On Writer’s Block, Research and Character Backstory (Superstar Screenwriters Training Session Transcript)

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A training session transcript: Writer’s Block, Research and Character Backstory (published with the gracious permission from the student).

The Student

Hello there !

Dimitri Vorontzov

Hello!

We’ll start in a couple of hours, but in the meantime I want to ask you: In a perfect world, what things about screenwriting would you want to learn from me during that session?

Is there anything specific that you feel would be most valuable to you?

The Student

I think building characters back stories is something I’d like to be more knowledgeable about.

Dimitri Vorontzov

Can you tell me why this interests you most of all — the backstories?

The Student

Because I’ve found that that the reason I would get writers block would be because I don’t know enough about the character I’m writing about, so I’ve taken to trying to create vast backstories so as I know exactly how a character would act in a situation.

Dimitri Vorontzov

OK. Got it. Interesting. Let me ponder on this a bit before our session.

The Student

Okay thank you 🙂

Dimitri Vorontzov

I am ready to rock ’n’ roll!

The Student

Let’s do it!

Dimitri Vorontzov

So — you mentioned a few things there that are of interest to me.

You said that the reason you get the writers’ block is because you don’t know enough about your characters. So you work through their back story to get to know them better.

The Student

Yes, that’s right.

Dimitri Vorontzov

So, writer’s block.

You know, what you said was very interesting because I believe this was a perfect example of a mistaken self-diagnosis.

You said that you get writer’s block because you don’t know much about your characters, so you then start creating their backstories to get to know them better.

If I just took your word for it, I would probably start healing a wrong illness.

Because I don’t think your challenge really has anything to do with character backstories.

The Student

Okay, do you have a theory about what it might be ?

Dimitri Vorontzov

I have a “practice” about what it is.

I most certainly think that “writer’s block” is a myth.

Nobody ever heard of a “dentist’s block” or a “bus driver’s block”.

Noe is there such a thing as a “bricklayer’s block”, “waiter’s block” or a “dog walker’s block”.

Why would writing be different?

The Student

Perhaps it has to do with hesitating about which path to take with the story, then.

Dimitri Vorontzov

Indeed, that’s part of it. So, what is usually seen as “writer’s block” maybe caused by a number of things, and those are different phenomena entirely.

One of them is “writer’s burnout”.

A bus driver who works three long shifts in a row could experience a “bus driver burnout”.

It’s simply physical and mental exhaustion, not a block.

The Student

That, too makes a lot of sense.

Dimitri Vorontzov

In this case, the solution is, set the writing project aside for some time, walk, ride a bike, go for a swim, etc.

Even if you’re battling a tough deadline, set the work aside even for 5 minutes. Watch a scene from a movie.

Smoke a joint. Etc.

The burnout happens to writers who work a lot. It’s a good problem to have.

I do get burned out sometimes.

I work on 2–3 dozens of students’ stories per day, so it can get intense.

The Student

Wow.

That would burn anyone out lol.

Are they similar to mine?

(In terms of content.)

Dimitri Vorontzov

They are all very different. Every genre. style and medium possible.

From teenage horror to heavy medical drama, from manga to TV, etc.

The Student

Wow.

Dimitri Vorontzov

Yeah, It’s fun! So, there’s another form of a “writer’s block”, which is a separate thing entirely.

This second form of writer’s block is fear.

The Student

I think for me, fear of how much research definitely plays a big part

It’s not that I wouldn’t do the research, it’s that I kind of struggle with knowing how to go about doing it.

Dimitri Vorontzov

I’ll tell you!

Research is not an answer.

Thank you for bringing it up.

Research is not your friend.

Research is the enemy of a writer. Research is what will ensure that your story will never get written.

The Student

How does one go about writing such a story then?

Dimitri Vorontzov

You know when you do research? After you finished your “draft zero”.

Or way before you got a story idea.

For example, right now I work with a student and we are blasting through a super-cool movie script which takes place in a circus.

Neither student nor I know much about the realities of a circus day-to-day operations, but it doesn’t matter to us now because the story is about relationships.

I want that student to to blast through the script. So — we should be done in about 1–2 more weeks. We started about 5 days ago.

That student had been with me for about 9 months now, so he’s a pretty fast writer by now. He’s a “greenbelt”, not a “whitebelt” anymore.

So after he’s done writing, I’ll give him the list of books to read about circus, so that he can update the script to make it more plausible.

Because you can always tweak things.

The Student

So, I should write my script and then fine-tune it later on.

Dimitri Vorontzov

Yes — my recommendation is to wait till you have draft zero finished until you dive into the research. This way you are researching for something specific — something you know you need for your draft, rather than studying a ton of material, without compass.

The Student

That is solid advice. Thank you!

And that be the format for me from now on.

Dimitri Vorontzov

On the other end of the spectrum, there’s a writer whose name is Jim Grant, also known by his pen name, Lee Child. Ever heard of him?

The Student

Yes I have.

Dimitri Vorontzov

So, I can’t bet on how he approaches his writing, but he shows every sign of being a lover of non-fiction books and magazine articles. The guy must be a voracious reader of non-fiction.

The Student

I see.

Dimitri Vorontzov

I am quite certain that he finds all his story ideas in the nonfiction books he reads. He travels a lot, promoting his books, and he probably reads on planes, etc. Bumps into “the thing” his next novel may be about. Writes the novel without outline (he already has the “template” in his head, so he doesn’t need no stinking outline).

So his research is pretty much done before he even got the idea for his story.

The idea for the story comes out of the research that he does quite aimlessly, just for the sheer pleasure of reading nonfiction.

The Student

Awesome!

Dimitri Vorontzov

Moving on!

Back to the writer’s block. Fear is a huge factor, and a separate kind of “writer’s block”. A writer may find himself/herself terrified of the magnitude of the task, or of a certain really challenging problem — and that writer would be stuck and reluctant to start approaching the story or a scene.

There’s a solution for that, other than research, which I’ll tell you about in a moment.

The Student

OK.

Dimitri Vorontzov

There’s one more kind of “writer’s block” — and that one is something that I do feel sometimes, too. Hatred to story material.

So, besides teaching writers I also do story editing for film and script rewrites.

And, you know, I have a family to support, and general willingness to write anything that comes my way, to expand my skill-set and my horizons. And most of the time it’s a lot of fun!

But every now and then I get a doozy.

So, I get paid to do this, and I do it well. But I have to push my way through “Jesus. This story is so not me!” — And then I make my peace with it, and eventually I begin to love that story. :-)

The Student

So, how do you do it?

That would be a tall order.

Dimitri Vorontzov

It’s not easy for me emotionally, but it is easy for me professionally.

And I have to tell you who I learned this from.

So, I was a musician before I became a writing teacher.

And being a musician actually still helps me a lot in being both a teacher and a writer. Music — classical music especially — is a great source of knowledge for a storyteller.

So, my music professor told me about “the fear of the blank page”, as described by a great XXth century composer Igor Stravinski

Stravinski typically wrote his music because he was commissioned to.

Dimitri Vorontzov

And Stravinski, according to my professor, suffered from tremendous “fear of the blank page” before approaching every project. And then, Stravinski told himself, “I have my rhythms. I have my polyphony, I have my instrumentation, I have my little melodic patterns, I have my harmony knowledge — I’ll be OK.”

The Student

So, just persevere, with breaks to stop the mental and physical exhaustion?

Dimitri Vorontzov

Not quite. Not just persevere.

Do not persevere. If you stare dully on the blank page, until your forehead bleeds, chances are, the ideas might never come.

The blood might come, but not ideas.

What you do instead — you rely on your techniques.

You rely on your toolkit. On the little tricks you amassed.

Guess what my Instagram page is? (And my new Facebook page?)

Free tools.

“Thingies” to use when you’re stuck.

The Student

I’ve gathered ! Have appreciated them very much so.

It’s a writers’ bible!

Dimitri Vorontzov

Thank you!

So, instead of relying on “brute force” in dealing with burnout, hatred of the material or fear of blank page — tell yourself that you are not going into it unarmed.

You are equipped with everything you know about writing. So, you pick a tool — maybe even at random — and try to apply it to the problem. If the problem is solved by a screwdriver, but you applied a soldering iron, you will simply say to yourself, ok, this is not the right tool for this problem, let me try a screwdriver.

The Student

Yes, you’re right.

Dimitri Vorontzov

Thanks for calling my Instagram “a writer’s bible”.

I refer to it as “A speck of ice at the very tip of a huge and really cool iceberg. Would you like to own the iceberg?” That’s my standard sales pitch.

By the way, please check out some of my videos over the next couple of weeks. I’m dumping a whole bunch of tools out into the world.

The Student

I’ll keep both eyes out for sure.

Dimitri Vorontzov

Cool — I just posted one about 30 min ago.

Both here in Facebook and on Instagram — I will follow up with three more today, I think.

The Student

Those tools need to get more stamped into my head so that I can just use them on command.

Dimitri Vorontzov

Or you can do something simpler — list them on a piece of paper or in a file.

Have a list with descriptions.

The Student

I’m gonna make some cards with them on so that I can have them in physical form too, I think.

Dimitri Vorontzov

OK, cool. So, there’s one more thing — and this one is the most insidious one that plagues many inexperienced writers.

One more form of the writer’s block. Common to all human beings in its non-writing form. Strangely, very few writers consciously figure out how to deal with it — but many experienced ones figure it out unconsciously.

For you we’ll make it conscious.

A brain is an organ.

The most complex organ in the entire body, but still, a physical organ.

It has physical limitations, like any other physical organ.

Exhaustion affects it, not having enough sleep affects it, information overload affects it, emotional state you’re in, things that happened today that distract you from writing, all of that affects the brain’s ability to perform as a physical organ.

You had a meal. it affects the brain’s ability to perform. Writing in the wrong time of day (biorhythms are very real and they affect the body and the brain).

The Student

Something to be mindful of.

Definitely.

Dimitri Vorontzov

So, something is to be said about first of all keeping your brain in good shape. Give it enough practice — read, play chess, study exotic languages, learn something new intellectually challenging. This is your daily workout for the brain. Also — exercise physically: jog, run, swim, bike etc. Keep the capillaries pushing blood through the brain.

Dimitri Vorontzov

But there’s a much more insidious thing here. The real cause of the “writer’s block”: writing cold.

Writing on the “cold brain”.

Writing cold, on the cold brain, is unproductive, difficult, and results in sub-par output.

The Student

Feel like I’ve done a lot of that in the past and have gotten rather frustrated.

Dimitri Vorontzov

So what happens to many writers — even very talented ones — they get home from work, tired they eat, they fire up their laptop and then they “don’t feel it”. They try typing their story, some garbage comes out, they get frustrated, type some more garbage and after about 30 minutes or an hour get so angry with themselves and their story that they just close the laptop and leave the project.

Next day the same.

The day after next, they try waking up at 5 in the morning and write then. Same thing, didn’t get enough sleep, writing garbage, get angry, and go to work like that. Stay angry all day, come back home, try to write, rubbish comes out, anger. Close the file.

After a couple of weeks like that, they abandon the project. After a few projects like that, they abandon writing.

Which is tragic because they are probably really talented people!

But all this time they were writing cold.

What does it mean?

It means that they didn’t bother to warm up their brain before giving it challenging tasks.

Ask any athlete: is it a good idea to run, jump, do martial arts, lift weights, box etc. without warming up first? Will they perform well or will they injure themselves?

Any athlete would answer that the stupidest thing to do would be doing the real athletic activity without warming up first.

Warming up a physical organ may take 15–30 minutes.

Or you can do it really thoroughly (if you plan to go high-performance), and slowly, gently warm up for a whole hour.

The brain is exactly the same. It’s just another physical organ. It needs a warm-up.

This is the little secret that can make you a happy writer.

The Student

Thank you!

Dimitri Vorontzov

You’re very welcome.

Just warm up before you start writing. Warm up by doing some fun stuff.

The Student

I hadn’t thought about it quite like that.

Dimitri Vorontzov

I like writing stunts as a warmup. Something for your stunt team in the movie to figure out how to do.

The Student

I will try that!

Dimitri Vorontzov

This warms up your logic. imagination and visual centers in the brain.

Write snippets of dialogue (warm up your audio centers). Write clever description of noises!

Write special effects. Write a really inventive description of a horror monster.

Write a paragraph or three in a different language.

Write a whole page of stuff backwards.

If you’re used to using a laptop — grab a notebook and fill 3–4 pages with anything, writing with a pen. Switch to pencil and write 3–4 more.

Take that notebook to a mirror and write in mirror letters, like Leonardo da Vinci wrote his diaries.

Write an angry letter to somebody who offended you, from real life (without sending it out).

Write a love letter to somebody you liked, and never had a chance to tell them.

Write a few dozens titles for stories. Imagine the coolest or craziest titles and write 25 or 50 of them.

Brainstorm a few dozen story ideas. They don’t have to be good — it’s just your warm-up.

By that time you will be “in the zone”.

The Student

I will do all of these things over time.

Dimitri Vorontzov

Awesome. Once you’ve done that — once you’ve warmed-up — now you can grab your cards with your techniques and start applying them to your real project.

After you warmed up, you can really use your tools well.

The Student

Thank you!

Dimitri Vorontzov

My pleasure. Moving on!

There’s one more form of writer’s block, known as “One-Itis”.

The Student

Okay, how does it work? Or, not work, rather. LOL.

Dimitri Vorontzov

A writer, ideally, should be head-over-heels about a story he or she is writing. But, the writer should not see it as “the perfect” story, one-and-only story.

If anything, it would probably work best if the writer thinks of it as a “disposable”, “expendable” story.

It’s like having a crush on somebody and screwing it up because you overcommit and do something dumb, to embarass that person or turn them off by being needy.

It’s like in dating.

If you see that person as perfect — the only girl / guy for you, he / she is the one — etc. — very early on in the relationship, before you really get to know them for who they are — chances are, this relationship is not going to work out. Because you overcommit.

You have to not see that story as “too perfect”. It’s just another story! Do not write it to be perfect, do not obsess about it — do not get overexcited, curb your enthusiasm.

And — my recommendation, from experience — work on multiple writing projects.

“Date many people”.

The Student

I have a few going at the moment.

And a few scripts too, haha! 😉

Dimitri Vorontzov

Treat each of them with love and respect they all deserve, but know that you have others.

Play the field. Juggle.

Thinking of any story as “this is the one” is a recipe for not finishing this story, because as you write it, you’d aim for perfection, but what your need to aim for is “completion”.

You gotta score with that story. Get to the third base (act).

The Student

Thank you.

All these things will work well together

Dimitri Vorontzov

All that counts is finishing. You can always tweak, rewrite, elevate later.

And finally, there’s the most fundamental form of “writer’s block”: lack of skills.

Lack of tools.

Dimitri Vorontzov

It’s as if Igor Stravinski stared at the blank page — but, he did not have his rhythms, math, melodies, instrumentation, and so on.

Or imagine every actor’s worst nightmare, the actor’s dreaming that he has to perform on stage, has to go and act now — but he doesn’t know his lines.

Or, and he forgot to put on his pants and his underwear.

That sure is the “actor’s block”

The Student

There’s a place for actors like him, LOL!

Dimitri Vorontzov

Wow, that would make an awesome porn script!

The Student

Let’s pitch it!

Dimitri Vorontzov

Yes we should!

So I think we pretty much covered the writer’s block.

Not having the tools in your toolbox is the most important cause of that thing.

The Student

Which the bible can fix haha!

(Your bible. LOL!)

Think ill be making a visit to the toolbox next! LOL.

Dimitri Vorontzov

Actually, that “bible” is probably not enough.

It literally reflects, I’m not exaggerating, 0.000000000000000000000001% of what I really teach.

I mean, with the screenplay structure game and the videos I’m dumping into it now, it still doesn’t even remove a single zero from that number.

But it can give you some first idea of what can be done.

The Student

It can indeed.

But yes, i can imagine.

it is the tip of the iceberg.

Dimitri Vorontzov

So, I wanted to talk to you also about the backstory a little bit.

The Student

Okay, sounds good!

Dimitri Vorontzov

Cool. So: Backstory is poison.

Backstory is a waste of time and it will only distract you from telling your story.

The Student

On all levels?

Dimitri Vorontzov

Almost. With two-three major exceptions.

1. The pieces of backstory that have relevance to current story — certain things from the past that give your characters either reason for conflict today, or motivate them today, or help your characters solve problems today!

2. A special type of story which is based around the clues that lead toward revealing what happened in the past.

3. The combination of 1 and 2.

So, a great example for the first thing is a peculiar, implausible, and in many ways silly 1984 John Millius’s movie called “Red Dawn” — which has several major Hollywood movie stars acting in it before they became stars, and is super-enjoyable to watch even today, notwithstanding its militaristic and political implications on which I have no interest dwelling.

I’m sure there are a million others but this one is the first thing that popped in my mind. Because it’s relatively simplistically written and you can see all the ribs of the armature exposed.

I encourage you to watch it.

Not the sequel, the original 1984 version.

The Student

I’ve heard of it — I’ll add that to the list too.

Dimitri Vorontzov

You will find it fun to observe, just how little backstory the characters have.

Only things that are relevant for the present.

On the other hand, you can have another kind of story: the investigator character follows clues and overcomes adversity, and step by step puts together pieces of the puzzle which by the end of the story reveal something that happened in the past.

The Student

I will bear this in mind.

Dimitri Vorontzov

That kind of story is actually made from two stories.

One of them is the story in the present — the quest of the investigator, seeking clues and overcoming adversity in the form of, for example, antagonist trying to prevent the truth from being exposed. That story has to be fully formed — and the more interesting you make the investigator character, the more relatable the story is.

But there’s also a second story — what actually happened in the past. And that story needs to be, ideally, also cool and interesting in its own way.

So when you’re reading mystery, you’re reading two stories in one.

Some of the revenge stories can be structured that way, too — two stories in one!

The Student

I enjoy those kind of stories!

The kind I can imagine myself enjoying writing too!

Dimitri Vorontzov

There’s a story of the character on quest for revenge or redemption, possibly going through the chain of villains one by one and making temporary alliances — but in the process we also gradually uncover the reason, the cause of their revenge — the story that is causing them to do this in the present.

Similarly, there’s also a “reunion” story — a bunch of people meet today and live through a story in a present time — but through their relationship we reveal the story they experienced in the past.

Many stories are built that way, ranging from the 1971 russian movie “Belorussian Station” written by Vadim Trunin and directed by Andrey Smirnoff, to Stephen King’s novel “It”.

The Student

Ahhh the ‘It’ reference instantly helped me understand.

Dimitri Vorontzov

Or there could be a combination story, something happens today and something happened in the past, but we immediately know certain necessary minimum about what happened in the past, mostly — except what happened in the past really dramatically affects what happens today. Henrik Ibsen’s “Hedda Gabler” I believe could be a cool example.

The Student

Ahhh i love Hedda Gabler!

Thanks!

i understand that reference well!

Dimitri Vorontzov

Excellent! Fist bump!

So, as we discussed, a character’s backstory is valuable for these kinds of stories. But it’s still limited to simple and focused backstory story, not sprawling one.

The Student

Ok, that’s helped a lot!

Dimitri Vorontzov

Writing extensive character backstories, just like extensive research, is the way to exacerbate the “writer’s block”, not solve it — at least in most cases — both of these things are just forms of stalling.

The Student

Makes a lot of sense.

Dimitri Vorontzov

But what you could do, which can help, is conduct some “exploratory writing”.

Envision your characters in various dramatic situations, and watch their actions.

Because it’s actions in the face of conflict, not the past, that truly reveals the nature of the character.

And it’s much more practical and useful.

All right, it’s time for me to rush to another student! Unfortunately we’re slightly out of time here — but, on the subject of structuring stories — which is something you also mentioned — actually, I’d very like to invite you to watch those videos that I mentioned.

They are all about that.

The Student

The ones on your instagram?

Dimitri Vorontzov

You can find them on instagram, or right here:: https://www.facebook.com/dimitrivorontzov

Or even here: https://www.facebook.com/SuperstarScreenwriters/

And of course, I’d very much like you to consider training with me.

If you think this may be of interest, I can send you the curriculum we may cover.

The Student

Yes please send!

Dimitri Vorontzov

Sent. All right — rushing off to new adventures now — thank you very much for this fun discussion! Chat soon!

Copyright 2019 © Dimitri Vorontzov. All Rights Reserved

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