Updated: Sep 13, 2022
I am a writer and filmmaker who has spent a lot of time and money to get to the cusp of barely breaking into this crazy business.
I have learned a lot of things the hard way and would like to help others do it with less anguish and, ahem, money.
This is not a sales pitch! I’m not selling a course or service. It is FREE advice, take it or leave it.
There is no gimmick for being a professional screenwriter. There’s no program, course or structure map that you can reliably follow and, presto, 10 weeks later you have a marketable script.
The only way to teach yourself screenwriting is through the painful, iterative path of writing and rewriting numerous scripts.
I CANNOT TEACH ANYBODY TO BE A PROFESSIONAL WRITER. No one can.
Screenwriting can be learned, but not taught. I truly believe that.
But I can steer you in the right direction. Or, at least, explain what helped work for me.
THE SINGLE MOST IMPORTANT THING
The single most important thing that differentiates an amateur and professional script isn’t concept, structure, plot, character, dialogue, or any of these elements—although they are all important.
It’s truthful human behavior.
The professional script uses finely observed human behavior to evoke EMOTION in the reader.
Emotion is the ballgame.
Most amateur scripts are inherently unreadable—and certainly un-entertaining—because they are populated by the writer’s version of “fake people.”
These “fake people” have false reactions, artificial emotions and phony speech. And they interact in a melodramatic plot that is tiresome to read. Because nothing’s real, there’s no way to get invested emotionally.
And it’s usually so confusing, it takes a lot of effort to track.
How you do you get from writing fake people to real people?
It comes down to the talent within the writer, combined with perseverance.
No teacher is going to be able to explain to a student (if that student is not ready) the subtleties and emotions of the human heart. They’re not even going to try. And most teachers don’t know, anyway.
Writers are more or less inherently talented in their ability to observe people, to drill deep into their psyches, mirror their emotions, and figure out what kind of fiction will create catharsis in the reader.
But there are, in fact, techniques to help get there.
The first step is actually being interested in it. That is obvious, but I’m often shocked at how writers seem unconcerned with what is, truly, the silver bullet.
Let’s back up to review the process by which you go from a novice to an almost-professional.
STAGE ONE: BEGINNER
Your first several scripts are going to be unusable, no matter how smart or talented you are. (There are rare exceptions.)
The beginning writer is just desperately trying to figure out this peculiar and unwieldly format, and fill 90–120 pages with narrative “stuff.”
The writer typically loves movies, so he or she sets out to recreate a favorite example of one.
That’s how you get endless Star Wars knock-offs, saccharine Goonies redos, witless gross-out comedies, formulaic rom-coms, drippy melodramas, etc.
The protagonist is passive, the dialogue overly verbose, and the exposition painfully obvious.
These scripts are, alas, probably 90–95% of what gets submitted to contests.
There usually is no “concept” at this stage. The logline is just plot: “a father has to get his daughter back from a kidnapper”—it’s like half a logline.
Or the “concept,” if there is one, is a bunch of stuff smashed together: it’s aliens vs. vampires, plus a kidnapping. Whatever.
These stories are plot-heavy because that’s what the writers can easily identify: stuff happening.
So they work their hardest to think of a bunch of stuff that can happen…and they try to jam it together in the most logical way.
I don’t have a lot of advice for people at this stage, because it was so long ago for me. But I definitely went through it myself—I wrote a ton of garbage!
If this is you…you just have to do it.
Write what you want, because you need the practice. And soak up whatever helps you get a handle on the craft—though I recommend against spending a lot of money. There are many low-cost books, free videos and articles that can help.
Enjoy being creative—just don’t expect your work to be of professional value.
STAGE TWO: INTERMEDIATE
Maybe this is 4–5 scripts in. Maybe more, maybe fewer.
The writer has enough experience that he or she starts to realize: there are better and worse ways to do things.
The writer realizes, “Hey, if I do scene X differently, it would be better…but that would require changing character A.”
The writer thus has an epiphany: choices matter. And rewriting actually begins. The baby wasn’t perfect at all, and can be improved.
The writer begins to make progress. Sometimes a lot of progress: Active protagonist. An original concept. Clever twists. Subtler exposition. Better scenework. Snappier dialogue.
But the writer still has a “ceiling” to his or her work. He just doesn’t know what he doesn’t know, and remains overly attached to amateur ideas and tendencies.
Rather than keep going with any one script, the writer creates new ones instead—and they tend to be better, true. Maybe one even has a cool, commercial concept.
But the writer still doesn’t take the time to figure out the best expression of the concept.
Thus the intermediate writer, instead of creating one great script, builds a portfolio of lesser ones.
Some of them might be good enough to place (or win) contests, which could lead to industry introductions.
But the result, way more often than not, is a writer’s Coverfly page with a bunch of “top 3%” (or whatever) scripts that don’t go anywhere professionally.
The problem is that the writer is still operating in the dark as to elements of CONCEPT and EXECUTION that truly move the needle.
STAGE THREE: “WHY ISN’T THIS HAPPENING FOR ME?!?!”
If you’ve written 10 or more scripts, and are able to consistently place in contests and get decent feedback, you’re probably driving yourself crazy—AAAAAHHHH! Why isn’t this happening for me?
There is a certain amount of luck. The contests are imperfect, staffed with amateur readers. Some are outright corrupt. And in Hollywood, even a great script can take decades to get made.
But more often than not, it’s because of one or both of the following:
1. Your script’s concept isn’t commercial enough to attract attention.
2. Your execution isn’t strong enough to work as a sample.
So, yeah…it’s your fault.
This drives people crazy because they know their stuff is at least somewhat good.
But the standard for success isn’t just good, it’s undeniable—the business is that competitive.
And it’s very difficult for an expert to write an undeniable script, let alone a newbie.
Usually, writers just don’t have it in them, talent-wise. There’s nothing we can do about this.
But also…nobody teaches “undeniable.” Because, really, how could they?
The “hope industry” companies aren’t staffed with genius-level screenwriters—those folks are off having real careers.
And even in the actual industry, getting a script to an “undeniable” level means an intense and protracted development period. It’s brutal, and still often fails.
The coverage companies can’t possibly teach this. First of all, they don’t know how. Second of all, being so demanding would only chase away their customers—I mean, writers.
So it’s easier to give out awards and “attaboys” and string people along with hope.
I’m sure these companies are staffed with nice people who mean well. But per Upton Sinclair: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”
Let’s say you do want to create an undeniable script.
I’ll tell you how to do it—but you won’t like it, because it’s hard.