Screenwriter Ed Solomon Discusses Overcoming Writer’s Block

On Wednesday, March 22, 2023, Word for Word, Southern New Hampshire University’s (SNHU) online literary series, was thrilled to have Ed Solomon for an evening to discuss the art and craft of screenwriting.

Ed began his career in college as a joke writer and stand-up comedian. He soon went on to write television and film, working on the groundbreaking “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show,” as well as the cult hit “Bill and Ted” film series, co-written with Chris Matheson. Additional screenwriting credits include “Men in Black” and the “Now You See Me” movies, “Mosaic,” “No Sudden Move” and “Full Circle.”

The following is Part III of an excerpted transcription of Ed’s interview, edited for the page (Take a look at Part I here and Part II here):

Audience chat: Any thoughts on writer’s block? How do you stay disciplined?

Ed Solomon

Solomon:  When you sit down to capital-W Write, it feels important. But suddenly it implodes. Joining a group of writers helps, but also move around and try different approaches. We write from so many parts of our brain. I try to be up on my feet and put notes on the boards in my office to break down a story.

I think differently when I’m writing on the wall than when I’m writing in a notepad or when I’m typing. I find different parts of my brain get triggered, get activated, depending on where and how I’m writing. I find that when I speak about an idea, I’m using another part of my brain. I try to utilize all those different elements.

I don’t always write in the same spot. I might for a run stay in the same spot, but I might go to a different restaurant to sit and think for a while. I find that testing and trying as many different ways to do something can open up things.

Two other tricks that often work for me—one, try writing about the problem you’re having. Literally write about it. I will often write Man, literally M-A-N comma, I am really struggling with this. I felt like this was a good idea, but now I don’t know what I’m doing. And every time I try to do this or do that…and if you just write long enough like that, something gradually breaks.

The other trick is to be able to recognize that you’re not solving the problem now, so stop working on it for a week, for the weekend, till tomorrow, whatever it is. Then give yourself little objectives—Tomorrow at noon, when I start again, or Monday after the weekend, when I start again, I’m going to have an answer. Sometimes it’s thinking about the problem wrong, or asking the wrong questions, that causes writer’s block. Usually, by taking a step back, an answer does arrive.

Another trick to help is writing an outline in email form or in a text. I know that might seem weird, but I guarantee you when you’re walking down the street and texting your friend, you’re not having trouble coming up with words. You’re still conveying your ideas but through a medium that doesn’t make you nervous.

Sometimes I find emailing to myself or audio recording my thoughts releases that sense of being important. It’s a way to trick yourself out of writer’s block. You have to believe that by moving your thoughts to different methods of note-taking, the ideas will come, though it might take quite a while.

Audience chat: How does passion and inspiration relate to writing and writer’s block?

Solomon: A lot of what people teach is that you have to be super passionate about writing, or you have to have inspiration, and I think [that] can really mess you up. I don’t think it’s passion that you have to have. It’s curiosity. It’s interest. You just need to be interested in something and follow that.

In terms of inspiration, I think it really screws people up because they think, I can’t get out of this writer’s block until I’m inspired. To me, the notion that you need to be inspired will make you think that nothing you’re doing is that great because it just doesn’t have that inspiration yet. Sometimes it’s really just about putting words in front of each other for a while until something breaks.

Your responsibility to the work is to understand the process, have patience, diligence, discipline. But when writing isn’t your main way of living, it’s sometimes hard to keep motivated and keep having faith. Or you might find that you don’t have the time. And so there are two fights that you have to be willing to fight, and they can be bloody, and they can be violent.

One is finding the time to write and convincing your partner, your kids, or yourself that this time is worth it, even if you don’t make progress right away. I personally need three-to-four-hour chunks. Unless I’m just rewriting specific stage directions or dialogue, I can’t write in less than two-hour chunks.

Some of that time is not writing. I need an office or somewhere to go where I can lie on a couch, surf the internet, without people bothering me because it doesn’t look like I am doing anything. I need those breaks, and you need to figure out how much time you need.

You’ve got to fight for that time, and that can be really hard. But you have to really fight for it. And within that time, you have to allow yourself breaks. It’s not only about page count. Sometimes it’s just mulling for a few days before an idea breaks through.

The second fight is a personal and emotional one, which is figuring out your process. And it involves the courage to keep going. It’s not about confidence, by the way. It’s faith, a very nebulous word that is important for any writing career.

Confidence implies something else. When it’s time to sell something, it’s important to have confidence. But how you convey that confidence is not what you think. It’s not loud—it’s quiet, and that comes from faith, a deeper conviction that if I just stick at this long enough, I’ll find that there’s something there.

I believe there’s a component of luck too, but I think it’s luck in the way winning a raffle is luck. If there’s 100 raffle tickets, and you have 90 of them, you have a pretty good chance of being lucky, though it’s not guaranteed.

So what are the things you put your raffle tickets in? It’s continuing to make work, continuing to try new things, continuing to take challenges to push yourself, be willing to fail, etc., etc. The more you do that, the more raffle tickets go in.

W4W: Which project or idea have you learned the most from? What has guided you through your career?

Solomon: I don’t make the delineation that a lot of people do with where an idea comes from. Ideas can come from anywhere, but once they’re up and running, it’s all about execution. I’ve had ideas stolen from me, got really upset, and then looked at the final product. It was ultimately so different than what I had written that nobody even noticed that it started with the same idea. An idea is just a doorway through which you move.

I treat everything the same. Whether I’m writing a spec [writing speculatively, meaning you’re not being paid for it] or a script for a job, I have the same amount of seriousness. I work as hard if I’m being paid a ton of money or zero money or anything in between.

“Full Circle” was a 640-page spec, and it eventually got made, thank God. But at first nobody wanted it. I kept going, kept going, kept going because I wanted to. “No Sudden Move” was a spec, “Mosaic” spec. “Bill and Ted Face the Music” was a spec that Chris and I did for 14 years. I think I learned different things from all of them. And if it was someone else’s idea, I can’t write it unless there’s something in it I lock into. Once I’ve locked into it, it’s like the idea is already in the rearview mirror.

W4W: Because you’re applying curiosity to this other person’s idea?

Solomon: I’m just trying to make stuff work. And that’s it. And the “best things” I’ve written have been when they worked.

What does the story want to be? How do I make it the best version of it? And that’s most of my day, week, month, and year. That’s most of it—sitting in this room where nobody’s looking at me and just trying really hard to make the story work.

And what’s so great about that is that’s what every writer faces. You don’t have to be a screenwriter to face that. You can be a novelist who’s not showing anything to anybody until you have a finished draft. You’re still facing that same challenge. It’s the job. Do you enjoy being by yourself with your thoughts? You have to find some enjoyment in constantly pushing a Sisyphean rock. But gradually, something starts to appear. And once it starts to appear, you have to figure out how to form it.

W4W: We were chatting a little earlier today about how a lot of your movies are structured like puzzles that need to be solved and the pieces eventually fall into place. For example, in “Men in Black,” Agents J and K must solve the riddle, “The galaxy is on Orion’s belt,” which ends up being a collar on a cat named Orion. Is that how you often perceive art, as a puzzle that needs to be solved? Or do you ever like to pursue projects where there’s a lot left unanswered, or are left more open for the viewers to interpret themselves?

Solomon: It depends on what it is. Every story has a different desire or different need. Sometimes the story wants to be more open-ended.

With “Men in Black,” I remember saying to them, “Guys, I know there’s something here. But I don’t know what it is yet.” Usually, the best solutions come out of desperation, like you don’t have a lot of options. I don’t quite remember the Orion’s belt thing. But I remember the moment after, when I was like, Wait, I got it. I know what it is. Because it fit thematically with what I was trying to do, that we don’t have any sense of real perspective. And I also knew cinematically what that meant.

In fact, funnily enough, I remember having an idea within the last year where I thought the galaxy shouldn’t be on Orion’s belt. I had an idea that would have made it weirdly clearer and I thought, I should have done that. But then I thought, Dude, that was 30 years ago when you were writing that.

Sometimes it’s just that you have X number of variables, and you have to solve the problem. At the end of “Bill and Ted,” there’s a sequence where they have to get historical figures out of jail. And for those of you who don’t know, there’s time travel. They have a phone booth they could time travel in.

The phone booth was not our idea. It was originally a van. But the studio thought it was too much like “Back to the Future.” So the director said what about a phone booth? So we made it a phone booth (being pre-internet, I didn’t know about “Dr. Who” at the time).

So we had to get the historical figures out of jail, and we had to use the notion of time travel because it was the basis of the movie. But we couldn’t use special effects. We had no budget for them. We tried a bunch of things.

Eventually, I just remember going, What if just don’t write a big time travel sequence? What if we just assume they time travelled when they arrived at the jail? So then it’s like magical thinking. We wrote a whole bunch and laughed like crazy. The script was originally three times as long, and they made us change it because they thought it was too complicated. Now in hindsight, I wish we hadn’t, but whatever.

Variables needed to be solved, and that’s why sometimes the best ideas come in a reshoot. Even on “Full Circle,” we found ourselves in a situation where we were still in production, and we were still filming. And we had made a change early in the production process, and it necessitated a change that we hadn’t figured out quite late. But we only had a few days left of shooting.

So we only had these locations available to us, these actors available to us. We had limited possibilities. And within the limited options, somehow it’s easier to solve the problem. Because you’re forced to go, Well, what do we got? We have this, this, this. And it needs to do this. Well, okay, we do this then, and you actually come up with a solution. Weirdly, having a lot more options can sometimes screw you up.

If you’re finding yourself stuck at some plot point in a story, maybe the solution is narrow the options. Narrow your options as a writer. Sometimes I will know an ending and then just literally work backwards. If that happens, then before that this has to happen, and then before that this has to happen, and then before that this has to happen.

But sometimes, when you’re stuck on a plot point for a long time, the problem is that the plot point doesn’t want to be there. It’s a symptom of plotting—putting plot before character. You have to ask yourself honestly, what would really happen here, or what’s the truth? Why is this character here in this moment? What do they really want, and what’s the reality of this?

W4W: You really shared a lot of personal stuff with us tonight. And I feel like you shined a light into not only your own process as a writer but into the writing process shared by many writers.

Solomon: Let me give one more piece of practical advice. Use recordings and not notes. When you listen, record all your meetings. Record all your creative sessions. Record all your notes meetings. Don’t take notes, because when you write notes down, you’re wasting time, and you’re also just writing what you think is being said. I record everything. I’m so shocked at what was really said versus what I thought was said. And it also frees you up to be more spontaneous.

OK, thanks, you guys. Thank you for having me.

W4W: Thank you again, Ed, for all of your insights and wisdom. This has been wonderful.

Solomon: Thank you. I appreciate it. Thanks for having me on.

This concludes our interview with Ed Solomon. Thank you for reading and stay tuned for more Word for Word events!