First Draft: Three Ways Screenwriters Can Avoid the Paralysis of Analysis

In partnership with the blog ScreenCraft, we’re publishing “First Draft,” a fortnightly series on everything to do with screenwriting. New articles, written by the team at ScreenCraft, will be posted every other Monday.


Screenwriters are surrounded by gurus, workshops, seminars and endless screenwriting books that claim to have the secrets to writing the perfect screenplay. They read endlessly about the need for strict story structure, character arcs, formulas, outlines, note cards, etc. They are pulled this direction and that, as pundits declare that X needs to happen on this certain page and Y needs to happen on that certain page.

It leads to what Clint Eastwood has often referred to as the paralysis of analysis, which basically means that a screenwriter or filmmaker can all too often overthink the development and production of their project, and therefore lose some amazing choices that could come in moments of inspiration.

Now, this isn’t a new term by any means. However, Eastwood brought it to the forefront of filmmaking when he told the story about the making of Flags Of Our Fathers, which Steven Spielberg produced and Eastwood directed.

Eastwood referenced Spielberg’s production of Saving Private Ryan, in which Spielberg shared that he decided against his normal storyboard process and instead created those now iconic opening battle sequences—complete with many different shots, angles, practical effects and locations—on the day of shooting. Can you imagine? If you watch the opening of that film and see how intricate, engaging, and brilliant those images were, it’s hard to believe that Spielberg basically made most of those decisions the day of. Eastwood utilized that style in Flags of Our Fathers and has ever since.

Rob Lorenz, one of Eastwood’s regular collaborators, stated in an interview with the Director’s Guild of America, that “Analysis Paralysis means you go from the gut. That’s one of the reasons he likes the first take so much, it’s got that spontaneity.”

Cinematographer Tom Stern reiterates. “Clint has [that paralysis of analysis] expression that he whips on me a lot because I have too many advance degrees and it’s gotten down to a kind of look he gives me over his nose when I start being analytical,” Stern laughed. “He doesn’t want to do that. He’s spontaneous or improvisational. It’s his spirit. He’s very, very intuitive.”

So how can screenwriters avoid the paralysis of analysis?

1. Know When to Quiet the Academic Voices

Most screenwriting books, seminars, and classes have an unfair advantage when it comes to talking about film theory. Hindsight is always 20/20. So one could apply the formulas presented in a book like Save the Cat, or any other screenwriting book that presents a formula of sorts (in this case, beat sheets and page directives), to almost any film, good or bad. It’s very easy to then say, “See, these Oscar-winning films and these box-office smashes used this formula, so…” And the funny thing is that even the poorly reviewed films and box-office bombs out there have showcased the same “usage” of such formulas (at least in hindsight).

This isn’t to say that what Save the Cat or a guru like Robert McKee says is useless, not by any means. It’s just that screenwriters need to understand that there is no “end-all, be-all” answer to a successful screenplay. For every “proof in the pudding” example they offer, there are dozens more that have either tried the same and failed, or done something completely contradictory and succeeded.

Information is important. There are some amazing books and seminars out there to get screenwriters thinking more about their craft. However, at some point, screenwriters need to let go, quiet those voices, and allow their own internal instincts to take hold.

2. Trust Thine Own Self

Storytelling is in our DNA as a species. We’ve been telling stories since the dawn of mankind. We still find etchings in caves, tens of thousands of years old, that display the core of storytelling: beginning, middle and end. Stick figures holding spears (beginning), a beast appearing before them (middle), and finally, the beast lying dead with spears sticking out of it as the stick figures stand triumphant (end).

We’ve been ingesting stories through so many different platforms over so many different generations: books, plays, movies, radio, television, the Internet. It’s all there in our DNA and around us every day. We know beginnings, middles, ends, hooks, conflicts, character arcs, dialogue, silence, explosions, comedy, tragedy, scares, etc.

You need to trust yourself, because in the end, it’s just you in front of the screen with that blinking cursor staring back at you. Feed your brain, yes, but beyond that, trust your instincts.

3. Be Prepared, Not Overly Prepared

Too many screenwriters believe that they need to go into the writing process knowing Point A through Point Z and everything in between. That’s the worst thing that a screenwriter can do. Despite the fact that screenwriting is a blueprint for an eventual film where hundreds will collaborate to get it made, it still is an art form. It still is storytelling. If it wasn’t, computers would be writing scripts for us (knock on wood).

Know the broad strokes. Know the major beats of the story and characters. See that bad trailer in your head (that we talk about in “Five Habits to Get Those Creative Juices Flowing”). But also know that much of that can, should and will change and evolve as you write.

All screenwriters have different processes, sure. But understand that the true gems of any screenplay often come in those moments of inspiration, seemingly out of nowhere. You need to leave room for those moments. You need to leave some space for them. Not every answer to every question you have about the story and characters needs to be answered in the outlining process. You shouldn’t know where every scene and every character is going to go and what is going to come next.

Having too many detailed outlines, character breakdowns and beat sheets will only lead to one thing in the end—paralysis of analysis. Find a happy medium of being prepared, but not overly so.

“First, find out what your hero wants. Then just follow him.” — Ray Bradbury

These three points are simple, but key. Not only will they help you in your own process, but they’ll also serve the eventual script. Studio script readers are smart, and chances are they are screenwriters themselves who’ve read all of the books and know what’s out there. They can tell which screenwriters followed various screenwriting book formulas and directives too religiously and which scripts were meticulously over-analyzed. Many times, those scripts feel hollow, empty and by-the-numbers. It’s not the analytics that engage the reader; it’s the passion poured into the script. Readers see it. They recognize it. They love it. Save yourself and your script from the effects of paralysis of analysis.

And if you find yourself possibly suffering from it, remember what Clint Eastwood’s cinematographer Tom Stern said. Just picturing Eastwood’s iconic, intimidating eyes will make you quiet those academic voices, trust thine own self, and be prepared, but not overly prepared. If not for yourself, if not for your script, do it for Clint. MM

This post originally appeared on the blog ScreenCraft. ScreenCraft is dedicated to helping screenwriters and filmmakers succeed through educational events, screenwriting competitions and the annual ScreenCraft Screenwriting Fellowship program, connecting screenwriters with agents, managers and Hollywood producers. Follow ScreenCraft on TwitterFacebook, and YouTube.

Featured image courtesy of Paramount Pictures.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.