How to Become a Movie Screenwriter
I was asked the other day,
“How does one become a screenwriter?”
Simple question, yet as I gave it further thought it occurred to me that it’s not one that can be easily answered.
If you ask a guidance counselor how does someone become a doctor, chances are he or she will tell you,
“by going to medical school.”
Certain professions have clear cut paths for those who aspire to be Lawyers or Accountants or Phlebotomists. But becoming a screenwriter is a little different.
There are plenty of people in Hollywood that will tell you they’re a scribe for movies or TV. But how did they become an actual writer of films and television? To be more specific, what are the paths to writing scripts?
A screenwriter is not a novelist. Both tell stories but the medium by which they deliver their message is very different. Novelist use prose to express their narrative.
They can effectively delve into the inner minds of characters, feelings, thoughts, and desires without having to DISPLAY them in an external, visual way. Screenwriting requires more emphasis in a dramatization of these aspects by displaying behavior, writing story and subtext.
A screenwriter is also not a journalist who mostly reports information or chronicles an event. Journalists tell stories that can be dramatic, thrilling, or humorous.
But much of the focus has more to do with fact and less to do with a plot (a writer can fudge with the truth as long as it makes the story more entertaining).
Many playwrights have gone on to become outstanding in screenwriting, but the distinction between the two can be measured by the emphasis of dialogue. Movies are cinematic whereas plays are more contained and rely more on verbal expression rather than the pastiche of photographed images cut together.
Being a screenwriter is not like writing a book
Screenwriting like the other writing disciplines mentioned has its own language and methods unique to its story form. It’s not something you can truly master in a day, or a week, or at your first attempt at writing film scripts.
To become a film writer you must watch movies — lots of movies. This way you gain an insight to how they work with regard to pacing, technique, and expression of ideas. This is the foundation from which your storytelling intuition will guide you.
But intuition isn’t enough. Intuition is what navigates the beginning writer into taking flights of fancy with their stories. Sometimes it helps you come up with some pretty inspiring, interesting material — but it can also lead you to the outer reaches of chaos that can unravel your story until you’re completely lost.
How to separate yourself from the pack
To separate yourself from this novice screenwriting pack, the next step to becoming a film writer is to read A LOT of scripts: produced scripts, unproduced scripts, scripts to movies you love, scripts to movies you hate, great scripts, horrible scripts.
Great scripts inspire you to achieve; bad scripts teach you what to avoid. Crucial to becoming a film writer is understanding the rules of screenwriting and format. Of course, rules are not scripture or laws that can’t ever be broken.
But if you are going to break them, better to know what your breaking and to what extent you’re breaking them. As I said before, you can’t learn this stuff in a crash course week. You can understand aspects of it, but you won’t really get it until you start writing.
Writing is the biggest component to becoming a film writer. You have to write full-length screenplays to completion with fully realized stories. Not just one, or two — you should write multiple screenplays.
It’s only in the trial and error process of writing these screenplays and the requisite revised drafts that you start to “get” those rules that you discovered in books or seminars or the UCLA screenwriting extension program.
Even if you get a post degree in screenwriting, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve become a screenwriter — but it does imply that you are willing to put the time into it.
And time is what it takes to be a film writer — to understand the culture, the work regiment, the process, as well as the vicissitudes that come with its lifestyle.
It’s like a professional screenplay reader and instructor once told me:
“think of becoming a screenwriter like a profession that requires going to a four year school (especially for those who understandably forego getting a bachelor’s or master’s in screenwriting).”
It takes about the same amount of time, tutelage, and dedication at becoming a confident writer as it would take to getting a degree in an educated field.
If you want to become a writer, the first step is to devote yourself to finding out as much information about it as possible about the craft and career and then making the commitment to proceed along that path.
But are you REALLY a Screenwriter?
Before I could discuss “How to Become a Screenwriter,” I asked myself the question, am I a writer? You would think it’s an easy question to answer. Living in Los Angeles I’ve rubbed shoulders with those who could answer “yes” to that question within the span of a heartbeat; however, for me, the moniker held so much emotional baggage that to answer it with a resounding yes was virtually impossible.
Partly because to call yourself a film writer is to give yourself a label that requires proof on several levels:
1) Have you’ve been paid to write?
2) Have you sold any scripts?
3) Do you do it full time?
4) Has anything you’ve written been professionally produced?
5) Are you currently writing something that will be optioned, purchased or produced?
6) Do you have a literary agent?
7) Do you have a literary manager?
If reading this you felt the illusion of calling yourself a writer quickly dissipated by the stark reality that you answered no to most of these questions, then you’re in good company.
At one time I was able to answer yes to four of the above questions, even so, I felt the unease of embracing the title because to call it a full-fledged career had been as elusive as Tom Cruise winning an Academy Award™ — eventually you think it’s bound to happen…eventually.
So maybe you do what I did when someone asked,
“what do you do?”
Squirm a little, furrow your brow, and say with a withered response,
“um, I… write.”
Hopefully, that would be enough information, but invariably I would be expected to elaborate.
“Um… I write screenplays.”
I would then proceed to fill in some of the blanks,
“Nothing produced yet, but I’ve come close.”
Well if you simply reserve the title of “writer to only those who are gainfully employed doing it, then yes, there’s only a few who can legitimately file their income tax return with the epithet “writer.”
But, what if instead of answering the above questions that focus more on the accomplishments of a successful screenwriting career, you were asked a series of different questions:
1) Do you make the time (not just find the time) to write every day?
2) Have you completed a script? Better yet, have you completed multiple scripts?
3) Have you shared your writing with others and are accepting of constructive criticism?
4) Do you constantly seek ways to better your skills in the craft and discipline of being a writer?
5) Are willing to forgo other career possibilities and weather through years of rejection, disappointment, and at times abject failure?
6) Do you actively search for stories to tell with a unique voice to share with the world.
7) Do write not because you choose to, but because you HAVE to?
If you answered yes to most if not all those questions, then as far as I have come to discover you embody the true essence of what a writer is.
And it is only by answering yes to the later questions that you will ever be able to answer in the affirmative the former questions. So the question remains, are you really a screenwriter?
Am I? Let’s just say in my soul I am and for that reason I proclaim YES!
Winning Screenwriting Competitions: Lessons Learned
Now that you are a film script writer you will want to submit your work to screenwriting competitions. Years ago when I received word that my screenplay, Control; Alt; Delete, had won not one but two screenwriting competitions, I believed that all the hard work, years of struggle, self-doubt, and rejection had culminated to a glowing achievement that would forever wash away the specter of failure: I had climbed the mountain to see my shining new horizon as a working writer.
And it was marvelous.
Things just seemed to be going my way: I got an agent, a manager, and a well-known producer was going to make my script into a feature. I had meetings with big production companies with studio deals, pitched projects to major producers, was courted with screenwriting assignments – it was my time to shine.
And then it unraveled.
Not suddenly… no. It was more like an incremental closing of a window that you thought was wedged open by accolades of your winning script. One thing happens, and then another, and another.
In and of itself, not one was a devastating setback, but collectively they amounted to an avalanche of overwhelming loss. My agent left the industry, my manager ceased being a manager, and the producer moved on… so did those screenwriting assignments.
At the end, I was back to where I started from, a scribe in name only with little to show for but the glimpse at what could have been.
Was I crushed? You bet. I questioned everything I did; every decision made. What could I have done better? Was I too cavalier? Was I too dedicated? Did I try too hard; could I have tried harder? Was this window of opportunity squandered forever?
Well, was it?
It’s not an easy question to answer. I do believe that those chances have come and gone like that girl you didn’t kiss when you should have: that magic moment will never be replicated.
However, I did learn a lot from the experience – the stuff you don’t learn in film school – call it the film school of hard knocks nd with that I would like to share some of those lessons learned.
DECIDE WHAT KIND OF WRITER YOU ARE AND WRITE IT
The script that got me notice was a dark comedy about a high school student whose life is turned upside down when he fails a psychological test with the ability to predict future criminals. Am I a comedy writer?
Well, not really. Don’t get me wrong, I like comedy, but most of the stuff I write is thrillers, science fiction, and action-adventures because those are the genres I LOVE. My script that won the awards was a comedy, so I was seen as a comedy writer.
I tried to fit in that mold instead of creating my own mold by defining who I was and sticking with it. Established working writers are successful because they found their niche, and they stay consistent with it.
That’s not to say you can’t change and meld genres, but once you get recognized for a style, be that horror, drama, thriller, or comedy, you will be known as that kind of writer. Figure out who you want to be known as, staying true to your interest, and write that script.
GIVE THEM WHAT THEY WANT… TO A POINT
Sure as a writer you have a creative voice you want to share with the world, but remember that this is a collaborative industry – you’re not screenwriting in a vacuum where all your ideas and sparks of creativity are pure genius. Be open to hearing alternate points of view, i.e. NOTES, especially if you’re working with a producer on a project.
You’d be amazed how little you know about your own story even when you thought you knew it all. But on the flip side, not all notes are valuable – in fact, they can down right suck and send you down a path laden with pot holes the size of the Grand Canyon.
The best policy is to listen, consider, and if it damages the essence of what your story and voice is saying, then politely ignore those suggestions.
NEVER STOP STUDYING THE CRAFT
Just because you won a screenwriting competition it doesn’t make you a master storyteller. Real craftsman continues studying and honing their skill.
I’m a big advocate of reading scripts – tons of them – and following the trade secrets of screenwriting gurus like Robert McKee, Syd Field, Linda Seger, Christopher Vogler, and Michael Hauge (“The Art of Dramatic Writing” by Lajos Egri is another must have).
I would also suggest joining a screenwriting group – what I learned in the group I belonged to was immeasurably helpful.
When I won those screenwriting contests I didn’t have another comedy script under my belt. In most of the meetings, I had with execs or producers they would invariably ask if I had something else that they could look at.
All I had were ideas – nothing fully realized beyond loglines or a basic synopsis. Even if they like your idea, they want a script. Without a screenplay it’s just a meet and greet, which essentially amounts to nil.
LEARN HOW TO PITCH
The pitch is selling in its purest sense. You’re selling your idea to a room of people who can quickly lose interest. PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE. Know your story inside out and be sure to entertain. If it doesn’t entertain, it won’t get made.
CONCEPT IS EVERYTHING
If you’ve got a story about a little old lady who mourns the loss of her cat, Morris, then hopefully you’ve got someone with money looking to invest in that kind of movie, otherwise, you’ve got an up hill battle.
Concept is key – it’s that little light bulb that comes to life in someone’s mind when you say it in one sentence. Yes, just one sentence. If you can’t say it in one or two sentences at the most then it may well be an existential art house movie that’s possibly brilliant but also very difficult to sell.
AND IF ALL FAILS, DON’T GIVE UP
Success isn’t measured by how well you do so much as how you deal with failure. For a while, I felt like I failed myself for not getting that script produced or getting it sold. So what was this comedy writer to do?
Well, I reinvented myself by dropping the comedy moniker and writing in the aforementioned genres I love. Instead of searching for someone to buy my scripts, I now turn them into my own comic books, which are now published.
The point is, always move forward no matter what mistakes you make or rejections you encounter. This is your story – how you end it is up to you just as long as you keep writing it.
BONUS: Some of the BEST Online Screenwriting Courses & Books available:
- Aaron Sorkin Screenwriting MasterClass
- Jim Uhls’ (Writer of Fight Club) The Screenwriters Toolkit
- Paul Castro’s The MILLION DOLLAR BUSINESS OF SCREENWRITING
- Paul Castro’s The Million Dollar Screenplay
- Stephanie Palmer’s Good in a Room – FREE AUDIO BOOK VERSION
- Michael Hauge’s & Chris Vogler’s Screenwriting & Story Blueprint: The Hero’s Two Journeys
- Karl Igelsias’s Writing for Emotional Impact – FREE AUDIO BOOK VERSIONS HERE
- Save the Cat!® The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need – FREE AUDIO BOOK VERSION
- Linda Seger’s Making A Good Script Great – FREE AUDIO BOOK VERSION
If you enjoyed How to Become a Movie Screenwriter in Hollywood, that a look at my:
TOP TEN Screenwriting Books You Need to Read!
David R. Flores is a writer and artist (aka Sic Monkie) based in Los Angeles. He is the creator of the comic book series Dead Future King published by Alterna Comics and Golden Apple Books.
Website: www.davidrflores.com & www.deadfutureking.com
Twitter: @drodflo @deadfutureking @sicmonkie
Tumblr: davidrflores.tumblr.com & deadfutureking.tumblr.com
Facebook: Dead Future King
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