Scriptcat’s survival tips for Hollywood’s trenches…

sullivans-travels-052We’re off on a new journey and I hope you’ve created opportunities that have pushed your screenplays closer to success. Trust me, I know if can feel like you’re banging your head against a wall hoping for a breakthrough, but finding the same results of rejection and criticism. I truly hope you’re busy creating a solid body of work and forging ahead on your screenwriting journey. I hope that I’ve been able to offer a few nuggets of advice that you’ve found helpful. In addition to my tips on Twitter (@scriptcat), my Youtube Channel.

I’ll be posting new tips here every month in addition to new articles. Dig in as I’ve written over 180 articles on this blog. I’m also broadcasting live on the new app PERISCOPE. Check it out. Thanks for reading and as always: Carry on, keep the faith and keep screenwriting. Okay, let’s cut to the chase and get right to the action—here are a few more useful survival tips for your journey…

TIP #1

MARK4Act like a professional even if you’re an aspirant writing your specs. As a screenwriter, you must consider writing a job and this helps you to think of yourself as a professional. As with any job, it comes with deadlines, requirements and expectations, so it’s good practice to follow professional disciplines as you prepare for the time when you do get paid to write. If you train yourself to work under a deadline, it’s not a shock when the producer requires you to complete a script by a certain date. It’s no longer the romanticized dream of spending endless time working on your spec to get it just right—it’s “go time” and you’re now playing in the big leagues—exactly where you belong. The producer or executive expects greatness from you and you generally have six to eight weeks to deliver the first draft and its excellence will decide if they keep you on to write a second draft, or fire you. This is not the time for a “vomit draft.” If you start meeting your own deadlines when writing your specs, it will be easier later when they pay you under contract to meet a deadline.

TIP #2

praise or blameDon’t take criticism personally and realize that it’s part of the process. If you’re going to play in the majors, you’re competing with the best and you must accept that sometimes you won’t find the validation you need. Many times feedback on your script is disappointing and your high expectations become squashed. Your ego’s bruised, beaten to a pulp and you to doubt your talent and chances for success. Don’t take it personally, because feedback is a rite of passage necessary for the growth of any aspiring screenwriter. If you want to survive over the long haul of a career, you’ll need to toughen up and build your courage to endure disappointment criticism and rejection. Learn how to filter the good notes from the bad and ugly notes. As you embrace this process, you’ll begin to look at constructive feedback as a positive experience that helps make your script better, helps push it closer to something a producer wants to produce, and teaches you how to collaborate as a team player so you can work again.

TIP #3

quote of the dayYou’ll learn the longer you pursue a screenwriting career that talk is cheap in Hollywood and people want credit for their good intentions. Too many times the words are empty promises that end up wasting an eager and hungry writer’s time. Money makes it real. Take everything as face value for talk is the cheapest commodity in Hollywood. Many times interest in you or your script and the endless talk is just that—interest and talk. Many times meetings are just meetings. Many times a producer’s upbeat attitude about your project can become infectious. You want to believe that others see your dream and can realize it. Why not? It’s what keeps us going as screenwriters—belief in our projects and the faith that success is just around the corner. I’m sure when producers and executives tell you that your project is going into production, they just might believe it themselves, but sometimes they tell a writer this to buy more free time. Producers want to keep a writer’s interest in hanging on until they “work out the pesky financing details” and it becomes the bait for more free work. If they can’t raise the money for the budget or they have no money in their development budget, there really is no money to pay the writer. Be understanding to a certain point and look at every situation through a risk/benefit filter. Are you willing to risk your free time with free rewrites on the possible chance a project “might” get produced? Get excited when a producer gives you a contract, you both sign it and you get paid. That’s the professional way—otherwise, you can’t live on the currency of good intentions. Now get back to your blank pages. If you stop writing you’re guaranteed never to have any chance at success.

TIP #4


This leads to overwriting your script. What should be a 105 page screenplay is now 125 pages and you wonder why.

You might be asking, “What do you mean by micromanaging?”Here is a Top 10 Checklist to see if you’re guilty of this:


  1. You describe every action detail between the lines of dialogue. The fewer words on the page the better. Leave the specific character’s business up to the actor unless it’s absolutely necessary to move the story forward.
  2. You’re TELLING and not SHOWING in your writing: “It was a hot summer day like the ones you remember as a child.” How do you SHOW this?
  3. You’re directing the character’s actions with too many details: Frank rolls his eyes, shrugs, smiles, blushes, folds arms, grits teeth, scowls and drops his head. It’s Bad Acting 101 and actors will hate this from the writer.
  4. You describe every “turn” the character makes. It’s assumed characters are talking to each other unless to write otherwise. You don’t need to constantly write “Frank turns to Kate.”
  5. You’re using idioms: “Lisa was over the moon by the performance.” No. She wasn’t literally “over the moon” so don’t write it. Screenwriting is only what we can see and hear on the screen.
  6. Don’t repeat phrases or words in dialogue between characters. You’re not David Mamet, so don’t waste space by writing, “Are we going? Yeah we’re going. Okay, when are we going? We’re going now.”
  7. Don’t write what a character is thinking: “Henry was sad as the remembered the good times with his wife.” You have to show this visually and not TELL us.
  8. You write WE SEE and WE HEAR in your descriptions. Leave this out of your screenplay. It takes us out of the read and you are directing as this point. What you write on the page is what “we see or hear.”
  9. You describe the set with too many unnecessary details: The living room had green shag carpet, paisley wallpaper and a giant crystal chandelier. Unless it’s necessary let the set designer and art director do their jobs.
  10.  You’re writing eight pages of dialogue. Sure, Quentin Tarrantino can get away with opening a film with ten pages of dialogue–you and I cannot. Most of the time the dialogue can be cut and then cut again by fifty percent.

Keep writing and filling your pages because if you stop—you’re guaranteed to never have any shot at success. This is a business with no guarantees even when you do sell a screenplay.

@Scriptcat out!

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“Do you have the patience to wait until your mud settles and the water is clear?” ― Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching

“Deliberate practice, by its nature, must be hard. When you want to get good at something, how you spend your time practicing is far more important than the amount of time you spend. Regular practice simply isn’t enough. To improve, we must watch ourselves fail, and learn from our mistakes.”—Florida State University’s Anders Ericsson

If you’re worried about failing, you ought to get into a different business, because statistics will tell you that sixty or seventy percent of the time you’re going to fail.  By fail I mean that the movie won’t make money.  Just do the best you can every time.  And if you’re going to stay in the movies, and you like movies—and I love them—you’d better love them a lot, because it’s going to take all of your time.  If you want to be in the movies, it’s going to break your heart.“—Richard Brooks, director of Blackboard Jungle, Sweet Bird of Youth, In Cold Blood, Looking for Mr. Goodbar

Ultimately, we all have to decide for ourselves what constitutes failure. But the world is quite eager to give you a set of criteria if you let it. [F]ailure means a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself to be anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena where I believe I truly belonged. [R]ock bottom became the solid foundation on which I built my life.” ~ J.K. Rowling

Micromanaging your screenplay comes from inexperience and fear…

handsMany beginning screenwriters work so hard at keeping a tight grip on every line of dialogue and action that it results in micromanaging at the highest level. It comes from inexperience and the fear that actors, the producer or director will not understand the scene or the dialogue properly so the screenwriter feels the need to overwrite and hammer the ideas home. The writer doesn’t trust his or her writing and this insecurity sucks the air out of the script. It’s obvious the writer is directing from the page and that’s not our job. We should stay the hell out of the way of the characters and story. When reading a really amazing screenplay, it’s like you don’t notice that someone actually wrote the script. The same goes for a really believable acting performance. The acting appears effortless because it’s not obvious and looks easy. One of the hardest abilities to master as a screenwriter is to stay out of the way and not handle every line or action with a stranglehold as you still need to put your unique imprint on the script.

I recently read a screenplay where the writer described every bit of action between most lines of dialogue and also added emotional descriptions to help give the dialogue a “line reading” for the actor or script reader. This will result in an overwritten screenplay, but also one that showcases the writer’s inexperience and insecurity. If your character must exit or enter the scene of course you need to describe that action, but not the excruciating details that include: “rolls eyes, shrugs shoulders, grits teeth, blushes, folds arms, blinks, breathes heavily, smiles, and even stands “up.” Are you laughing because you’re guilty of this? Trust me, actors do not enjoy reading this heavy-handed writing and it’s a bit insulting to their craft. It’s the writer directing from the page on how to play the scene if a character is upset: “Jack walks to the window, looks out, inhales deeply, thinks for a beat and folds his arms as he’s upset with Harold’s unexpected news.” This is not screenwriting.

Trust me, the actors will find the right emotional business that will come out of the scene and the dialogue—and what is not written. The subtext beneath and between the lines is the actor’s playground and allows them the myriad of actions the character takes based upon their motivations and emotional state at the moment. You set the scene and let the other artists elevate your material to a higher level. I’ve been the recipient of this when an Academy Award nominee co-starred in one of my films. He added some improvised lines to a scene and it became the biggest laugh in the movie. I still get people asking me if I wrote that line of dialogue and I reply that it was not me, but his improvised line.

I’ve been lucky to work around Academy Award and Emmy nominated actors who have starred in some of the films that I’ve written and I’ve learned so much watching them on the set. If you give them a well-written scene they will elevate it and add more than you’d expect. Imagine telling your Academy Award nominee or winner that he or she needs to “blush” on cue when saying a line of dialogue. It’s like you’re training a dog to sit on command. Avoid this because it does not give you the image of a professional screenwriter, but a nervous and inexperienced aspirant.

220px-MadworldposterI’m reminded of a famous Spencer Tracy acting story from director Stanley Kramer. He tells of directing Tracy in the classic comedy “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.” Tracy did not like heavy-handed direction and only wanted Kramer to tell him where he was needed at the end of the scene. Kramer told Tracy the scene ended with him at the door of the office. The camera rolled and Tracy started off behind his desk and said his dialogue as he made his way around the office toward the door. He paused at points along the way and created every action himself as part of his “business” in character. He didn’t need a screenwriter telling him to pause next to the chair, glance out the window, look at his hat, consider his wife, or scratch his nose.

In my experience, the micromanaging can come in the production draft when the producer or director needs you to really punch things up and the specific details are necessary for them to actually make the film. I once worked with a producer who wanted me (in my opinion) to overwrite and micromanage the script, but there was a good reason, he was not going to be on location in another country so he really wanted to make that important details not be overlooked during the fast production schedule.

script pageSo, I had to adapt my screenwriting style to facilitate the job, but it was in a protected bubble of development so it’s okay. The script was not a spec out there representing me and my ability. It was a green-lit film and I was now part of a team and my job was whatever it took to help get the film produced. When you write specs you want to put your best image forward and your screenplay represents your talents if you are an unknown entity without credits. You can break all rules after your screenplay is purchased. That is why I tell writers to be careful when reading the “Oscar nominated” scripts, as they are written in a protected bubble and have been through the development process. By the time you read the script it’s the final production draft or the scripts were written by the directors, so all bets are off because they can do whatever they need to create a working blueprint to shoot the movie.  Nothing is left to chance.

When you’re starting out writing your specs, avoid having a white knuckle grip on the scenes, every line of dialogue or too much description where you tell us rather than show us. Don’t tell an actor to “blink” as an emotion, not unless it’s some type of secret code system worked out between characters and two blinks means danger. You have to find more effective ways of screenwriting to get your point across without micromanaging the work.

Keep writing and learning because if you stop you are guaranteed never to have any shot at success.

Scriptcat (Mark Sanderson) out!

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“Given the choice between trivial material brilliantly told versus profound material badly told, an audience will always choose the trivial told brilliantly.  Master storytellers know how to squeeze life out of the least of things, while poor storytellers reduce the profound to the banal.  You may have the insight of a Buddha, but if you cannot tell story, your ideas turn dry as chalk.”—Robert McKee, “Story”

“When your story is ready for rewrite, cut it to the bone. Get rid of every ounce of excess fat. This is going to hurt; revising a story down to the bare essentials is always a little like murdering children, but it must be done.”—Stephen King

“Dramatic economy, which includes the ability of a writer to cut what at one point he might have considered to be his best work ever, is one of the most important skills a writer can have. It is learned only through much experience, combined with a ruthless attitude and utter lack of sentimentality.”—Alexander MacKendrick, The Lady Killers, Sweet Smell of Success.

“A good writer should know as near everything as possible. Naturally he will not. A great enough writer seems to be born with knowledge. But he really is not; he has only been born with the ability to learn in a quicker ratio to the passage of time than other men and without conscious application, and with an intelligence to accept or reject what is already presented as knowledge. There are some things which cannot be learned quickly and time, which is all we have, must be paid heavily for their acquiring. They are the very simplest things and because it takes a man’s life to know them the little new that each man gets from life is very costly and the only heritage he has to leave.”—Ernest Hemingway

Your first draft is dangerously important.  Don’t ever kid yourself into thinking, “It’s okay, it’s just the first draft.” Beware of that thought, because it’s ten times more difficult to go in a certain direction once you’ve already gone in another direction.  The longer you can hold off putting a word down on paper, the better you are. ” Rewriting is largely cleaning up things that aren’t clear to you, or trying to shorten a scene that’s too long, or realizing now that you’ve written scenes at the end of the story, maybe the scenes at the beginning should be a little different to help set up a scene that comes at the end.“—Ernest Lehman, Screenwriter of Sweet Smell of Success, North by Northwest, West Side Story, The Sound of Music, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf?