Knowing when you’re ready to take that step into the professional world of screenwriting is important. Over time, you will accumulate contacts and relationships in the industry (even if it’s just a friend of a friend of a producer). And the last thing you want to do is burn those contacts by giving them a script that sucks. Every writer I know has done this (I’ve done it several times myself) mainly due to impatience. We want to sell a script NOW NOW NOW. The devastating thing about this mistake is that you usually lose that contact for life. No matter what you do, you can’t change someone’s mind who thinks you’re a shitty writer.
Now I don’t like to use that term (shitty writer). I prefer “writers who aren’t ready yet,” which is the theme of this post. How do you know if you’re ready? Well, we’ve talked about this before, but I wanted to get into a little more detail, since understanding where you’re at in the process is nearly impossible to be objective about. Everyone thinks they’re ready TODAY. And I hope you are! But if you find yourself agreeing to a few of these statements, you may need to spend some more time in the minor leagues before you’re called up. Below are ten signs that you’re not ready for a professional screenwriting career just yet.
1) You’ve never showed your script to anyone – I’m surprised by just how many writers haven’t shown their work to anyone (friends, fellow writers, family). One of the biggest keys to writer improvement is feedback. People knock the development system all the time, but the development system lets the writers know what’s working and what isn’t. You need that help as well. I guess I understand the fear component here. Writers are terribly insecure people. “What if I’m bad?” they wonder. “What if they tell me my script’s unreadable?” But that’s the wrong way to look at it. Screenwriting should be seen as a continual learning experience where you’re always getting better. The sooner you know what you’re doing wrong, the sooner you can correct it. So send your script to a friend, to another screenwriter, to me. But in order to really move forward with your screenwriting, you have to take that first step.
2) You’ve only written one script – People who only write one script don’t really learn screenwriting. They learn how to write one script. Every script you write is unique and expands your skills and knowledge as a storyteller. Many of the things you learn from successive scripts, you’ll be able to apply back to your earlier scripts, creating a “kill two birds with one stone” scenario. Plus, the more screenplays you have, the more marketable you are as a writer. Every once in awhile, you’ll see an exception to this (Craig in last week’s Amateur Friday), but man are those exceptions rare.
3) Screenwriting is something you do casually – Recently, I met this producer who had an insane work ethic. He was always reading a new book, flying to a new festival, optioning a new script, setting up a new TV show. I was amazed by this and asked him what his secret was. He said that when he first got here, he hung out with a really successful producer who never sat still. And he asked him the same question. The producer pointed out that it’s so competitive in this industry, that unless you are giving 110% at all times, you will be crushed. That’s when he realized that only the strong survived. It’s the same thing with screenwriting. You’re competing against tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of other writers. You have no choice but to outwork them if you’re going to survive. True, not everyone has an infinite amount of time, but if you’re serious about breaking in, you better be using all of your free time to write, read, or study.
4) You’ve entered at least four contests and haven’t placed in any (and by “place,” I mean top 5%) – If you don’t place in a single screenplay competition, you can chalk it up to you and a reader not seeing eye to eye. Four competitions though? That means your writing isn’t up to snuff yet. To add some context, the biggest screenwriting competition in the world, Nicholl, has 7000 entries. 5 of those win, and rarely do any of them go on to sell. That’s less than .1% of the entries. Which aren’t even good enough to compete in the Hollywood market. So if you’re not in the top 5% of a contest, you still have work to do. But don’t fret. Again, think of screenwriting as a constant learning process. Expand your screenwriting knowledge, read more screenplays, watch more movies, then write more scripts. Don’t fret. You WILL continue to get better.
5) You’re driven only by money – Writers who are driven by money tend to write hollow scripts. The reality is, this isn’t the 90s anymore where writers ruled the roost and got a million bucks for a logline. The market has cooled down considerably. Truth be told, most of the writers who give up are the ones who were driven by money and, after writing three Taken or Hangover clones that didn’t sell, convince themselves that the industry is run by nepotism and hightail it back to Oklahoma. The reality is, the people who tend to make it are people who love movies and love telling stories. They are people who want to say something about the world, but say it within the confines of a marketable premise. What I find is that a lot of people come here wanting to sell a million dollar spec, then somewhere along the way, fall in love with the medium and want to learn everything about it. Usually, when they make this mental transition, is when they start to succeed. Do we hope one day to make a living writing? Sure. Would it be nice if the profession helped us buy a house in the hills? Of course. But that shouldn’t be why you’re writing. You should be writing because you can’t think of any other thing you’d rather be doing with your life.
6) You don’t believe – I just did an entire article about this. If you don’t believe in yourself, you are perpetuating a self-fulfilling prophecy which will result in you eventually giving up. I promise you. In many ways, the key to success in any field is belief, because without it, why would one press on? Sometimes I’ll encounter a writer who bitches about lesser writers having agents or who complains that the industry is rigged. I have to remind them not to focus on that nonsense. It’s all noise and has nothing to do with you. The industry is no different from life. It is what you make of it. If you believe that it’s rigged, you’ll focus on getting screwed. If you work hard, dedicate yourself, continue to create, and are positive and respectful towards others, opportunities will present themselves. I promise you!
7) You’re a comedy writer who hasn’t studied screenwriting extensively – Comedy scripts signify the epitome of how the outside world views screenwriting. They think screenwriting is easy. And they think being funny is easy. Therefore there is little to no effort from these writers to actually LEARN THE CRAFT. Comedy screenwriting is a lot like stand-up. It LOOKS easy. But that’s only because the people who do it have been working at it so hard. Jonah Hill, who I think is one of the funniest actors around, had to do stand-up for Funny People. He said he was TERRIBLE. He rambled. Nothing he said got a laugh. He realized that there’s a real craft to setting up and executing jokes that takes time to hone and perfect. The same thing is true for screenwriting. To those genuinely funny people out there who want to write comedy scripts – I promise you – If you dedicate your life to learning the craft of screenwriting (structure, character empathy, character flaw, character conflict, escalating tension, sequencing, stakes, purpose, urgency, theme, etc.), you will be unstoppable. There are so few genuinely funny comedy writers out there who know how to write a good story. The ones who do come up with stuff like The Hangover. The ones who don’t come up with stuff like Jack and Jill.
8) You don’t yet understand what “show don’t tell” means – “Show don’t tell” is one of the first things you learn in screenwriting. Instead of characters saying things, you use actions or images to convey those things instead. If you don’t master this technique, you’ll receive one of the worst critiques a writer can hear on their script: “It all felt so… on-the-nose.” It starts with dialogue. Instead of a character saying “I think we should break up,” have them standing by the door with their stuff packed up in suitcases holding out their apartment key. “Show don’t tell” also extends to descriptions. I can’t stand reading lines like, “Joe is elated.” This is boring, sloppy, and un-cinematic. Show us this feeling instead! For instance, Joe could pump his fist or high five a random stranger. And did you know you could even use dialogue to “show don’t tell?” For example, instead of Frank, who has a crush on Mary, telling her, “I’m nervous,” you could have him babble on nonsensically about how he adores penguins. The ACTION of babbling implies nervousness, so he doesn’t have to say it directly. Pro writers are way more adept at showing actions, and therefore this is one of the easiest ways to distinguish amateur from professional screenplays.
9) You focus more on the surface of your script than what’s happening underneath – Flashy description, mystery boxes, surprise revelations, clever dialogue, unexpected twists. These things are all great, but they’re all surface level. To provide a truly rich reading experience, you need to focus on what goes on underneath the surface. Show your hero battling something internally (an inability to love due to fear of rejection), your characters conveying their feelings between the lines (subtext), make a statement about people or life via a recurring theme (“Seize the day”– Ferris Bueller’s Day Off). Understanding plot is incredibly important. But it’s just the first part of the journey. Your scripts really start to resonate once they say something about your characters and about the world they/we live in.
10) You’re not confident in your writing – Have you ever heard someone say, “Wow, the writing in that script was so confident?” It’s kind of intimidating. “Well wait a minute,” you ask. “Do I write with confidence?” Typically, if you’re asking that question, the answer is no. That’s okay. It just means you haven’t developed your writing method yet. A writer’s method is born out of all the screenwriting books (or sites) he’s studied, out of all the scripts he’s read (what he’s liked, what he’s hated), and out of all the trial and error that’s gone into his own screenplays. He uses this knowledge and experience to develop a method (an approach) that works best for him. Once a writer has a method, their scripts really take on a confidence that was previously absent. This is why the combination of reading, writing, and studying is so powerful.
Wow, that list is kind of intense. So let me be clear. I’m not saying you have to be 10 out of 10 here. But if you’re looking up at this and going, “Oh boy, I’m guilty of most of these,” then you probably want to take a step back and study screenwriting for six months. Dedicate yourself to being a scholar of the medium. There are so many books out there, and a lot of them are so good (including my own!), there’s really no excuse not to educate yourself and put your best foot forward.
Oh, but there’s one last question I wanted to address. What if you’ve already done all this? What if you’ve been writing for 10-15 years and you’re still struggling? What’s the plan then? Well, first, look in the mirror and ask yourself if you still love writing. As long as the answer’s yes, there’s no reason to stop. Writing is one of the most convenient extracurricular activities you can do. So there’s no reason to stop unless you hate it.
The next step is being honest with yourself about a harsh reality: WHAT YOU’VE BEEN DOING SO FAR ISN’T WORKING. Once you’ve accepted that, my advice would be to knock down the house and start all over again. I was reading Peter Bart’s comments over on Deadline this week and he noted that when TV started to pull away market share from movie theaters in the 60s, the studios were freaking out. They realized they were delivering the same old crap and the audiences weren’t buying it anymore. So they basically tore down the whole industry and said to its creators, “There are no rules anymore. Go do what you want.” And that’s how we ended up with the second Golden era of cinema with all those great innovative 70s films. You need to do the same thing. You’ve studied screenwriting long enough to understand all the tropes. You know the formulas. So you’re probably the most qualified to break away from them and try something different (or, if you’ve been trying something different all these years, maybe it’s time to try a more traditional approach). Good luck to you. And good luck to everyone else pursuing this heart-wrenching but wonderful craft. Every day you write, you’re one step closer to the finish line. ☺