Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

The #1 Way I Screw Myself Up

By Steven Pressfield | Published: October 14, 2015

We all have bad habits as writers. Here’s my worst: I have a terrible tendency to back off on the money shot.

Cher and Nicolas Cage in "Moonstruck" by John Patrick Shanley

Cher and Nicolas Cage in “Moonstruck” by John Patrick Shanley

Meaning I’ll fail to maximize the drama in key scenes.

I know why I do this. It’s Resistance. Fear of success. Fear of making something really kick ass.

But I still do it. Even knowing this is my Bad Tendency, I still go soft on the accelerator pedal.

It’s a terrible habit.

Here are two examples, both from my book Killing Rommel.

  1. There was a character in the book named Stein. Stein was far and away the best and most interesting character.

I killed him off a third of the way through.

When the book got optioned for a movie, I teamed up with Randall Wallace (“Braveheart”) to write the screenplay. The first thing Randy said was, “We gotta keep Stein alive.”

All I could do was kick myself. Of course! Why did I kill him off in the first place?

  1. Killing Rommel is about a British Special Forces patrol in North Africa during World War II that is assigned to go behind the German lines and attempt to eliminate the Afrika Korps’ brilliant and charismatic commander, Gen. Irwin Rommel.

I did twelve drafts.

In the first nine, the patrol never reaches Rommel.

There’s no scene, nothing, between our primary characters and the man they’ve spent 350 pages trying to get to.

What was I thinking?

Even when this scene finally occurred to me (at Draft #10), I resisted it. It took me a week to talk myself into writing it.

The scene of course is the single indispensable moment of the whole book. It’s the climax to everything. To not have it would be like writing Moby Dick and never having Ahab come face to face with the White Whale.

But still I resisted. “Won’t that be too obvious? Too expected? Isn’t it too ‘on the nose?'”

Here are a few other ways I’ll screw myself up, driven by this same instinct to back off, to soft-pedal:

  1. I’ll underplay critical scenes.

I’ll make the dialogue too oblique. Too subtle. I’ll back off from the critical moment or fail to go all-out to make it play.

Here, as an example, is the right way to do it, from Moonstruck by John Patrick Shanley. This is Nicolas Cage as Ronny Cammareri to Cher as Loretta Castorini, on the sidewalk outside his apartment, midnight and freezing:

 

RONNY

Loretta, I love you. Not like they told you love is, and I didn’t know this either, but love don’t make things nice – it ruins everything. It breaks your heart. It makes things a mess. We aren’t here to make things perfect. Snowflakes are perfect. Stars are perfect. Not us. Not us! We are here to ruin ourselves and break our hearts and love the wrong people and die. The storybooks are bullshit! Now I want you to come upstairs with me and get in my bed!

 

  1. I’ll have key scenes happen off-screen.
  2. I’ll leave crucial moments out completely.

            These are bad, bad habits.

Slim Pickens in the all-time great Money Shot

Slim Pickens in the all-time great Money Shot

To break myself of them, I remind myself of the all-time greatest go-for-it moment in movie history—Slim Pickens as B-52 pilot Major T.J. “King” Kong, waving his ten-gallon hat and whooping like a rodeo cowboy as he straddles the H-bomb that will set off the Russian Doomsday Machine and destroy the world and rides it, like a bronco, down to impact.

(Here’s the link).

I have no idea what contributions the three credited writers on Dr. Strangelove made to that scene—Terry Southern, Stanley Kubrick, and Peter George (who wrote the novel from which the movie comes, Red Alert)—but clearly the story objective could have been satisfied with a lot less brilliance. The bomb could have simply dropped. The plane could have been shot down or run out of fuel and crashed with the bomb armed inside it.

Either of those alternatives, or others, would have worked.

But how great was it that these writers put their foot on the gas and gave that moment horsepower on top of horsepower?

They went for it.

They held nothing back.

And no one—no one—who saw that scene will ever forget it.

I remind myself of that moment every time I’m tempted by my own Resistance to go soft on a Big Moment or to back off from taking the money shot.

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Writing Wednesdays

21 Responses to “The #1 Way I Screw Myself Up”

  1. Stacy
    October 14, 2015 at 6:45 am

    Yep, yep, and yep. My own big struggle with Resistance is editing scenes and whole stories right out of existence.

  2. Mary Doyle
    October 14, 2015 at 7:00 am

    Thanks for holding up the mirror once again Steve – I always see my own reflection when you do.

  3. Angus
    October 14, 2015 at 7:00 am

    Hi, Steve. I enjoy your articles and love your honesty. But I’m confused by the examples from Killing Rommel.

    If you use your Foolscap Method, how do you get through ten drafts before realizing that the patrol has to reach Rommel? Wouldn’t that have been your climactic scene before you put a word down? Or did you write this before you developed your method?

    • October 14, 2015 at 9:23 am

      Great question, Angus. I did do a Foolscap for “Rommel” and I did have a non-Rommel climax (I’ve forgotten what it was now) and I was happy with it.

      It just goes to show you, that even the Foolscap Method is not foolproof if you have a tendency, like I do, to soft-pedal key scenes. Whatever ending I had then, I looked at it hard and thought, “Yeah, this is good. It works.” When clearly it didn’t.

      Arrrrgggh!

      • Angus
        October 14, 2015 at 1:38 pm

        Thanks for replying, Steve. I admire you all the more for admitting you couldn’t necessarily spot it at the Foolscap stage. I agree, too, with your overall point. Fear of success (while we may call it other things in our minds) can be just as malignant an influence as fear of failure. As an amateur jazz pianist, I often mentally sabotage myself. Halfway through what would have been a nice, clean phrase, the little voice says: “People like me don’t play that way. We flub it.” And so I do. Trying to work through that, though :)

        Thanks again.

  4. October 14, 2015 at 7:37 am

    Steve, thanks for this. Very insightful, very helpful. I think (for me) it all goes under the heading of ‘keeping things safe’. A brilliant scene is always going to be a risk because it is, by definition, bigger than the rest of the story. It is about thinking bigger and pushing your characters. Hard to do, but we all know a brilliant scene when we see one. Or write one.

  5. Dave Newton
    October 14, 2015 at 8:08 am

    I know this feeling. And its results. And I learned the principle in improv theatre. I believe they called it “blocking.” The audience, they said, wants to see you die, jump off the cliff, do the forbidden. So when the improvised story line that’s emerging on among you actors takes you to the edge of the cliff, to the end of the world, to eternal damnation…And you’re actors on the stage…don’t block it. Go ahead, jump, kiss, die — and deliver the scene that comes after. See, this is THEATRE! Nobody really dies. Show the audience everything. You’ll live, and the people will love you for delivering what they expect. Thanks for your matchless teaching.

    • October 14, 2015 at 9:24 am

      Ah, I love that, Dave. “Blocking.” That’s exactly the word. I had never heard it before. Thanks!

  6. Vlad Zachary
    October 14, 2015 at 8:30 am

    Dear Steve – thank you very much for this insight. As usual made me think. I guess fear of success is a lot like drawing the attention to ourselves in a large crowd. Everybody is minding their own business and we need to raise our hand and interrupt them all – “Hey, look at me for a moment! I’ve got a great piece of work here!” There is a natural humbleness that acts as a barrier to doing that. We resist raising our hand, because we believe our work should speak for itself. It is kind of like – blow our own horn through our work.

  7. Stephanie
    October 14, 2015 at 9:17 am

    Loved this. I often worry that I’ll insult readers if I make something too dramatic or graphic. Guess I should think of Slim Pickins the next time that happens.

    • October 14, 2015 at 9:38 am

      Yes! Steven, thanks for the great image…

      And I’m really loving The Lion’s Gate. Review coming…life is just getting in the way right now.

      One last thing: would it help to review your foolscap with this in mind? Seems to me that I’m going to add a few ‘check this’ notes to the ‘how to do it’ for foolscap for myself and my resistance…

      Thanks,
      David

  8. October 14, 2015 at 10:06 am

    Hey, Steve,

    Thanks for this! Going for broke with a scene always feels risky for me, too. Really great to hear about your experience with that form of Resistance and how you’ve worked through and around it.

    Was wondering to what extent you faced this same tendency when writing The Profession? Now that you have a few years distance on it, would you change the final showdown between Gent and Salter?

    And did you find working with real history made it easier in The Lion’s Gate? Or did that tendency simply manifest differently, since the climactic scenes had already been determined by history?

    Thanks again.

  9. October 14, 2015 at 11:18 am

    Yes! Thank you! This is so helpful, going back to the page and going for it.
    I am so grateful for your work, makes all the difference in my world.

    Elizabeth Adams

  10. October 14, 2015 at 11:22 am

    If I had a buck for every writer who said to me, “I didn’t want to be obvious” when I asked them why they didn’t go for the money shot, I’d be writing this from the cabana of my private paradise island!
    (To be clear, I am _not_ writing from such said spot.)

    My response to them is usually along the lines of, “Then why did you spend 90% of the material leading us right toward it!?”

    Apparently Resistance would be terrible to go to bed with because it must have awfully cold feet.

    I must say Steven that I am shocked to hear that it took _10_ drafts to get the scene where the patrol meets Rommel. But that’s all right because you did get there and it was a killer scene — the perfect balance of what we want but not quite as we expected it!

  11. Sonja
    October 14, 2015 at 1:15 pm

    Thank you for pulling back the curtain just a bit, and showing us how hard it was to wrestle down the story. I’ve read enough how-to books that basically answers the question of “how many drafts do you have write to finish a book?” The answer of course is: however many it takes.

    I sometimes cringe when I hear authors say, Oh, this book just wrote itself, I barely changed anything from the first draft. The characters just pulled the story along….grrr….

    Glad resistance didn’t win on that book, and you made it through.

    As always, thank you for your honesty and Wednesdays posts.

  12. October 15, 2015 at 3:38 am

    What a great post.

    When writing a scene there are, literally, endless different possibilities.
    You can go from writing the most uninspiring thing to creating an incredibly memorable moment. And there are so many alternatives to do both.

    What i usually do is this: I reread the passage and if I do not go ‘WoW”, then, well…. back to the drawing board.

  13. October 18, 2015 at 8:27 am

    Hello, Steve.

    I have just discovered you through your magnificent book “Killing Rommel.” You absolutely nailed the money shot in the scene where Chap meets Rommel. And then you nailed the nailing: Punch steps forward and tells Rommel that one hour is not enough; they should have until dark. Then you cap that: Rommel agrees.

    A triple money shot, all in one scene.

    Now my goal is to read everything you have written.

    Many thanks.
    Larry

  14. Dakotah
    October 21, 2015 at 7:23 am

    Hello, Steve…I’ve read so many of your Story Grids not because I am a writer but an artist and a human who wants to become better and better with all that I have been blessed with. Certainly the “resistance” theme is totally applicable to every painting I have ever done, to every creative endeavor I have ever undertaken from a bucket list hike to Christmas Dinner…resistance always meets me towards the finish line. With painting it goes like this. It doesn’t work but there is one part that is so beautiful I cannot, will not let go of it. I return again and again to repaint the entire painting except for “that beautiful place”. Only when I release that “beautiful spot” and return to the painting do I have my painting. Every fiber in my being wants to protect that spot. I will never paint such a beautiful spot again in my life. It must be saved at all cost…even the cost of never finishing the painting. The really crazy part is I know this. I’ve done it probably dozens and dozens of times and there it is again. I know it, I see it, I feel it, Iknow what has to happen but I have to go round and round and round and still the only way I can get to where I want that painting to go, is to overcome the resistance…which, for me, generally be fearless, don’t care what the “critiques” think. Yes, take the leap and stun people.
    Then I’m happy and the painting works for me and that is the only reason I paint…for me. Same w/Christmas dinner…my saga hikes…and dealing with those difficult and challenging human interactions..esp. family. Thank you so much for all you give. I feel blessed to have found your blog and look forward to it…much like my anticipation for waiting for the next Philip Roth novel. All good things. dakotah

  15. lynelle
    October 21, 2015 at 1:25 pm

    I don’t know, Steven, I kind of think you’re being a little hard on yourself. It’s as thought you’re so stuck to this marketable idea of “resistance” that you hang on it for dear life just so you can use it in blogs.

    You do know that it takes merely once to see something and then to let go of it. Here and now. Forever. Let It Go.

    You may think you’re helping people by using this tool, but in reality it would appear you are conspiring to hold people back…

    • lynelle
      October 21, 2015 at 1:27 pm

      I meant “as though,” not “as thought”…

      • lynelle
        October 21, 2015 at 1:30 pm

        So this very action itself is resistance — playing out over and over and over; you vomit out the toxins and then take the drug again the next morning.