To Be a Screenwriter

If you’ve ever wanted to write a screenplay, it might seem at first to be either a completely daunting task, given the complexities of story and character, or it might seem like a snap, especially when looking at many of the poorly-written films that are produced every year. It’s neither impossible nor easy, but can be learned with the proper dedication of time and study.

To understand screenwriting might be seen as analogous to chess; minutes to learn, a lifetime to master. Or it might help you to think of learning to play a musical instrument. You can immediately grasp that you play notes upon a violin by holding your hands in certain positions to produce desired sounds, and that music itself is composed of mathematically determined structural relationships between notes. Yet to learn to make beautiful sound upon a violin can take months, if not years, of rote learning and determined repetition of scales, then simple pieces, finally progressing to mastery of complex tunes.

The first step in learning to write a script is a simple shift in your perceptions and expectations: You must learn to accept your failures as part of the learning curve. If you can do this, and not succumb to the inevitable frustrations and setbacks encountered by all beginners of any discipline, then you are already on the road to success. Every branch of professional arts and entertainment is based upon a game of attrition. Those who are successful are not necessarily the best at their medium (unfortunately), but simply the ones who never gave up. All good education is predicated upon a foundation of experimentation. When you don’t get the result you want from a particular work, you gain something extremely valuable, which is direct, hands-on experience. This kind of experience is priceless, because it can’t be taught or transmitted to you in any form other than through your own process of attempting to achieve specific ends.

The next ability you must cultivate is a keen eye for quality. You need to learn to judge your work with razor-sharp, no-nonsense objectivity. This field has no place for self-congratulatory back-patting, because if you so easily please yourself, then you will experience a rude awakening when you receive your first professional feedback. No matter how many people might say that they like my work, I am always extremely critical, because I know that it can still be better. Be hard on yourself, but also learn to appreciate your strengths and areas of growth and potential. If you’re overly critical of yourself, it can be stifling, and that also serves no useful purpose.

The final skill that ties all of this together is absolutely key: You must try to separate your ego from the entire process. Screenwriting is not about you or feeding your desire for self-gratification. If that’s your perspective, please quit now, because the film industry is already filled with talentless egomaniacs who daily drag the rest of us down. Screenwriting, like all arts, should first and foremost be about the work. All of your practice, talent, desire, and skill should go into feeding the work. If at any point you waver from this path, the work visibly suffers, and you simultaneously assassinate your muse and sacrifice a piece of your soul. Once you’ve killed ego, all of your writing skills improve in such areas as quality, quantity, and your ability to receive and give critique. More importantly, you’ll have become both a better writer and a better person.

Get feedback at each step of the way. Hearing opinions, ideas, and objections from your friends and family at the beginning of the process can save you huge amounts of grief and script repair. Although few people you know will have experience as a screenwriter, almost everyone you know is probably a potential member of the viewing audience of a finished feature film. Everybody’s got an opinion about movies, so their gut reactions are important and valid. Good critique is worth its weight in film reels, and the last thing you want to do is alienate these friendly critics, who may have dutifully slogged through the painfully sophomoric fifty-page treatment of your first schlock-horror story or unfunny effort at comedy (this is true friendship). Because you want them to really tell you exactly what they really think about your ideas, your job when receiving critique is to shut the hell up and listen, not to defend your work. Remember–they are critiquing the work, not you, and what they are giving you is their honest opinion. You may ask questions of your prosecutors, but you may not argue with them (you want their opinion for the next draft, right?). If they don’t get what your story is about, why? If they don’t understand John’s motivation in killing Mary, what information did you leave out? If they really don’t see why you wanted to write such a story in the first place, what’s missing that would have made the point of the story clear? Once they’re out of the room, you can qualify their opinion any way you want. If you think that your buddy Ralph had some good points about character, but is clueless about structure, then by all means, use the parts you want, and forget the rest, but make sure you really evaluate what they’ve said before you ignore any of it.

Most importantly, enjoy the process! Don’t think about future rewards or what critics might say. Just write in the moment, do the best work that you can, and follow your dreams and ideas where they take you.

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