Using (and Abusing) Your Inner Critic
We all know that you can’t create original, interesting stuff with you inner critic whispering in your ear. We’ve witnessed brainstorming sessions where people were judging ideas before the ink was dry on the flipchart paper, stifling creativity and giving nothing the chance to grow or flourish. Creativity comes from a freedom to fail – or at least to suggest something which might be bonkers but could spark a moment of genius.
So learning to banish your inner critic is a vital part of the creative process. But that inner critic, that voice that says ‘that’s rubbish!’ can also be your best friend if you learn to harness it – at the right time.
Creating stories is not a simple, linear process. Some screenwriting books make it sound like you are supposed to come up with things in a sequential order; decide what you want to say (theme), create a character with a flaw that needs to be overcome (internal journey) and a want that will drive the story forward (quest/goal), craft a plot that will create obstacles to achieving that goal.
But no writer we’ve ever worked with actually creates like that. Stories develop organically. There’s that person at work whose sunny disposition got you wondering if he’s compensating for some terrible trauma at home. A film you watched last week that got you thinking about how differently people grieve and what loss is. The newspaper headline that prompted a ‘what if we could holiday on the moon?’ daydream.
It’s a jumble of thoughts and images and people and moments and ideas. To begin with, it doesn’t make any sense. Now is not the time to worry that it makes no sense. Now is the time to run with it and see where it takes you. Banish your inner critic. Put them right in their place, in no uncertain terms. Now is not their time but they can be persistent as all hell, so you’ll need to be firm. Let those story moments begin to take shape. Let the alchemical connections brew.
But eventually… You’re beginning to discover which character or story has the most resonance for you. Perhaps you have an antagonist. You’re starting to build the plot. Your theme might be coming through. For some writers this is when you’re outlining your story. For others the urge to get the scenes down on paper is overwhelming and you’re already bashing out a first draft of the script.
When that first heady rush is over, this is the time to invite your inner critic back into the room. Make them a cuppa, apologise for all that business before and ask for their help. Because they’ve been honing their superpower on other people’s work for years, and this is when they are worth their weight in gold.
All those times you’ve found fault with films and tv shows – when you’ve thought “I could do better than that” – they were all part of your inner critic’s learning process. Their enquiring mind will (eventually) move beyond ‘that didn’t move me’ to find out why. To diagnose the failed mechanics underneath: I didn’t care about the character, the story world logic wasn’t consistent, the dialogue didn’t ring true.
So don’t let your inner critic get away with a simple ‘it’s crap’ on your own work. Question them properly. What exactly about this isn’t working or needs to be better?
That nagging doubt in your head that the subplot isn’t really connected to the main story; that sequence you had fun writing but isn’t actually moving the story on; that character you know you don’t really know – you’re probably right. If it’s nagging at you, chances are a producer, script reader or script editor, with their story instinct, experience and analysis skills, will see it too. Let the inner critic hone in on those weaknesses and address them for you.
Because once you’ve killed your darlings and resolved the weaknesses you’re trying to ignore, this script will be better, stronger and more powerful. And if being a murderer doesn’t sit well with you, remember – those darlings are not gone forever. They’re just waiting in that bottom drawer of ideas saved for another day, for another story, in another time and place. A story that your inner critic can help with. When they’re invited in.