Distract, Then Solve

by Larry Brenner


There’s an episode of the Big Bang Theory where Sheldon, trying to solve a difficult physics question, takes a job at the Cheesecake Factory in order to distract himself from his dilemma. The act of being present in the moment at the restaurant allows him to free his mind up. When he drops a tray, he suddenly has the epiphany he needs to solve his problem.


Lately, I’ve been taking this approach with my own writing. Yes, I could sit in front of the screen, glaring at my pages because there’s this THING I can’t solve, a PROBLEM I can’t even identify. It’s all of the fun of time-intense labor, but without any of the benefits of, you know, actually doing any writing. It’s much better to put my energy elsewhere and see if the solution just shows up.


In other words? I’m podcasting now.


Last February, Spalding alum Andie Redwine and I had a long conversation about the movie Soul. I’ll spare you the details, but this wasn’t the first time we’d discussed a Disney movie in depth, and we had no intention of it being the last. And then I lamented that this was a private conversation, and that we hadn’t put ourselves on the record.


A month later, we started recording episodes of Once Upon a Disney. The goal was to have good conversation about Disney movies—talk about what they do right, and where they go awry. We wanted to roll up our sleeves and do some real script analysis and maybe learn some things that would make us better writers.


In our second episode, we’re talking about Sleeping Beauty’s “I want” song, “Once Upon a Dream.” And we questioned why we felt that the song just didn’t work like we wanted it to, while a similar song in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (“Someday My Prince Will Come”) works so well.


I found myself saying. “I think it’s because when Snow White is singing, she’s just been through a traumatic experience. Her stepmother tried to kill her, she’s had to run away, and the song reveals that she’s still hopeful. But Briar Rose has had a pretty good life in the forest, and she just wants a boyfriend. They’re the same moment, but the given circumstances change the way we see it.”


Boom. I just dropped my tray in the Cheesecake Factory.


That was the solution I needed to fix the script back on my computer screen. I hadn’t made the character’s given circumstances dire enough for the audience to care about. My protagonist hadn’t gone through any real trials yet, so no would care if he achieved his dreams. He hadn’t suffered enough to get the audience invested. The problem wasn’t the scene I was working on—it was the scene that came before it!


There are so many positive things we can do to solve our problems. But staring at the screen, cursing ourselves for not seeing a solution? It isn’t productive. Find the right distraction that works for you, one where you can apply the analytical tools you developed in class to create a path back to your writing.


Larry Brenner's screenplay Bethlehem was a winner of Final Draft’s Big Break Contest and was then purchased by Universal. He has also written Labyrinth for Walt Disney Pictures and Angelology for SONY/Columbia Pictures. His play Saving Throw Versus Love was produced as part of the 2010 New York International Fringe Festival and was selected for the Fringe Encore Series. He is a member of the Dramatists Guild of America and WGA East. Brenner earned his MFA at Spalding and has a PhD in educational theatre from NYU. You can hear his thoughts on Disney movies on the weekly podcast Once Upon a Disney.