Amateur Screenwriters: We’re Doing This All Wrong!
Updated: Oct 21, 2021
I have spent some time on “Screenwriting Twitter” following aspiring/emerging screenwriters and sometimes engaging in their conversations.
Usually those discussions are business related: How do I get a manager or a producer? How do I promote myself? Which contest do I enter? What can I do with the placement?
Shop talk, not writing talk.
For what it’s worth—I’m one of you!
For the past two years, I’ve had a portfolio of scripts that consistently get 6s and 7s at the Black List website, reach the QF and SF rounds of contests, and sometimes get read by managers—who inevitably pass (or ghost me).
A year ago, I was at a plateau: I had taken my scripts as far as I could, but didn’t know what else to do.
So I started to lean into those nagging feelings…you know, the ones we all have…
That maybe it wasn’t my hustle (because my hustle is actually pretty good) that was the problem…
Maybe it was—dear God—the scripts…?
COULD IT BE…THAT MAYBE THE SCRIPTS WEREN’T GOOD ENOUGH?!?
Yes, it was!
The more I compared my scripts to pro scripts (produced movies, “real” Black List scripts), the more I accepted that nothing was getting traction with managers and producers because it was just my fault that I hadn’t written good enough scripts.
That was an awful feeling, but also liberating—because at least this was something I could control!
So I started over: some scripts I abandoned, and others I rebuilt from the concept, if the concept was strong enough.
I’m talking page one rewrites, sometimes two and three times.
And I am glad I did it! It was terrifying, throwing out that much work—but it got easier, and my writing got better.
I learned how to reconfigure the “elements” of a draft in my head: the theme, concept, dramatic argument, protagonist, goal, stakes, setpieces, climax. So I wouldn’t have to write useless drafts to figure out if I was on the right track—I could tell just from the inherent “equation,” having internalized how certain things play out.
I saved a ton of time just realizing, “Nope, too diffuse,” “Nope, too soft,” “Nope, too discontinuous.”
And the better answers presented themselves, like from muscle memory.
Lacking a writers’ group or support structure, I relied on paid coverage for feedback—but strangely, I would often realize what I did wrong even before the coverage came back (which I then barely read).
Incidentally, I learned not to put too much weight into coverage: the “screenwriting industrial complex” has a vested interest in being encouraging, to garner repeat business. But it’s basically a bunch of entry-level studio readers being paid peanuts; feedback is always important, but I don’t take it to heart.
Anyway, now I have a new portfolio and I am getting better results. (I’ll explain below what I did.)
But enough about me.
THIS IS ABOUT YOU—THE ASPIRING SCREENWRITER
Screenwriting can be learned, but not taught. Nonetheless, I will try to share what I have learned.
First of all, some clarity. I am NOT referring to…
THE 95% OF AMATEUR SCRIPTS THAT ARE JUST TERRIBLE
If there are 10-15K amateur scripts being written and entered into contests every year—and there are—probably 95% go nowhere just because they have soft concepts or no concept. (Apparently the WGA has 80K a year registered—yikes!)
SOFT CONCEPT: By FAR, this is the biggest problem of amateur scripts (and pro scripts, for that matter).
In amateur scripts, the concept isn’t really a concept, it’s like two or three “concept-like” ideas smashed into each other.
There’s aliens—but also a love story, plus drug addicts staying clean. There’s zombies—but also time travel, but it’s also about the paranormal.
It’s like, what the…? These aren’t movies. They’re not anything. They’re 90 to 120 pages of plot in screenplay format. Nobody wants to read them.
If you’ve spent any time just looking at loglines (on the Black List website, or Coverfly, or contest results)—which I highly recommend—you see how quickly and easily they just become a blur, a river of sludge. Seriously, try it.
In contrast, read the loglines of the REAL Black List—the year-end survey of executives’ most-liked unproduced scripts—and those loglines all grab and intrigue. You go, “Oh cool, I’d like to see that.”
People who obsess over their loglines’ construction are missing the point: it’s not the logline, per se, it’s the communication of the CONCEPT.
If the concept can’t be communicated, there probably isn’t one. And then the script is NEVER good.
You have to have a killer concept even to get a producer or manager to want to read it.
Ideally, the concept suggests a real movie. But it could be a “stunt script” where the script is unsellable (like a biopic or piece of I.P. you don’t own) but valuable as a writing sample—which is fine. But if so, it has to really stand out as a style piece.
Regardless, the concept has to pop. It has to be “freshly derivative”—a time travel movie, but with a cool twist that makes people go, “Oh, I haven’t seen THAT before.”
Having read a bunch of amateur, soft- or non-concept scripts (on CoverflyX “script swaps”), usually they flop due to a passive protagonist (not to mention myriad other problems).
AN ACTIVE PROTAGONIST IS THIS: “I’m looking for the Ark of the Covenant!”
A PASSIVE PROTAGONIST IS THIS: “Here I am trying to enjoy a nice vacation in Cairo, and all this wacky stuff keeps happening to me, with these weird people chasing me around—and then on pg. 95 somebody puts this weird, large box in my hotel room.”
These folks will either get better or not—I was one of them once. But I don’t feel like I can really help them. Logically, the vast majority of them will wash out, and it will either be a disappointment in life, or some kind of amateur pursuit like rec-league sports or community theater, with its own rewards.
I wish everybody the best of luck, truly.
But I really want to address…
THE 5% OF AMATEUR SCREENWRITERS CONSISTENTLY PLACING IN CONTESTS
YOU FOLKS—the ones I’ve been following on Twitter—are getting somewhere in contests, maybe getting read requests, even an option with a producer or meeting with a manager. You know, like me.
A few of you break through—in which case, I hate you. (That’s a joke.)
But if it’s still not happening for you…. Why?
I’ve read a bunch of your scripts. Some are even contest finalists or Black List “8s.” (On the Black List website, if you score an 8 out of 10 or higher, they push you out to their network of industry professionals. It’s what everybody wants, although I have to imagine it doesn’t always lead to anything.)
Sorry to say, I am almost always disappointed by the script.
These are the things I notice as I read:
First, they are well-written. That’s a great thing! There’s a command of the visual language of screenwriting, oftentimes good dialogue, and a sense of cinema.
So it’s like, great, congrats, you can write!
But it’s usually downhill from there.
Usually in the first few pages there are “tells” that this is not ready for prime time:
FALSE HUMAN BEHAVIOR
LACK OF IMMEDIACY—people sitting around talking about things.
LACK OF CLARITY—anything from too many characters to, what the heck is going on???
By page 10 or 15, there’s usually a sinking feeling that I do not understand WHO the protagonist is and WHAT does he or she want—let alone have some sort of emotional connection TO that protagonist so that I want to follow him or her.
Goals, stakes, obstacles, urgency—these things need to be set up ASAP, and usually…they just aren’t.
Mystery is good—but “whose story is this?” is not a good mystery to have. And “why should I care?” is a fatal mystery!
By page 20 or 30, there’s an obvious lack of forward momentum. I’m wondering why the script is not about the thing that it looked like it was going to be about—the cool-sounding thing from the logline—and is instead some other kind of domestic drama or whatever.
There seem to be pages on end that exist solely to set-up other plot points, rather than to be entertaining and engaging as drama.
Which is to say, the scripts don’t live in the “now.”
A “now” script is: Teen girl is hired to babysit. Grandma says, don’t go in the attic. Teen girl hears noises, so she goes in the attic anyway. A demon comes out and steals the baby. Teen girl chases the demon down the street. The demon sprouts wings and escapes. Teen girl goes back to the attic and finds a book on witchcraft and uses a spell to find a shaman to help find the baby. And so forth and so on (paging young Jennifer Connolly).
This is absurd drivel—I just made it up. But every scene lives in the present. There’s an immediacy that keeps me turning the page because of all the little hooks.
The more typical amateur script is…well, I don’t know quite how to explain it. But usually it’s diffuse, and consists of characters moping about their problems.
Probably, in this “movie,” there’s a subplot going on between the teen girl and her boyfriend. Her grandma has cancer. Then the baby starts speaking in tongues—huh, that’s weird, right?
It’s foreboding, true, but it’s glacial—just set-up after set-up, some mild conflict, the babysitter sad about something…and then the kid is snatched ON PAGE 35.
For the rest of it, maybe I’m delighted by a surprise or a reveal or an idea derived from the concept that’s cool—but I’m pissed off that it’s on page 65 and not page 25.
By the end, I’m just eager for it to be over. And probably just skimming.
I can’t tell you how many “top 1%” Red List scripts or Black List 8 scripts I’ve read and thought, you’ve got to be kidding? THIS is what did so well in that contest???
HOW TO FIX IT
Relax, it’s not as bad as you think. Usually, all these notes come down to one note:
YOU DIDN’T EXECUTE THE CONCEPT CORRECTLY
Every script has a “math” to it. The “math” is comprised of all these things, and more (in no particular order):
THE CENTRAL DRAMATIC ARGUMENT (derived from the theme—if the theme is “violence is bad,” the central dramatic argument could be, “Does it still sometimes make sense to use violence in a violent world?”)
THE PROTAGONIST’S GOAL
THE PROTAGONIST’S INNER DRAMA (not the same thing as the goal—often defined as the want vs. the need)
These things MUST align. They MUST be in harmony. This is not optional!
But they’re really not that hard to figure out. Don’t get me wrong—it’s brutal. It’s like pulling an orange out of your brain through your nostril.
But you know when it sucks. Come on! You have to know!
My advice is: Don’t pay a script consultant $295 to tell you something you can figure out with your own brain!!!
Let’s say our concept is a man with fire superpower. That’s really just an idea—the concept would need to add some level of irony to it. “A man with fire superpower falls in love with a woman whose superpower involves ice”—okay, now we have irony, and an obstacle.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read an amateur script where this might be the logline, and then…
There’s barely any superpowers in it! And the story is mostly about something else entirely: like the man with the fire power goes to his hometown and spends act two trying to make up with a childhood friend who’s about to get married.
Or maybe the man with the fire power is the son of a superhero and the whole movie is about his trying to live up to his parents’ expectations.
Okay, that’s in the ballpark. But then we get the question that executives ask, that writers hate: does it have to be fire powers? Well…no, not in that case.
We are now at the gates of total anarchy because we have a bunch of ideas related to our concept which are not necessarily incompatible—but not essential, either.
The amateur tendency is to say, to hell with it, I’ll just write it anyway and figure it out.
This is probably because it’s what we’ve thought of, and fallen in love with—and probably there’s some kind of emotional pull to the story and we’re not self-aware enough to realize the personal investment that’s leading us down a path to ruin.
The way out of this torture is to go back to the original concept: a man with fire power.
Let’s mine that concept. I don’t mean just make a checklist of all the “gags” you can do with it (although you’ll need to do that too).
I mean, lean into the human components. What would it be like if you had this fire power?
I used to read X-Men comics and there was a fire-superpower character, Rusty, whose powers emerged when he was making out with a woman, and he badly burned her, because he got excited, and he lived with guilt about it.
Because this is an exercise, let’s just steal that.
Okay, good, because this comes OUT of the concept.
So the fire-power guy burned a woman, so he has a complex about being too dangerous, and thus he can never connect to other human beings. This would make him moody and sad.
A little clichéd. What if he’s actually a happy guy? What if fire gives him joy, like a head rush?
What if the fire hurts him—but he’s also a masochist? He had weird mommy issues about his power? Or what if the ice almost kills him, but he likes it, because he feels soothed? And he has a death wish?
I have no idea. But these are all good because they come out of the PSYCHOLOGY of the concept. The idea is, try to find something fresh and different, so it’s not a character who feels obvious. (Also, “simple plot, complex character” is a good roadmap to attracting a movie star.)
Next we have to externalize fire guy’s wants and needs.
You know what, don’t read me, read the brilliant Craig Mazin piece on how to do this. Seriously, you don’t need anything else!
(An aside: I never understood writing biographies for your characters because to me it all could change at a moment’s notice. I might be halfway through an outline and realize, you know, that guy who I thought was a poor immigrant—this would be so much more resonant if he was a spoiled rich kid, why don’t I just totally flip his character upside-down?)
Back to work:
Go through all the implications of your concept and try to find the “math equation” where they all make sense and fit together: the protagonist, antagonist, goal, climax, and so on.
Chances are lots of these things will flip over and over again. Nothing is set in stone. Get it right. You’re trying to solve a jigsaw puzzle at the same time you create it. Not easy, so don’t feel like you’re committed to anything.
EXCEPT—take every opportunity you can to SIMPLIFY. Don’t make it a period piece if it doesn’t have to be. Don’t set it in space. Don’t have two friend characters when you only need one.
More “stuff” is not better—it’s worse. You want your river (your concept) to run narrow but deep—not shallow and wide.
This isn’t even writing. It’s kind of like anti-writing. Personally, I almost never make notes. It just percolates in my head until I feel like I have enough of it to try an outline.
But you MUST take the time to it!
I am convinced that most amateur writers go bad from the INITIAL expression of the concept into the execution. They just choose various starting points, say, “That’s fine,” and go right into plot—and thus they end up with these weird feathered fish things (a feathered fish neither swims nor flies).
LET BUSINESS HELP YOU
You can make it easier on yourself by looking at business considerations. Seriously.
The bigger budget your script requires, the more traditional and less weird it is allowed to be. That’s just a fact.
It’s a fine line: people want originality—but you also have to respect the tone of the movies that are actually produced. They don’t make weird $100M art films (unless it’s a star or director’s vanity project—and that ain’t you).
If you write a period piece, it had better be the best script ever written—an absolute masterpiece—in order to get made. Otherwise, it’s pretty much a stunt script.
And if it’s a stunt script—be BOLD. Jesus vs. Santa Claus bold. (That’s the South Park “pilot.”)
If it’s a $200M fantasy epic—I guess, just write it as best you can so that people can go, “Oh, I guess she can do that kind of thing.” Those films don’t get made anymore as originals—but it could be a killer sample.
I’ve always read that the easiest things to sell and get made are cost-conscious, high-concept genre pictures (sci-fi/horror/action). So those are the pictures I most often write. I try to write juicy character parts (where the characters are smart, actors love that) so it will be easier to cast. We’ll see if I’m right.
One last thought…
THE SILVER BULLET IS HUMANITY.
The silver bullet to SELLING something is the concept.
But the silver bullet to EXCUTION is human emotion. That is your north star. And to get authentic human emotion, you must study and portray realistic human behavior.
You can make up anything you want in your story, but the human behavior has to be believable and consistent. It can be quite unlike contemporary society, based on cultural norms—people behaved differently in Victorian England than they do today—but it has to ring true to our human hearts and souls.
People know bullshit when they see it. That gag in horror films when the teenagers go into the creepy garage…frankly, I don’t write those kinds of movies. But I say, try not to do that! If the girl’s going to go into the creepy garage, make it because her baby sister is trapped in there—that we can believe she’d do.
Just, please…make it feel REAL.
I often see amateur scripts put a lot of effort into the human emotion—that’s good!
Smart writers know this is essential. And most writers are driven by some sort of emotional need to become writers in the first place—so they’re highly interested in emotion.
Unfortunately, they’re most often aware only of their own emotion. It’s like we all have a defining narrative (from childhood, school, relationships, whatever) and it possesses us and makes us write it into our scripts, whether it’s appropriate or not.
You gotta get control of that!
Because that’s how you end up with your fire-power superhero script that’s about the character’s childhood buddy (that no audience cares about)—because the writer’s heart is in one thing, when the script is really about another.
I’ve also noticed that writers try to goose up character conflict by making characters who are difficult, nasty, cruel, quick to temper, etc.
On the one hand, yes—drama is conflict, and you need a lot of conflict. But angry and tempestuous characters become melodramatic and tiresome. Actual human behavior is way more nuanced and passive-aggressive.
The Marvel movies are brilliant for the way they draw out the humor of the characters: their heroes find themselves in crazy, cosmic situations, but react like normal people with the asides and self-deprecating humor. I believe the word is “relatable.”
In general—I recommend therapy, and lots of it. You must have a fearlessness about analyzing your own life and feelings and figuring out what and when to draw from yourself.
And you have to know what you’re doing. You don’t have to put your terrible childhood or failed marriage on screen if you don’t want to…just understand your own feelings.
The writer/director Nick Meyer likes to say, “Life is hot, but art is cool.” His goal when writing is NOT to make himself cry, but to make the audience cry. KNOW THYSELF!
YOU HAVE THE POWER!
You don’t need fancy script consultants. You don’t need how-to books. Or even articles like this one. (Seriously, don’t listen to me. I’m broke and have no friends.)
Just look at your own script, no matter how much you adore it, how much passion went into it…
Do all the choices come OUT of the concept?
Do they connect?
Are there better choices?
Are there things you can get rid of?
I’m not talking plot: you might say, “Of course I need that scene at the auto dealer, it sets up the fight in act three.”
Plot is easy. You know how to do plot. Throw all the plot out, you can reconstruct it as needed. Focus on character.
Did you pick the best protagonist for your concept?
Just focus on that and chances are you’ll go…oh…no, I didn’t.
Or if you did, congrats!
SAVE YOUR MONEY! Use your brain!