Typically, beginning screenwriters enter a world they know little about. Many have never written anything before, let alone a screenplay. Many know nothing about show business, except that they love movies and television. Few know how to write drama, let alone drama that will work cinematically. Novices soon realize that learning this complex discipline by trial and error is possible, but it can take years. They search for “the rules,” hoping for a road map that will guide them through the maze.
After all, human existence tends to be organized around sets of rules. Proper deportment in school or on the job. Etiquette for social interaction. Integrity in business. Fair play in sports. Such rules help us overcome barriers so we can progress through life in an orderly fashion. Once we learn them, we can grasp what’s going on, know how to behave, and realize what to expect. Generally, the more complicated the issues, the more rules we have.
It’s normal, therefore, to expect the same kind of organization in screenwriting. Unfortunately, however, screenwriting rules can throw up more roadblocks than they eliminate. Imagine a trip through the Grand Canyon on foot and without a guide. A screenwriter’s education can be even more frustrating. The Grand Canyon literally is carved in stone, and at least you can expect its roads and trails to stay put. Not so with screenwriting.
The film industry is a dynamic medium that constantly evolves and changes. Accordingly, screenwriting must evolve and change to keep abreast of the industry it serves. In screenwriting, therefore, very little is carved in stone. Conventions that are here today can be gone tomorrow. Perhaps something a screenwriter always did ten years ago is now passé.
Worse, the problem with having rules is the old cliché that they are made to be broken, and screenwriters can have rebellious spirits. Beginners can find themselves caught in debates about what is really right or wrong. Something one person considers a rule, another person will say is baloney. There are even vehement battles about whether screenwriting is an art or a craft. Like arguing about politics or religion, such debates are pointless. They waste time and energy that would be better spent completing a screenplay.
Okay. What’s a beginner to do? In the face of confusing information and conflicting opinions, you are on a fact-finding mission. Be open-minded and pragmatic. Rather than searching for what is “right” or “wrong,” you must learn what works and discard what doesn’t. To that end:
1. Be flexible. Think of your learning experience as a highway. Switch your mindset from “rules” to “guard rails.” As you travel through screenwriting’s rugged terrain, consider screenwriting conventions as a means to keep you on the road and moving forward.
2. Avoid getting ahead of yourself. Many students come into my classroom who haven’t yet written a screenplay, but their first question is, “How do I get an agent?” Writing a screenplay that is worthy of production takes time, training, and practice. Moreover, writing a screenplay and selling one are totally different functions. For good and practical reasons, producers do not buy ideas, nor do they read partial projects. They want to see a completed script. Focus on completing at least one screenplay. Polish it until it shines like a jewel. Then move into marketing.
3. Avoid confusing yourself. Beginners are subjected to many myths and unrealistic expectations that can slow their progress. For example, “I have a great story, and a delighted producer will send me a check.” Sadly, the way show business works usually is not the way people want it to work. Getting paid is rarely that simple or straightforward. In fact, your paycheck probably will depend on variables outside and beyond your material. (Mainly, whether your producer has the money, marbles and chalk to make your film.)
4. Every artistic discipline has certain fundamentals. These are basic requirements that make the discipline function properly. For example, painters must know color. Dancers must know correct movement. Musicians must know how to play their instruments. Such fundamentals are not “rules.” They are facts of life. Just simple reality. To succeed in any artistic discipline, including screenwriting, one must learn its basic requirements.
5. Be careful of where you get your instructional information, and be mindful of dates. Because screenwriting keeps moving forward, reading a 20 year old screenplay might be good for content, but the format may contain elements (scene numbers, etc.) that you shouldn’t copy. Or you might want to avoid a screenwriting manual that was considered excellent in 1992 but hasn’t been updated.
Internet sites such www.wga.org or http://www.filmsite.org and screenwriting magazines, such as Script (http://www.scriptmag.com) and Creative Screenwriting (http://www.creativescreenwriting.com) are great resources for information about current screenwriting trends.
Also, you can gain enormous insights with television programs such as the ancient but venerable Hollywood Screenwriters and Their Craft, shown occasionally on PBS, or Sunday Morning Shootout from AMC. (Note: If you do not have cable, but your computer can handle it, you can access clips from Sunday Morning Shootout on the AMC website, http://www.amctv.com/section/0,,111-EST,00.html) In addition, AMC has plenty of documentaries and special series, such as Movies 101, that can give you insight into the film making process.
For learning the language of screenwriting, the web site Cinematic Terms: A Film-making Glossary, http://www.filmsite.org/filmterms.html, is an education all by itself.
6. There are as many methods and approaches to screenwriting as there are stars in the sky. The trick is to find one that works for you. To that end, consider a bit of formal education. Screenwriting doesn’t require a degree, and screenwriting lessons will not guarantee your success. But formal training can accelerate your learning experience, helping you cut through a great deal of garbage. In most cases, however, such classes are not free, and some are outrageously expensive.
If you decide to invest your money, be careful whom you choose for an instructor. Writing and teaching are very different skills. An established screenwriter with impressive writing credentials can be a fine teacher, but this is by no means automatic. If you get a poor instructor, you can spend an enormous amount of money and leave feeling more confused than when you started.
First, decide what you want from the course and examine the syllabus. Will the instruction meet your needs? Then check the instructor’s prior teaching experience. If at all possible, look for reactions from people who have taken the course. Ask them what they got out of it.
7. Many beginning writers wonder which screenwriting manuals to use. This, also, is a matter of choice. You should examine various current books and find out which you prefer. Because these books can be expensive, I strongly recommend that you make good use of your local library. If the book you want to examine is not available in your public library, try to obtain a copy through interlibrary loan. When you find a how-to book that inspires and assists you, probably you will want to buy that one. But, in fact, you never have to spend a penny on screenwriting manuals.
8. Understand that having a good story is not enough. In the main, screenwriting is based on what producers want and how they want it. They are employers, seeking an employee who can meet their needs. Your script demonstrates your ability to create and to help launch a feature film or a television program. Therefore, the execution of your screenplay is as important as the story itself.
9. Every screenplay submission amounts to a job application. As is the case with any job application, you want to make a good impression. Certainly, you want the producer-your prospective boss-to think you are a professional who knows the ropes. Dedicate yourself, therefore, to studying what producers want and how they want it. Try to avoid doing things that mark you as an amateur.
10. In film and television, there is a definite hierarchy. Like it or not, a novice is constantly pitted against the credited writer. A person who has never sold a script must compete with Oscar winners. While producers look with favor upon established writers, unknown beginners represent financial risks that make producers hesitate. That risk works heavily against beginners.
While credited writers can sell screenplays with a treatment or a pitch, unknown writers have to complete their screenplays and then try to sell them. This is called writing on speculation. The market is flooded with “spec scripts.” Frankly, prominent producers and studios tend to avoid them. That makes the playing field lopsided, and loads the game with frustration. But most writers, even Oscar winners, break in this way. Therefore, you need to learn the fundamental requirements for writing a spec script. And you need to respect those requirements, even if you disagree with them.
Once you establish yourself as a credited writer, you will have more freedom to do as you please.