Screenwriting Tips – Based on Brain Science

Today I wanted to share more screenwriting tips, since this is probably the most challenging aspect of filmmaking. I recently wrote a post on the same subject that included tips from Francis Ford Coppola. Today I wanted to take a different approach to screenwriting – a scientific one.

I am currently finishing up a great course “Learning How to Learn: Powerful mental tools to help you master tough subjects” by Dr. Barbara Oakley and Dr. Terrence Sejnowski. This is a MOOC offered by the University of California, San Diego via Coursera.

If you are not familiar with Coursera, it is a website that offers Massive Open Online Courses (i.e. MOOC) from top U.S. and international universities. The courses are generally free and they are always of excellent quality. I strongly recommend trying out some of their courses – especially since there is no cost to them.

I have taken this course out of curiosity, thinking that I would mainly apply it to language learning (which is a hobby of mine). Very quickly, though, it became apparent that what I was learning could be very well applied to screenwriting – a craft that is crucial to my work, but something that I have always struggled with.

Therefore, I want to share with you what I have learned in the course. Of course, I also recommend that you do the course yourself.

Although some of the observations I made in my previous post on screenwriting (which I wrote before taking the course) reappear here, there are many more new ideas and techniques that the course has introduced me to. Also, it makes a big difference to know that what you believe to be true through your intuition or personal experience, has been tested and verified scientifically. Having the faith in the efficacy of the methods you use is crucial when working on very challenging and time-intensive projects, such as screenwriting and filmmaking.

A good starting point of our discussion is how to generate those original, creative story ideas. The course gives a great advice for this. You see, the brain works in two modes: focused and diffuse. The focused mode is great at tapping into skills and information that we already have. However, when you encounter a situation that requires a new approach or solution, you will not achieve anything if you just focus more intently and rack your brain. Instead, you need to enter the diffuse mode to find this new solution.

Coming up with original ideas of course implies new ideas, solutions, i.e. the diffuse mode. But how do you enter the diffuse mode? It’s very simple. Just relax and let your mind wander. Go for a walk or do any physical activity that relaxes you and does not require your full focus. Daydream.

It is all very simple, although with the hectic pace of our lives, people feel guilty about taking breaks and just taking it easy. Well, as a screenwriter, daydreaming certainly qualifies as work. It allows you to be at your most creative.

Do you need to schedule time to daydream? Well, the painter Salvador Dalí and the inventor Thomas Edison did just that. They would sit back and let their thoughts wander. But, as you might guess, this makes it easy to doze off. So both Dalí and Edison would hold metallic objects in their hands (ball-bearings in the case of Edison) and so, whenever they were about to fall asleep, the metallic objects would fall to the ground, making noise and waking them up. The men would then immediately write down whatever thoughts they could remember from their daydreaming session.

That obviously worked for them. I would, though, suggest that it’s enough to just set time aside for easy tasks that you have to do anyway (maybe some household chores), or should do (ex. exercise) and your thoughts will naturally drift in search for answers to questions that had you stumped.

When you do get ideas, it is of course crucial to write them down. You should also revisit your notes periodically.

If creativity calls for a very relaxed mindset, how do you deal with deadlines as a writer. This is not something that was touched on in the course, but for me this means that you cannot set yourself deadlines – at least, not for the phase of writing where you just put ideas down on a page. Once you are editing or polishing your script, yes, you can set deadlines. At that point, you are working mostly in the focused mode.

As I wrote in my earlier post, you want to write fast. You don’t want to start judging, editing your writing – the work of the focused mode – until you have all of your ideas down. Stay in the diffuse mode and write down all the ideas that flow into your mind.

Now, how do you make sure you are productive as a writer if you don’t set deadlines for completing your scripts? Here again the Coursera course offers a great answer – set goals and deadlines for the process, not the product. So, although you cannot tell yourself that you are going to have a feature-length script on such and such a date, you can commit yourself to spending, for example, three hours researching story ideas or writing. This way you will not put on yourself pressure and become discouraged when the “product”, which in this context is a screenplay, is not emerging. At the same time, you will work in the confidence of knowing that, since you are putting in hours of honest work, sooner or later you will have something tangible to show for your effort.

Another related challenge that many writers deal with is procrastination. In general, procrastination occurs because, rather than working for a reward to be received in the future, we prefer activities that give us immediate satisfaction. In the context of screenwriting, there is also the phenomenon of the writer’s block. How do we deal with procrastination, then? The course offers two solutions:

1) “Eat Your Frogs Early” – start your most difficult tasks early in the morning when you have the most energy and therefore the most willpower (which consumes energy).

2) Use the “Pomodoro” technique. This simply involves setting the timer for twenty-five minutes (or according to your discretion) and then creating a small reward for yourself (for example, a chocolate or browsing on Facebook) if you work for that period of time.

The Pomodoro technique has been found very effective. It turns out that once people start to work on a task that had been making them uneasy, they start to feel satisfaction, get into a flow and can work long past the reward (or even forget about the reward).

Focusing on the process, rather than the product, also helps to ward off procrastination. You are more likely to dread writing when you have to complete a certain amount of pages, for example. It is better to instead commit yourself to a certain amount of time.

The next two ideas taken from the Coursera course that are very useful for screenwriters are:
1) Testing
2) Working with others in learning

In our context, testing means getting your writing quickly to others so you can get feedback from them. This way you can see what you have done well and what you need to improve on. You can quickly learn from your mistakes and make your current and future scripts better. The alternate approach that is, unfortunately, too often taken by writers – especially by beginning writers – is to tinker with their work. They delay getting a real test of their work, fearing to hear criticism. However, this only delays their learning of the writing craft.

But it is not just about getting feedback quickly. This feedback is is invaluable because the evaluation comes from others, not just you. As discussed in the course, it is very difficult to see our own mistakes. We need someone to look at our work afresh, without making any assumptions. For writers, they often need many months, sometimes years to once again have this clear mindset to judge their writing.

Another interesting take-away from the course is the assertion that geniuses are apparently less creative. Whereas an average person can manipulate four items in their working memory, a genius can handle up to ten items. This leads the latter group to favour the use of the focused mode rather than the diffuse mode. Yes, if the geniuses focus intently, they are able to solve a lot more problems than we can. However, many situations we encounter call for a new solution – certainly creative endeavours like screenwriting do. To generate these original ideas, we need to employ the diffuse mode of thinking. It turns out that people of average intelligence find it much easier to shift their focus and switch to the diffuse mode. The geniuses, on the other hand, tend to over-analyze and are more likely to get stuck in the focused mode – such a state is called Einstellung.

A related point to this is that we – i.e. people of average intelligence – should question geniuses more. The accomplished 19th century neurologist Santiago Ramón y Cajal observed that brilliant people can be just as easily careless and biased as regular people. He attributed his success in scientific studies to persistence, rather than intelligence. He estimated that many of his colleagues and peers possessed higher intelligence than him, yet were less successful in their work.

This statement made me think of those genius filmmakers who created great films early in their careers but then struggled to improve or even maintain their level of artistic achievement. Perhaps their work could have benefited from honest opinion and critique from others. However, it seems that once someone is deemed a genius in Hollywood, people are scared to question their work and instincts.

Another two topics taken from the “Learning How To Learn” course that should be of great interest to writers are:
1) Life-long learning and broadening your passions
2) Learning independently

The course encourages following not only your passions, but also studying areas that you might not have natural talent or affinity for. This is for three reasons. Some subjects might seem not interesting on the surface, but once you get into them, you are likely discover many things of interest. You might even find a new passion.

Also, studying and becoming good at things we thought were our weakness is more satisfying than excelling at something we were always good at. Overcoming our perceived weaknesses builds confidence and opens new opportunities for us.

Thirdly, broadening your studies to many disparate disciplines will strengthen and deepen your understanding of each. You will be able to transfer ideas from a seemingly unrelated discipline to another. This is how innovation comes about.

Learning independently means searching out information from multiple sources (rather than following one teacher), exposing yourself to contrasting viewpoints and then drawing your own conclusions. This will broaden and deepen your knowledge and understanding.

Also, it is important to put yourself in environments that will enrich you intellectually. This actually has been shown to stimulate the brain to produce new neurons, even in adulthood.

All this is crucial to you as a storyteller. Your most important duty is to offer your audience original ideas and viewpoints. To able to do that, you have to develop a comprehensive understanding of a wide range of topics. You can only do that if you commit yourself to life-long learning, broadening your passions and learning (and thinking) independently.

Your understanding has to go beyond what an average film viewer, for example, possesses. People leave the cinema entertained and feeling rewarded when they are presented with fresh ideas that increase their knowledge and understanding. Offering a new viewpoint even on a topic that had seemingly been covered from every possible angle will make your work creative and appreciated.

Also, having that deep and broad knowledge base will allow you to create worlds and characters that are realistic and multi-dimensional. By studying independently and throughout your life, you will always have a deep well from which to draw your ideas.

As a filmmaker / storyteller, you are also a teacher. Therefore, you have to learn first, before you can offer your audience original and insightful ideas.

A few other miscellaneous ideas that will help you in your writing and learning:

1) Exercise. It has been found to boost brain performance. It also helps to shift focus and enter into the diffuse mode.
2) Sleep well. Together with exercise, this is the most powerful way to boost your brain performance.
3) Plan not just the tasks, but also the end time for each day. This will help to maintain a balance between work and personal life. This will also give you time to be in the diffuse mode, where a lot of the knowledge consolidation and creative ideas occur.
4) Work in a space free of distractions. Turn off you email, phone when you need to focus on a task.

There are certainly a lot of ideas and methods to take away from the “Learning How to Learn” course. They can be applied to general learning, to screenwriting, and, I’m sure, to many other fields. So, even if you are not formally a student, you can benefit from it greatly.

The course is based on the book “A Mind For Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even If You Flunked Algebra)” by Barbara Oakley. You can purchase this book on Amazon.

The book and the course draw on the research of many scientists, including the course co-creator Dr. Terrence Sejnowski‘s. Please refer to the course material for a complete set of references.

To find out more about the course, visit the Coursera website.

You can also check it out on Facebook.

One thought on “Screenwriting Tips – Based on Brain Science”

  1. Have you ever considered publishing an ebook
    or guest authoring on other websites? I have a blog based upon on the same topics you discuss and would love to have you share some stories/information. I know my viewers would appreciate your
    work. If you’re even remotely interested, feel free to send me
    an e-mail.

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