A Screenwriters Fear is their Fuel

Updated: Nov 11



It was 5 pm and I just got off a long flight and barely had enough time to change into my “nice” clothes. I rush to the first big film festival I was ever nominated for an award in. That’s when the Fest Director runs up to me and says, “they are waiting to interview you on the red carpet.”


Standing there as an introvert with an undiagnosed anxiety condition I was quickly overwhelmed by the lights, cameras, and crowd. I was a stranger in a new land. That’s when my nose popped. Blood everywhere. My blood pressure had spiked so high that I blew a vessel in my nose. Honestly, I’m surprised I didn’t stroke out. As I was cleaning myself up, I stared into the restroom mirror and remember thinking “I can just walk away. I can leave. I can go back to my life where it’s safe.” But I realized I wouldn’t be able to look myself in that mirror again. So, I went out there, did the interview, and bombed terrifically. That is when I learned the path to success is paved with moments of fear and dread.


Fear is opportunity

We are all afraid. It’s in our nature. It’s how we’ve survived the threats of a changing world. But that’s what fear is. Change. More specifically, fear is the opportunity to grow. To become something more. As people, we seek comfort. In our relationships, daily lives, or even food. So how does fear present itself to a screenwriter? Very simply. As rejection. AKA The Fear of Failure. This presents such a significant psychological threat that the avoid-failure response exceeds a writer’s motivation to succeed. It results in unconscious sabotage to the chances of success.


Fear of Failure

The fear that we will put all this hard work, time, and dedication into something just to see it ultimately rejected and fail can be powerful. Over the past 15 years as a screenwriter, I can honestly say that I have been guilty of struggling with the following list of issues during my journey of growth. And I’ve noticed them in several other writers and students which I have worked with as well. Please note I am not a psychiatrist by any means. I’m just a dude who writes screenplays and has been around the block.

The especially nefarious aspect of this type of fear is how it hides in our screenwriting such as:

  • The Never-Ending Screenplay

  • The Uncommitted Screenwriter

  • Bouncing Between Scripts

  • The Artist as Ego

  • Writers Block

The Never-Ending Screenplay

I had a friend who had been working on the same screenplay for five years. He had plans to pitch it to HBO. I’ll admit it was an original concept. He worked on it in spats. Within those five years as I plugged ahead with multiple optioned and produced scripts while watching my career grow. He had made no progress. Why? Was it because he couldn’t break the story properly? Of course not. He is talented. I honestly believe it’s because he had set this goal of pitching to HBO and that pressure got to him. His fear of blowing it shut him down.

The Uncommitted Screenwriter

“I like to dabble in screenwriting” which is a phrase I’ve heard several times in one form or another. I even used it myself as a green writer. But now, as a professional, you might as well be saying to me “I like to dabble in a little heart surgery and quantum physics.” That’s how serious I take screenwriting. Eventually, I realized by not committing I was shielding myself from rejection. Being able to excuse any failure I had due to being a part-time hobbyist allowed me to avoid that fear of failure or at least mitigate it.


Bouncing Between Scripts

I asked a writer what he was working on. He said I’m writing 3 scripts at the moment. Surprised, I asked if he was close to finishing one. He replied no but he was really excited about this idea he had for a fourth script. This bouncing between scripts is not uncommon. It is just another way of avoiding failure. If you keep yourself in the early process of development where you are creating characters and worlds with the feverish intent of a rogue scientist gone mad then you never have to worry about actually completing a work and presenting it to someone for feedback. The threat of failure or rejection doesn’t exist.


The Artist as Ego

As Dave Trottier said to me when he was a guest on The Successful Screenwriter Podcast, I believe that screenwriting is an art in as much that it is a craft. I have to agree. That being said, I have witnessed writers and *ahem* (I may have been guilty of this myself) hide behind the label of “artist” to justify that no one understands their vision or work. When the fact is the work could objectively use a good polish or rewrite. Hiding behind the label of artist allows you to discredit any sort of rejection or failure. The problem is that while the ego may be spared your skill as a writer is not.


Writers Block

Many gurus believe that writers block happens from a lack of proper outlining. Others believe the writers elaborate creative process has been interrupted in some manner which is conflicting with the art. They are wrong. A lack of outlining leads to a script that narratively meanders about. But that script still gets written. An artist who loses their artistic vision creates a piece of work which at worst is viewed as derivative and at best is unoriginal. But it is still finished. Writers block bares fruit from fear itself. Plain and simple. During the writing process, you may encounter a story or character issue which will cause a creative block. That block is a type of anxiety or panic which is ultimately rooted in fear. Here’s the fascinating thing, it is entirely biological. Let me explain. It’s biology time. 😉


The Frontal Cortex is considered the creative center of the brain. It’s what is most active when you are clacking away at those keys during the writing process. Now when you hit a story issue and get anxious/frustrated that triggers the Amygdala. The Amygdala controls emotional responses and behavioral modification such as fear and even pleasure. When triggered it can induce a state of anxiety/panic and get this, it can completely shut down the frontal cortex. Thus, canceling your creative center. It is called mental paralysis.


*Side note for all my thriller writers out there. Psychopaths have a defective Amygdala to where they do not feel fear."


In the case of Mental Paralysis, there are several techniques as stated here which can help. A few are:

  • Calming Breathing Techniques

  • Meditation

  • Exercise

  • Aroma Therapy

Once you have returned to a calm state, I recommend mind mapping through your story problem or even utilizing the Fishbone technique for scene development.

Tackling the fear of failure

We need to understand that there is no reason to feel guilty about what we are experiencing. This is part of the process of growth. That this fear is based in shame. The shame of not being good enough. Well here’s the hard truth. You are going to suck. Simple. And that is ok. It’s ok to suck. To be bad at something. How else are you going to grow? To improve your skill at this craft. Every writer who you admire started out really bad. If they don’t admit to it then they are lying. Over time they improved. As will you.


When I stared deep into that restroom mirror, bloodied nose, and all I knew I was a hot mess. I knew the interview wouldn’t be great. But I also knew I had to do it. I had to get past that fear. Or I would never see my goals of a screenwriter come to fruition. From then on, I vowed that when I felt that fear sneak up again that I would do everything in my power to not allow it to paralyze my writing or my career.


Now I have come to realize that fear is opportunity. It is the opportunity for growth, change, and eventually success. It’s not a pretty or simple path by any means. But it is a powerful one. Use your fear of rejection/failure as the fuel to drive you forward into the unknown not suspended in comfort or safety.


I can look back at my career and clearly see how every big success I’ve had directly ties back to a moment of fear where I felt overwhelmed, unworthy, even flat out terrified. That I had to willingly choose in that moment to push past the fear and trudge forward toward success. Fortune favors the bold my friends.


If a stubborn anxious dyslexic dude from Detroit can do it. Then you can as well. Only you can make you succeed. You got this.😉


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