In his book “Which Lie Did I Tell?”, William Goldman interviews fellow screenwriters about the craft of writing. He talks about when you get into a spot and you don’t know what happens next, and the Farrelly brothers’ answer surprised me:
Peter Farrelly: You said once you were in a spot where you didn’t know what was going to happen next.
Bobby Farrelly: Well, that’s we do. We write ourselves into a corner purposely-
Peter: Because we think if we can go into a corner where there’s no way out, and then we take a week . . . and we find a reasonable way out without making it absurd, then nobody in the audience is going to sit there and get it within a minute and get ahead of us.
Goldman theorized that they could work out of corners because there were two of them, and was hesitant to recommend this to the solo writer. He says he can’t work this way, because “there’s only me, trapped helpless in my pit, no way out.”
I agree with Goldman. And the Farrelly brothers.
Writing into corners isn’t a great plan. It’s time consuming. If you hope to keep up any kind of pace (and sanity), then “taking a week” or however long it takes seems soul-crushing. You lose momentum. And being “trapped” and “helpless” is unpleasant.
When a dead-end happens, maybe it’s best to set the piece aside and start something else.
On the other hand, when I do find myself in a corner, I take solace thinking there are people—famous, successful screenwriting brothers—who do this on purpose.
And I realize, if I can work it out, I may just come up with something really clever. Or at least something the reader can’t anticipate.
I write a series of detective stories featuring a riverboat gambler from the 1950s named Henry. I never plan on it, but his stories get complicated. They seem to always have two or three plot twists too many. I love a twisty plot but in Henry’s world of murderers, gamblers and con artists, the complexity can get confusing. Which is not entertaining.
It has been become so common that I now have go-to remedies I rely on to guide me back to land:
There’s something about taking the steady pace of a walk that can help. I also talk to myself a lot, so I make sure to wear ear buds so people think I’m on the phone.
2. Find one solution for two problems.
For whatever reason, I usually find that if I can’t quite figure out, say, a character’s motive for murder, then there’s usually a complementary problem I’m ignoring. This seems to work a lot. I’m not sure why but I am sure I don’t want to question it.
3. Take away the complexity.
Here’s where talking to yourself really helps. Complex plots often tangle because, by the virtue of writing a mystery, you’re writing the events backwards – from crime to motive. By saying what happened in order, in plain terms, and reminding yourself constantly why people are doing what they’re doing—you can at least untangle things.
4. The last resort: Rewrite.
Sometimes the problem doesn’t have a solution, and you have to back up and start over. It’s unpleasant, but if you do throw out what you’ve written and find yourself somehow relieved—you know you did the right thing.
And if you take solace in anything, just know that when William Faulkner and Leigh Brackett were adapting Raymond Chandler’s “The Big Sleep” for the big screen, they couldn’t figure out who murdered the Sternwood chauffeur. So they called Chandler. He didn’t know either.