Experts Weigh In: 10 Ways to Push Your Screenwriting to the Next Level
If there is one popular belief in the industry about screenplays and television pilots from emerging writers, it is this: There are a lot of good scripts out there. There are only a few that are really, truly great.
It wasn’t always like this. In the 90’s, when the internet was at its infancy, screenwriting instruction was available mostly in physical classrooms only and industry scripts weren’t so readily available or easily shared. In those good old days, there was a lot more out there that was mediocre or less, making the case that finding a good script was very much akin to searching for a needle in a haystack. Today, hot industry specs and pilots are readily available, and information, instruction and feedback can be sourced (with or without pay) without much of an intensive scratching of the surface. While there seem to be a lot less straight-out terrible feature specs and TV pilots out there, the consensus among many is that while it’s possible to find perfectly decent work, it’s still near impossible to read something from an unknown writer that will just blow you away.
So how do you push your writing to a level that makes it stand out from the rest? How do you make your screenplay or television pilot so undeniable that it blows any agent, manager or executive away?
To shed some light on the topic, I once again turned to my expert friends, who generously shared with me their two cents when I asked: What advice do you have for writers seeking to elevate their craft?
My good friend Ruth Atkinson, who consults privately with writers and also works with Sundance Labs and Film Independent told me: “Well obviously they just need to write, write and write some more. But not in a vacuum. Writers need to share their work, get feedback, read others (pro and emerging), watch movies, learn the language etc. Also writers need to really pay attention to what interests them as a writer as this will lead them to finding their authentic voice and telling stories that are uniquely theirs to tell. It takes years to learn how to execute an engaging story on the page that is well structured, cinematic, evocative and emotionally satisfying. Screenwriting is the convergence of many different skills so writers need to be absolutely committed to learning the craft but also patient. No one gets into the NBA overnight and writers won’t become working professionals overnight. Oh, the other absolutely essential way for writers to improve their craft is to MAKE SOMETHING. Seriously, anything, DIY or whatever. Writers have to see their work produced in order to grow and learn so even shooting something they have written with their friends on their iPhone will help them improve their writing.”
Script reader and talented screenwriter Rob Ripley shared insight with me from his own writing journey: “The year I got serious about my craft, I read 365 scripts that year – 1 per day. For my twenty favorites, I got hold of both the reading draft that sold and the shooting script to compare the differences. What I learned is that a reading script plays an entirely different function than does a shooting script and it’s where we writers must live. Finally, I watched the movie/show for those 20 favorites and saw how much changed from page to screen. The net of all that? We overwrite the hell out of most things because we’re trying to figure out the character/scene/beat/turn.”
TV maven Carole Kirschner, who oversees the CBS Mentoring Program, the Humanitas New Voices program and the WGA’s Showrunner program, added to what Rob Ripley previously told me: “Read the very best scripts in your genre (Academy Award winners/nominations, Emmy winners/nominations, Spirit Awards winners/nominations, Sunday winners/nominations). Read them, study them, analyze them… then compare them to your script/s. Where do you need to put in work to bring them up to the level of the scripts you’re reading?”
Leading industry consultant Pilar Alessandra who works out of her OnThePage studio had this to say: “Stop playing it safe. Elevating your craft means finding your voice. And you can’t do that if you’re chasing the market or trying to people-please. Learn the rules for sure … but then break them a little.”
The brilliant Jen Grisanti, once a Current TV exec and now one of the leading TV consultants as well as instructor at NBC’s Writers on the Verge said: “My advice is to understand story structure and to recognize that structure done well will elevate emotion. If the writer clearly sets up the personal dilemma and links it to the pursuit, we feel the why throughout the story during the pursuit of the what. This connects the audience to the outcome. The writer should be clear about all of the whys. Why are we entering the story when we are? Why does the central character want to achieve the goal? Why does the antagonist want to get in the way of the central character achieving his/her goal? etc. Emotion is what will take your story to the next level. Dig deep. Being able to access the depth of your well in a way that connects with your audience is what will sell your story.”
Script Angel’s Hayley McKenzie, once a UK network development executive and now a sought-after consultant kept it simple: “Write every day and identify your writing weaknesses so that you can learn how to improve in those areas.”
Seasoned script reader Andrew Hilton, who is gaining traction for his own screenwriting career, told me: “Read as many scripts as possible and push yourself to improve in whatever area you believe is your weakest (e.g. structure, dialogue, etc.). Get outside your comfort zone and strive to make each screenplay the best piece of material you’ve ever written. Always, always, always, write for your audience.”
Former development executive and highly regarded screenwriting consultant Danny Manus said: “Read lots of scripts, watch lots of movies/shows, write NOTES on the scripts you read, do your research, don’t take the craft for granted, don’t think you can rush the process, and seek feedback and guidance from someone who can help you elevate your craft. Screenwriting doesn’t have to be a solo sport.”
And finally, working TV writer, creator of the Script Anatomy writing program and sought after consultant in her own right, Tawnya Bhattacharya, had this to contribute: “Keep writing. Learn from your mistakes and from the notes you get, but don’t take every note to heart because you have to be the authority of your own work — your own compass. Don’t do it in a vacuum. Start a writers group. Take classes (from Script Anatomy, of course). Always work toward becoming a better writer.“
For my money, there are a number of proven ways to push yourself as a writer and elevate your craft: Read screenplays. Not just 20-year-old screenplays; current industry screenplays that are making the rounds, be they feature specs that made it onto the previous year’s The Black List or TV scripts that were picked up to go to pilots. Find smart, talented people who will challenge you at every turn on your craft, and force you to then challenge yourself. Abandon your cynicism. Or most of it, anyway. Write your passion. Write what you know, in themes and emotions if not in experience. Don’t chase the trends because you think they are of interest to someone else; instead, write what is meaningful to you. Be unique. Let your uniqueness lead you to your particular voice. Don’t try to be “The Next” or “The New.” Instead, become the very best, hardest working, most authentic version of you.