At the moment I’m busy reading Jonah Lehrer’s recent book The Decisive Moment (also published as How We Decide), a fascinating summary of current scientific thinking on how humans make decisions. Which turns out to be based on emotions, rather than abstract rational considerations, and more or less unconscious. Very different from the way we think we make decisions.
Rather than get into the details of Lehrer’s book, I want to highlight one aspect of decision-making which seems particularly relevant for screenwriters: Learning from your mistakes.
As Lehrer explains, your brain is constantly predicting outcomes based on previous experiences. When your predictions are correct you feel good, but, more importantly, you feel bad when they’re not.
The dopamine neurons in your brain constantly learn from experience and provide this emotional sense that something is correct or wrong. That gut feeling which you find so hard to explain but which you can’t ignore. Your intuition, in other words. One of the best ways to hone this intuition is to examine bad decisions. The neuroscientific reason for this is, as Lehrer puts it on page 57 of his book:
Unless you experience the unpleasant symptoms of being wrong, your brain will never revise its models. Before your neurons can succeed, they must repeatedly fail. There are no shortcuts for this painstaking process.
In other words, the negative emotions you feel when, say, weaknesses in your writing are pointed out, are a vital part of learning how improve your writing. Especially when you put them in the appropriate context: These negative emotions are not a sign of your stupidity or incompetence, they are flags, held up by your dopamine neurons, showing you where your predictions were wrong.
The more you examine your mistakes, the more you train your intuition to recognize what works and what doesn’t, and the quicker your “gut feeling” will flag up bad writing.
So take solace in the efficacy, time-consuming though it may be, of the learning process. Search out, acknowledge and examine your mistakes. Have your work critiqued, get feedback and take it seriously. Allow your brain to integrate each new insight. Hone your intuition and learn to trust it.