So, You Want to Become a Screenwriter?
You love movies. But you don’t just stop at that. You are also very passionate about storytelling. The last movie you saw got you weaving an interesting script for a spin-off on your head.
Maybe you even put some ideas on paper. You may even have oftentimes thought to yourself that you would have done a better job on a certain episode of your favorite television show.
If this comes even close to what watching creative film work makes you feel, you might want to consider a career in screenwriting. That is if you haven’t already.
Think of the massively successful careers of screenwriters like Stephen King, Quentin Tarantino, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and other industry leaders and picture how fulfilling it would be even to achieve a fraction of what they have under their belt.
Good. Now that you are thinking about taking steps towards following in the footsteps of these greats, it is important to be aware that the world of professional screenwriting can be very tough even for the most motivated people.
But as any professional in any field will tell you, nothing meaningful comes easy.
Only those who arm themselves with the right knowledge and put in the work have bounteous rewards awaiting them.
Today, I will take you through a number of ways that can help you break into the world of screenwriting.
I have conducted extensive research on the many pathways current professionals took, so that you don’t have to.
All you have to do is to take one path that makes most sense to you and roll with it.
Before we get there though, let’s take a look at what screenwriting is and what it entails.
WHAT IS SCREENWRITING?
Screenwriting or scriptwriting as some prefer to call it is the art and a craft of creating scripts for the mass media.
This could be for television, feature films, documentaries, commercials, music videos, online content, and even in video games.
Way before the final product you watch on a screen is released, it is written (on a laptop, paper, and so on.). It is first and foremost conceived in words.
The very beginning of a say 2-hour film is a story – that can be written in about one to ten pages.
It is even better if the writer can put down the story in a maximum of ten lines because it indicates that they have complete clarity about the story.
A screenwriter is responsible for conducting research on the story, curving out the narrative, creating the script, the screenplay, and dialogues, and then submitting it in the format required by the commissioning executives.
This is mainly done as freelance work although some organizations do employ in-house screenwriters.
As such, screenwriters do wield a great influence over the creative orientation and emotional impact of the screenplay and to an arguable extent, the finished work.
THE SCREENWRITING PROCESS
After the film idea is conceived in words, the following typically follows.
- The story is then fleshed out into a screenplay – it is expanded into the various scenes which is also referred to as film Action or screen direction and dialogue form the major components of the screenplay. Action which is essentially what can be seen or heard by the audience is written in the present tense. This includes a description of each scene’s setting, the movement of characters and other sounds or sound effects.
- In some genres such as found in Hindi movies, dialogues are usually written after the screenplay (action, scenes only) has been completed and the directing team is confident in the quality of the screenplay.
- Once both dialogues and the action have been written, the screenwriting process is complete. The screenwriter will then hand the bound script to the cast and the director.
- The film or documentary is then shot, edited, ‘mixed’, and background scoring is done before premiering in theaters or on TV.
FORMS OF SCREENWRITING
As happens in many careers in the creative industries, screenwriters can either pitch an original film idea to a production company hoping to sell it or be brought on board, or they can get commissioned to create a script from a certain concept, or produce a screenplay from a book, existing film, play, short story, true story etc.
This job takes many forms with the most overriding trend being where a number of screenwriters work on a single script at either different stages or after being assigned specific unique tasks from each other.
By the time you get to the level of Stephen King, for example, you will have been tasked to work in a range of roles.
Some of the different forms of screenwriting include:
Speculative screenwriting: Also referred to as spec scriptwriting, this is essentially a screenplay that is written in the hope that it will get sold without being commissioned by a Television network or production company.
The spec screenplay is an original creation of the writer, although it can be an adaptation of existing works or real-life events and people. About 99 percent of all screenplays written are speculative despite the fact that only a tiny percent of them actually reach the audience on the other side of the screen.
This is one way many budding screenwriters have been able to break into the industry by demonstrating to producers their ability to understand an existing show’s style and precepts, thereby landing themselves career-changing roles in already successful programs/networks.
One should, however, be strategic while writing their spec screenplay; including a shooting script is discouraged, as well as writing for a certain director without having a contract.
One should also develop a great pitching plan – definitely have a killer title, excellent writing and an impressive logline (one-sentence summary description).
Commissioned screenwriting: This one is written by a hired writer after the concept has been developed beforehand by the production company. Often, there are multiple writers involved before full green light is given.
Assignments: These screenplays are written in contract with a production company and are highly sought after. It can either be exclusive to you or be open. They are often adaptations of existing works, though not exclusively.
Rewriting: Also referred to as doctoring, this is sort of what is known as revise editing in journalism. Throughout the script development process, there will be several rewrites and refinements and very often, this is best done by someone else other than initial writer. There are screenwriters who have specialized in this. Credit is however given for rewrites of above 50 percent.
The job of a screenwriter is to write everything that is going to happen in the movie or drama before it is shot.
The writer will decide how many people will be in each particular scene as well as the dialogue to be had by the actors.
We live in a so-called infotainment age, so even if you end up writing for a documentary company, you will still be operating in an entertainment ideation industry.
You will be responsible for generating and curating ideas for projects at the very start.
It is essential that you develop a creative mind from the onset and work on this progressively throughout your career or it will be over before I even takes off.
Each scene that is shot was first created in the screenwriter’s mind – you have to constantly be able to visualize varied scenarios on your head.
Essentially, you have got to be two steps ahead in terms of your thinking.
GETTING STARTED AS A SCREENWRITER
Educate Yourself – Take Some Classes
While you don’t really have to get a degree to get into screenwriting, it is not something that you just jump into.
It is true that some big Hollywood screenwriters didn’t receive any formal training, but nevertheless had to learn the rhythm of movie scripting and the creation of powerful dialogues.
To get started you will need an understanding of what it is you are trying to write – research.
Books should start being your friends as they will introduce you to the structure and the various elements of scriptwriting from developing interesting characters and a riveting plot to creating engaging dialogue.
I highly recommend that you pick up Robert McKee’s book Story: Style, Structure, Substance, and The Principles of Screenwriting as a bible for structure and screenwriting principles.
Syd Field’s Screenplay from an author Hollywood considers a master of screenplay and his subsequent book Screenwriters’ Problem Solver also dive into the common mistakes screenwriters make and their antidotes.
Steer clear of books that promise to make you a master screenwriter in a number of days or weeks – practice will be the ultimate teacher once you learn the mechanics.
Getting formal training can be very beneficial, but you should only take this route if you know screenwriting is what you really want to do.
Your credentials can earn you an approval stamp as the first step in your journey.
Here, brand names do matter and I would advise you to aim for the likes of UT Austin, UCLA, NYU, USC, AFI and Columbia among others.
You can also start off from graduate school after completing say your law degree to pursue a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in screenwriting.
Universities offer direct access to alumnae already in the industry who can be useful in giving you a start.
You have the advantage of access to professionals who can read and critique your pieces from very early in your career.
It goes without saying that you are not going to write good screenplays unless you have intimately studied how successful professionals do it.
Apart from the above books which you absolutely should read, successful screenplays in your genre of interest are your next best reference material on this journey.
This will necessitate a reading schedule that will take away a few hours every day from your writing but will nevertheless be very valuable.
After doing this for a while, you will soon start getting a better understanding of how a movie translates from the screenwriter’s mind into the finished product on screen.
By reading lots of scripts, you will also start learning the different characteristics of different kinds of screenplays.
For instance, did you know that the length of a script usually typically varies depending on the genre of the script?
It is important to acquire the full script as opposed to the transcript, which contains the dialogue only. You want to look at the dialogue, action and descriptions.
Reading showbiz autobiographies and biographies is also a valuable way of understanding the craft by acquainting yourself with the companies and brains that helped shape the industry.
This will be naturally followed by watching and analyzing movies relentlessly – you need to watch as many of them as you can multiple times.
Study them, break them down and analyze their structures. Find out what makes them great and apply what you learn in your scenes. An interesting start would be mythical Spielberg List.
While all the research and reading you can do will be very instrumental in the screenwriter you become, don’t get too caught up in the mechanics and forget or postpone writing too. Read, implement, and repeat.
It is not unheard of for someone to have spent months, even years reading and researching screenwriting but never have written anything.
Once you are done with the basics, it’s time to start writing – one major tip here is to be wary of overthinking, your progress will depend greatly on how you treat this and self-doubt.
Sit down, start typing away as ideas flow from your brain and print out your screenplay. Now you can review it, tweak it and improve it.
Every screenwriter does this, whether novice or professional.
Keep Writing – Think of the 10,000-Hour Rule
It is very common to get stuck at a certain point as you are building the momentum.
You will be tempted to rely on excuses such as ‘storyline hiccup’, ‘conked out dialogue’, or ‘unlikeable characters’. But the truth is, rewriting will form the bulk of the job, so keep moving and come back later.
You will be too disappointed and probably give up early if you insist on writing each page to perfection. You should be at peace with the fact that first drafts will almost always be awful, so don’t get infatuated with them.
To stay motivated so that you can embark on writing and moving whatever plot you are building forward, set page goals.
So you could plan to do a minimum of five pages a day without fail especially when on the first draft.
This way, you will arrive at the finished script (or a skeleton of it) faster without obsessing too much about the finer details.
You have probably by now come across sociologist and journalist Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000-hour rule.
In his 2008 book Outliers: The Story of Success, Gladwell argues that his research indicated that those who achieved success in any cognitively complex field showed a consistent pattern of having practiced for about 10,000 hours.
Of course 10,000 practice hours (or approx. 10 years if four hours a day are used) is not the magic number for your career to take off but an important reminder that you have to do a great deal of writing.
Write multiple screenplays – the first ones will be quite awful I can assure you.
So you could keep them to yourself maybe until you think you have reached a level where it’s allowable to show your mom or your close friends.
Now work towards something a studio executive would actually read.
Join A Writer’s Group
This will be very important for your learning and development. It will allow you the chance to hear your work read out loud – an awesome aid in itself, plus you get valuable feedback.
One of the biggest advantages is a glimpse into how audiences will or might interpret your writing.
You will be armed with a pen, to make notes on the script where you think something needs editing. Maybe that joke was too off?
Needless to say, working in a group gives you the motivation and support you need to keep going even when inspiration seems to desert you.
The group will be even more useful as you go through the rewriting iterations or reviewing your different versions before that big pitch.
Yes, the dirty word applies for screenwriters as it does for many other professionals.
But being quite a hard-to-break-into profession, if you are not already well connected you will need to put your boots out there and establish some real contacts.
Sure, I know many writers may tend to be a little introverted or plain antisocial.
If you are one of them, you will need to quickly move past that and learn how to make nice, smile, press the flesh and position yourself near the right people – those who have got the resources and contacts that you need.
Try to think about it as being more of ‘socializing’ than networking.
To move up the ladder, this is something you will have to inevitably do.
It is one of the most important skills any screenwriter will need – most likely the only way you will get your script in the hands of a producer, agent or production executive.
Below are some tips that will help you in your networking efforts.
- Make sure you describe yourself as a screenwriter and not as an ‘aspiring writer’’.
- Attend the networking events hosted by your college or those held in places like Los Angeles where you are likely to meet established producers and agents.
- Always remember your screenplay will not sell itself while it sits on a shelf at home.
- Be confident in your product and abilities.
- Internships are absolutely important – they will mostly be unpaid so make sure you can afford them, but you can be sure they will be totally worth it.
- During internships you will see professional screenwriters in their element and their feedback will be more meaningful than your mom’s or friends’.
- If you intern at Hollywood for example, when pitching your next big script, you will already be aware of what they like and what they are looking for – sort of an insider.
Get Your Work Noticed – Start Putting Out There
One great way to get your work read/viewed by as many relevant people as possible is getting into at least five of the best screenwriting contests.
There is always one new writing contest or film festival being introduced every year, so you have a good chance of being read.
Indeed some great screenwriting contests literally launched some writer’s careers.
One of the most well-known competitions is the Nicholl Fellowship overseen by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
You enter your script for a small fee and if your script reaches a high enough level, you could have just bought yourself a ticket into the industry.
Others include Creative World Awards, Page Awards, Cinequest and the Atlanta Film Festival. Make sure you have an updated calendar of these and more competitions.
Another way to get your work noticed is to approach a talent management company and have them evaluate your script. Keep in mind that just emailing them will not cut it.
You either need to already know someone there or find someone who knows someone at the firm and get the right contact.
If they like your work, you will have saved yourself a lot of trouble, since they might end up offering to represent you as agents.
But don’t be entirely discouraged from sending an unsolicited script.
You also have the option of taking things into your own hands, gathering your friends or colleagues from the writing group with a cheap camera and bringing your script to life for an online audience.
There’s the off chance that your content will go viral or attract a certain underserved audience that a producer would find interesting.
Lastly, I suggest you move to a city that is at the center of the entertainment industry in your country.
That could be London in the UK, Los Angeles in the United States, Sydney in Australia or Mumbai in India.
Becoming a big shot screenwriter in today’s entertainment world is a dream – albeit a fairly tough one – for many.
The journey is however no different from anything else that is of value – hard work is at the core.
Those who eventually make it have years of toil over scripts rewrites, rejections and project abandonments, even the so-called ‘overnight successes’.
You too can be on the highway to becoming a professional screenwriter if you follow the above tips and ensure that you have the right motivation for choosing this career from the onset.
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