Five honest questions screenwriters must answer about their screenwriting…
October 24, 2016 § Leave a comment
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 professional code 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 five honest questions about the craft of screenwriting that aspiring screenwriters must answer before they jump in and pursue a career… and here we go..
- 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. 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.
- Are you overwriting your screenplay? I’ve read too many scripts that are micro managed and result in a bloated screenplay. 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 you into trouble when you end up in barren wasteland of Act 2, and you become lost on page sixty, or with a hundred and fifty-page script with 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 every year before yours does.
Format starts with your cover page. It’s the little details that will show if you know what you are doing or not. If any of these hard and fast rules are not followed, your script will likely have a much harder time getting through the pipeline and will end up as a doorstop, or in the recycling bin without a read. This will close doors, harm your reputation and your project. You never get a second chance to make a first great impression with your screenplay. Make the time to do your best work and don’t unleash the script before it’s ready.
Copyright 2017 by Mark Sanderson on MY BLANK PAGE blog.
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“It’s a funny thing about life if you refuse to accept anything but the best, you very often get it.”—W. Somerset Maugham
“Do it for joy and you can do it forever” ―Stephen King
“The professional respects his craft. He does not consider himself superior to it. He recognizes the contributions of those who have gone before him. He apprentices himself to them.” —Steven Pressfield, “The War of Art” “.
.. The payoff of playing-the-game-for-money is not the money (which you may never see anyway, even after you turn pro). The payoff is that playing the game for money produces the proper professional attitude. It inculcates the lunch-pail mentality, the hard-core, hard-head, hard-hat state of mind that shows up for work despite rain or snow or dark of night and slugs it out day after day.” — Steven Pressfield, “The War of Art”
“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