Scriptcat’s Top Ten Questions For Aspiring Screenwriters…
April 6, 2013 § 7 Comments
If your passion drives you to embark on this crazy marathon of a screenwriting career, you’ll need to prepare for survival in Hollywood’s trenches. Talent is important, but so is your professionalism and ability to endure criticism, rejection and failure over the long haul. The odds may be stacked against you, but the way to standout in this very competitive business is to create a solid body of work and build a reputation as a team player and collaborator. The rest is just luck—a prepared screenwriter who meets with an opportunity and delivers the goods.
Here are ten honest questions that aspiring screenwriters must answer before they jump in and pursue a screenwriting career… and here we go…
- Do you have an artist’s mentality? You’ll need a bit of insanity as you stare into the dark void of the unknown and fight your fear so it won’t cripple you. You’ll need to withstand continued rejection, criticism, failure, ridicule, and times when you make no money. Your burning passion will guide you across yet another hurdle. If you’re okay with all of this, you just might have what it takes. Rejection loves to knock out screenwriters, it hates those who get up before the “ten count” and start screenwriting again.
- Have you mastered screenplay format? I find many aspiring writers have a serious lack of knowledge or respect about screenplay format. It’s what separates the professional from the amateur. Producers, directors, and executives will immediately recognize that if you didn’t have enough respect for your craft to know proper format, you’re not a professional. You may have a grand idea for a movie, but the execution of the idea is what really counts. I’ve seen too many times screenwriters being rejected after writing a spec because it was rushed and not well-written. Some screenwriters will stubbornly believe that their screenplay will sell just off the idea alone and they don’t have to do the hard work. In reality, good ideas are a dime a dozen in Hollywood, it’s the execution of an effective screenplay that counts.
- Do you overwrite? I read too many scripts that are overwritten. Do you describe the wallpaper and give directions to the actors like: “He sighs, shrugs his shoulders, rolls his eyes, smiles and turns?” Many new screenwriters feel the need to micromanage every scene. Stop doing this. Producers and executives hate to read—funny in a business where the script is so important, but they like to see a lot of “white” on the page. This means the fewer words the better and it’s the job of the screenwriter to stay the hell out-of-the-way of the story. You are here to service the story not the other way around.
- Do you respect story and screenplay structure? I find some beginning writers have a lack of respect for the treatment/step outline/beat sheet and how it related to the screenplay structure. This arrogance will get a writer into trouble when they end up in barren wasteland of Act 2 and become lost on page sixty or with a hundred and fifty-page script and have no idea where to cut. Your screenplay dies from 1,000 little format, story and structure issues. It’s all about the attention to the little details. I can start reading a script and by the first page know it’s from an amateur. The producers and executives will notice too.
- Have you accepted this fact: Screenwriting is all about execution and rewriting? Hollywood is full of good ideas and the winning formula is: good idea + execution of good idea = amazing viable screenplay. It all comes down to being able to execute a good idea into an even better script. Many beginning writers believe their first draft is perfect and needs no rewrites. Reality check ahead! After I read someone’s magnum opus and they tell me it took six months to write it without a treatment or even a step outline, I grimace and realize they just don’t understand the process. A reader or producer will stop reading and become frustrated after the first few pages. Detach from the material and it will be much easier to cut it to the bone. When they do give you suggestions and notes do not bristle and defend every word. You’ll be branded as “difficult” and you’ll find it hard to work if you can’t shake that reputation. Rewrites will be a huge part of your screenwriting journey.
- Are you willing to give the time necessary to create a viable body of work? We all want overnight success with the least amount of effort, right? A screenwriting career is as easy as falling out of bed in the morning into a three picture deal. Wrong. It can take years and a half-dozen screenplays to achieve any level of success as a working screenwriter—or maybe never. You’ll need time to fail and write badly so you can get on to doing your best work. You need to think of your career as your life’s journey and continually learn, study, and work at becoming a better screenwriter. You want to become a master of your craft at the top of your game. This is the level of performance necessary to compete in a very crowded marketplace where no one really gives a shit about your precious screenplay. There are 30,000 – 50,000 scripts/ideas/pitches fighting to sell before yours does.
- Are you a one-script wonder — or a writing workhorse who constantly writes new material? Always have ready a new pitch, synopsis, treatment and script to offer. Hollywood is a business, and agents and managers size you up to see your career potential. You need to be good in a room while pitching your ideas — and you’ll need to execute notes well and write under the pressure of deadlines. Be a team player and don’t bristle at criticism. This is all part of being a professional screenwriter. Potential reps will look for these traits because your potential employers will as well.
- Have you found your unique voice and the type of material that attracts you? “Don’t write stuff you can’t handle. If you don’t like romantic comedies, don’t write “Annie Hall.” You have to always write your best, or you’re dead.”— William Goldman. Too many aspirants have no idea who their audience will be for the script they are writing. Remember that not every idea makes a great story for a movie. I continually realize this when I’m at a party and someone learns that I’m a writer and they proceed to pitch me something and begin by saying, “This is a great idea for a movie!” Nine times out of ten—it’s not.
- Are you humble and practice humility? If you’re in this for fame and fortune you’ve picked the wrong career. Do not consider yourself superior to your craft. Recognize those who went before you and learn from them, but find your unique voice. Forging a screenwriting career is like climbing the flaming lava flows of Mount Doom in Mordor. Disrespect you craft at your own peril.
- Are you patient? Overnight success is usually ten years in the making. If you are in this for the long haul, constantly learn and become a better writer. Also enjoy the journey and the little successes along the way.
- BONUS QUESTION as suggested by my fellow screenwriter Niraj Kapur (@Nirajwriter): Can you deal with rejection and come back stronger? Criticism and rejection will be part of your screenwriting journey for as long as you write scripts. It doesn’t change when you become a working professional and the stakes are higher because your job, money and reputation can be on the line. Don’t allow any criticism or rejection to knock you down. Protect yourself by detaching from the work and you’ll weather the storm of criticism if you know how to filter opinions and come back stronger with your next draft. Always strive to be a collaborator and team player and producers will hire you again.
Keep the faith, soldier on brave screenwriters and fill your blank pages.
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“To understand your fear is the beginning of really seeing.” — Bruce Lee
“It is one thing to study war and another to live the warrior’s life.”—Telamon of Arcadia, mercenary, 5th Century B.C.
“The amateur is a weekend warrior. The professional is there seven days a week… the professional loves it so much he dedicates his life to it. He commits full-time. Resistance hates it when we turn pro.”—Steven Pressfield, “The War of Art”
“Talent is cheaper than table salt. What separates the talented individual from the successful one is a lot of hard work.” – Stephen King
“Action is hope. At the end of each day, when you’ve done your work, you lie there and think, Well, I’ll be damned, I did this today. It doesn’t matter how good it is, or how bad—you did it. At the end of the week you’ll have a certain amount of accumulation. At the end of a year, you look back and say, I’ll be damned, it’s been a good year.”—Ray Bradbury
“This is, if not a lifetime process, it’s awfully close to it. The writer broadens, becomes deeper, becomes more observant, becomes more tempered, becomes much wiser over a period time passing. It is not something that is injected into him by a needle. It is not something that comes on a wave of flashing, explosive light one night and say, ‘Huzzah! Eureka! I’ve got it!’ and then proceeds to write the great American novel in eleven days. It doesn’t work that way. It’s a long, tedious, tough, frustrating process, but never, ever be put aside by the fact that it’s hard.”—Rod Serling
“You must write every single day of your life… You must lurk in libraries and climb the stacks like ladders to sniff books like perfumes and wear books like hats upon your crazy heads… may you be in love every day for the next 20,000 days. And out of that love, remake a world.”—Ray Bradbury