Respect the (Screenwriting) Craft: An Unabashed Rant
Disclaimer: I am writing this openly and unabashedly pissed off. Which means… This may come off harsher than I would usually want but… Fuck it. It needs to be said. So my apologies in advance if I offend.
A few days ago, I sat down for a creative development session with one of my writers, who used to have some traction in this industry but… Let’s just say it’s been a while. For me, creative development is par for the course: this is where we vet ideas, break story, make sure that the structure is sound and the bones are strong before the writer goes to pages. On that particular day, this particular writer was coming in to go over the 3-act progression for his next feature project. We had selected the concept in a previous session. Talked about the three act structure as it would apply to this screenplay in broad strokes. This was his moment to map out how he was really going to make this plot track, escalate and pop.
As soon as the writer sat down I knew something was off. Following a little bit of catch-up and small talk, he proudly handed over a single hand-written page with a single paragraph on it. I really think I nailed it, he said. But it took no more than a quick glance to know that he didn’t. His homework assignment was clear: Put the concept into a 3-act structure, complete with escalations and act breaks, so that we could start getting a sense of how it’s all going to work in script form. And this wasn’t it. Not by a long shot. So I asked: What’s this? He said: It’s the movie. Only… it wasn’t. It was an elaborate logline, at best, one which – for the record – we had established in a lesser form two weeks earlier. So I asked him what happened. What do you mean? He asked. But he should have known. After all, once upon a time he had an agent, he had a manager. He knew what it took to do the job. Or at least so I thought. I just worked on it. I got busy last week – went on an impromptu three day trip to Vegas – but that should be all I need to go on, he told me. When I dug deeper, I realized that just worked on it was actually literal. Despite the two week period we had given him to develop the material, he only just started to dig in when he sat down at a nearby coffeeshop two hours prior to our session. And as soon as I realized this, I got really, noticeably pissed off.
Before I tell you why I got so red-in-the-face pissed off, let’s establish this: For 99% of writers, there is no productive writing without some level of planning, be it in index cards, outline or beat sheet form. Writing an outline or beat sheet or a sequence progression that gives you some direction as to where your script is going is your roadmap, and without it, by the time you hit page 60 or so, you will realize that you’re totally lost. Screenwriting is not easy. It’s a complex, intricate craft. For years now, I have watched hard working, ridiculously talented screenwriters fight the good fight to make it all work in harmony and fit just right. It’s been demanding. Challenging. At times it’s been fun. But it’s never been easy for them, a sort of afterthought that comes together by miracle. They’ve spent days, weeks, months breaking story and doing research. They’ve sequenced. They’ve beaten it out again and again. And again, one more time. They’ve broken story every which way. They’ve written 40 page outlines. They got shitty notes. Dug in further, corrected course, strengthened every part. Gone above and beyond because that’s what a writer who actually wants to write does.
The first time I was confronted with this dismissive attitude towards screenwriting – which boils down to what???? screenwriting is not hard!!!! – was many years ago, during a New York City workshop I was at the helm of. The question that went around the room was simple: Why are you screenwriting? One of my participants stood up and said proudly – as though they had been fortunate enough to be let in on the con of a lifetime – I started out writing novels but that was really hard and you don’t make that much money, but then I saw screenplays and how much writers get paid for them, and I saw there is all this white space, it’s basically just dialogue, and I thought: I can do that, no problem! So now I’m a screenwriter.
At the heart of what pissed me off about that NYC writer all those years ago, the writer I met with a few days ago to whom two hours breaking story was all that was required to do what others develop over weeks and months, and every dismissive writer in between who thought that screenwriting is nothing but a quick way to make lots of cash, is this: writers who don’t actually want to do their job and write. Sure, they want to talk about writing. They want to think themselves storytellers. They would love to see their name up in lights but when it comes down to it, the work, the attention, the creativity and the interest level is just not there to back it up. And I find myself getting highly offended on behalf all of my writers, and all writers everywhere, who put in the work every spare moment they’ve got, on behalf of my television writers who are in the room twelve hours a day, eleven months a year, only to use their hiatus to finish that feature they’ve been working on. On behalf of my writers who get up at five o’clock in the morning and make time to write before their kids wake up and their day jobs starts, whether or not they are being paid for it.
So I will conclude this by sharing here what I told my writer who turned in a single, poorly thought out paragraph instead of a complete 3-act story progression delivered in any fashion – index cards, power point presentation, excel spreadsheet, or anything else that would make sense for the writer: Not doing the work – any sort of work, even delivering a short story instead of a traditional outline – is not genius, it’s laziness. If you want to be a writer, a working writer, the sort of writer other people get excited about, make introductions for and give referrals to, you better get really excited about story. Even when it gets hard sometimes, story is the one thing that you should not be able to wait to dig into. You shouldn’t do this for the money (because even if you are successful, it will be a while before you get a significant amount) or the glory (because, let’s face it, it’s gonna be a lot of time and a lot of work until someone glorifies you) – you should do it for one simple reason: The love of story. The need to put pen to paper and share the characters you’re excited about, the themes that resonate with you, your unique point of view. Those are the writers who get work and stay working in this business. Those are the writers that others can’t wait to work with. Those are the writers that build careers that last.