Mental Spackle

Spackle |ˈspakəl|

Noun: A compound used to fill cracks in plaster and produce a smooth surface.

What is ‘mental spackle’?
Merrel Davis explains how to ensure you fill all the gaps in your script.

Mental Spackle is a term I’ve coined to describe what the mind of a writer does when revising. As you go through each change, shift scenes, consolidate characters, details inevitably fall through the cracks.

With each minor adjustment, with each new scene, even the most dedicated and observant writers will miss minutiae that could ultimately cause their excellent, thoughtful script to be a pass.

While a story may exist fully in the writer’s mind, it almost never exists entirely on the page – certainly not in the first couple of revisions. It is very easy for a writer to gloss over holes or problems in story as they revise because as the old saying goes “you can’t see the forest for the trees.” Writers can unwittingly become blind nature walkers and every additional revision seems to solidify a layer of spackle somewhere.

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Am I Spackling?

It is so easy to get lost “too inside your own head” during the writing process and forget there is a difference between subtext and nothing there at all. You won’t know you are spackling until after you have put away the putty knife.

As you write, you’ll gain a sense of depth and breadth of your character. After all, you are living with them every revision. But is it on the page? If you write like I do, then you have likely created detailed backgrounds for all your characters. 98% of this detail will never make it into the script outright.

If when you receive notes and you find yourself explaining how your protagonist needed that chocolate ice cream as a child in order to set up his current job loss as a engineering contractor at the end of Act Two, but the ice cream scene isn’t in there, nor mentioned, it is likely you are Spackling.

An example from one of my scripts: My protagonist must make a pointed decision at the age of eight, one which will forever change the direction of his life. In the first two revisions this decision took place off screen. I knew the decisions, based on the backstory I had developed so, in retrospect, I believed that the different lives he would lead as a result of those decisions would contrast enough. It didn’t.

In the next revision, the decision took place on screen, but it still didn’t pronounce in a truly effective manner. Even though I knew what was going on, there was a disconnect between what I knew in my head about the character and what was actually on the page. Mental Spackle struck at the most important incident of the first act! It happens to the best of us, but if you follow a few simple steps, this won’t happen to you.

How do I combat Mental Spackle?

As you are the closest person to your own work, it will always be hard to ferret out things that may seem obvious to others. That’s why it’s always important to have a group of readers whom you trust.

I have a friend that is excellent with grammar and typos. I have another who can critically deconstruct even the most challenging plot arcs with ease. I have actor friends who help me make dialogue more authentic.

Don’t fly solo.

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Discuss your work with your trusted peers. The simplest of spackle jobs can be addressed with a read through by someone other than you. Send it out for a round of informal notes. This will catch the top level stuff; grammar, wording, formatting and spelling problems.

Have professional coverage written on your script.

Getting coverage on your script can really help you make your story a concise, precise and marketable piece of work. A good analyst will deconstruct your story, find your mistakes and missteps and tell you what may be holding your script back. It is through this analysis that you’ll know what works, if your highs are where they belong, and if your characters’ arcs read correctly.

Organize a table read with real actors.

There is nothing more helpful than hearing the words you’ve written coming form the mouths of actors. A table read is not for performance sake, it is to hear your dialogue and action text spoken aloud. Does it seem natural? Does it make sense? Does the pacing work?

I personally like to have the actors read the script cold. If my characters and their voices are strong, the actors will be able to find their groove easily and spot embarrassing mistakes.

Revise, Revise, Revise!

Each pass through of your script you’ll find something new to adjust, sweeten and tweak. I know writing is an eager process and instant gratification is the solution for excited writers. And while it may feel like it’s done at the end of revision two or three, it probably isn’t.

Space out your revisions. Editing back to back will increase the likelihood that you will accidentally spackle right over major problems because you’re too close to your project to notice.

Workshop your script.

Workshops provide an immediate, collaborative environment to vet your work. If you are able to get into a workshop with a strong workshop leader and committed participants you’ll find it a worthwhile endeavor. Plus, you never know what comment will spark that “Eureka!” moment that will help you fix your script.

Most importantly, Step away for a bit.

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If you have the luxury, let the work breathe. You can’t eat a pie straight from the oven, and you can’t finish a script and shoot it out to the world before really making sure that every detail, every character, every scene is perfect.

For every writer there is a want, a need to finish a revision and share it with the world. That urgency is healthy. But being hasty can be your downfall.

Avoiding Mental Spackle altogether is impossible. Your mind will always fill in your character’s gaps, confuse removed scenes from five drafts ago with your current version and think like they are still a part of the script.

Plan ahead and be methodical. If you don’t, you may end up like my friend Emery. He wrote a script that took place in Kansas; it was subsequently moved to outer space. Apparently, Emery didn’t catch that when he changed the meet-cute from the Wichita Wal-Mart to his new location planet Merrilia, he left the stage directions the same.

But who knows, maybe Emery knows something about inter-stellar retail that we don’t.

Merrel Davis.

(Article written with contributions from Xandy Sussan)

Merrel_DavisMerrel Davis is a script analyst based in Los Angeles. He’s worked as a video editor, writer, producer, director, graphic designer and cinematographer on various projects including cutting HD video for the 2008 Bejing Olympics. He’s the creator of ‘Screenwriter Karaoke‘, a successful monthly networking event and is currently working on a feature and a web miniseries.

About the Author

Cherie Lee

I studied acting for three years and hold a graduate diploma in writing from Sydney's UTS. My interest in film and writing was solidified through interning at The Story Department and gave me the opportunity to fine tune my skills. I've been involved with several film projects, the most recent of which was shortlisted for Tropfest.With the knowledge gained from university and my experience at The Story Department, I'm now specialising in professional feedback on short films and documentaries.

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