes them tick, embracing the mystery of not knowing exactly what they might want or do but open to letting them tell me. 


As a young screenwriter I would often mock other screenwriters who said things like “I just sit down and let the characters tell me what they want to do”, or “I didn’t really know what my screenplay was about until my characters told me” or “I just sold a pitch”. This seemed lazy to me, as if I were the one doing the real grunt work, putting in the time and effort to make sure my script had a strong foundation before starting to build it, while these other screenwriters weren’t willing to put in the real work necessary to build their screenplay house. But now, though my experience working with clients in talk therapy, I can see how much there is to be learned when we don’t come into the office with a plan, when we can be brave enough to come in with an open mind and few expectations, embracing the fear of the unknown with the faith that we will eventually know what we need to know, even if we won’t know what that is.


Have you heard of that screenwriting exercise where you sit down and open a page of dialogue for your main character and just type whatever you think might come into their mind? That’s the kind of shit I would never do when I was starting out, but now I can see the point of it. Let’s say you’re writing a scene and you’re stuck. You can’t explain exactly why, but the words just don’t flow. Even though you know what needs to happen in this scene you just can’t seem to write it. What do you do? I know that in that past I might have gotten up and taken a shower, or went for a walk, or did research on my multiple league championship winning fantasy football team waiver wire pick ups, and then I would have come back to the same scene in the same spot and tried again. I would have changed some external considerations but not addressed anything internally. I would have pressed pause, walked away, and then come back to find myself in the exact same situation.


Now I can see the value of having a less structured approach. If I could travel back in time and talk to myself as a younger writer in that situation, I would tell myself to buy bitcoin but sell it when I saw Matt Damon in a commercial for it. Then I would encourage myself to try the character talking about whatever they want to talk about exercise. To stop thinking about what I needed to happen in the story, what I thought the character should do or feel in order to service the story I intended to tell, and instead give myself up to the mystery of being curious about what the character actually thinks and feels, and to embrace the fear and anxiety of not already knowing what that is. By removing our expectations and preconceptions we can give our characters the freedom to explore what they really feel, and by asking them seemingly simple questions and being open to the seemingly simple answers we might learn things about our characters that allow us to deepen them, to find complexity in what seemed very basic before, and we might even realize that the story we wanted to tell is simple and basic compared to the story we can now visualize based on what we’ve learned about our characters. We might find that there was a compelling, original, surprising story inside our characters just waiting to be told if only we could be curious and open enough and trusted the process of exploration and discovery, even if we didn’t know how it was going to turn out when we first started.


That’s therapy. 


In therapy, I’m the screenwriter and my client is the character. My job is to be curious, to ask questions, to encourage them to drop their preconceived notions about why they do what they do and feel how they feel, and to be curious at a basic level about who they really are and what has made them that way. If I come into session with an outline already written, with an idea about how I think a client should feel, or what I think their “problem” is, and then spend that hour guiding them to fit into my outline I’m going to end up with a paint by numbers script that lack originality and a true voice. Instead, I start each session ready to wander, to be open to going in directions I had never considered and ask questions that seem so simple that we assume we know the answers to, but when we start to actually answer those questions we find the answers aren’t as simple as we had originally thought. This can often take us on tangents, which clients often apologize for, meaning they feel obligated to answer the questions asked without wandering too far from them, but I reassure them that the whole point of talk therapy is to explore these tangents, because it is the targets that leads us to the material we would benefit the most from exploring. 


Through this process of therapy a client might end up learning things about themselves they never really knew. Or to be more specific, a client might realize that the way they had thought about themselves and who they are and why they are who they think they are had been formed long ago and never reconsidered, and that over the years these preconceived ideas, this well thought out outline, had caused them to paint themselves into a corner, to end up writing a scene in which they feel stuck, and that questioning these preconceived ideas about themselves and being open to going on a tangent can empower them to become aware of the many possibilities they were denying themselves and open up the floodgates of possibility, allowing them to see that the screenplay of their lives could be much richer and satisfying than the one that would result from following the outline they had already decided would be their blueprint. 


And now for the callback: What can screenwriters get out of therapy? They can learn how much information and detail and depth there is inside themselves if they are open to engaging with the fear, anxiety, and uncertainty involved in questioning the story they’ve developed about themselves. They can also learn to approach their characters in the same way. This sense of self awareness, of being curious about ourselves and the reasons behind why we do the things we do, and the realization that sometimes the best scripts are a result of going off script, can lead us to lead happier, more fulfilling lives, and also write screenplays that we are happier with, and feel more fulfilling. 

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