All the Things You Have to Have: The Screenwriters Arsenal
Luck favors the prepared. We’ve all heard it said a million times, so much so that it may seem cliché. But an old friend often reminds me that clichés always start out as something honest and true. I have to agree with him, because the reality is this: For any writer looking to break into and work in the entertainment industry by design, rather than by sheer, flukey miracle that relies on absolutely no rhyme or reason, there are certain things she wants to have ready to share at all times in order to arrive prepared for any opportunity.
You’d think some of these things are all too obvious. But I can tell you from personal experience working with hundreds and hundreds of writers over the many years I’ve been doing this that sometimes even the most obvious items required in the writers’ arsenal are not there. If we’re to turn to another cliché, Luck is when preparation meets opportunity, then below is my list of all those things you want to have prepared in order to find your luck as you pave your path to a screenwriting career.
2-3 screenplays and/or pilots in same or similar genre
This is, hands down, the most important thing to have in your arsenal: Your body of work. Without this, all of the other items on the list lose their meaning. Your body of work, which could be made of screenplays, pilots, or a mix of both, should speak to your brand and make the case for the writer you are aiming to be, whether the case is genre-specific or one more driven by themes. While it is true that it only takes one script to go from emerging to professional, it is also true that having a solid body of work speaks to your longevity, consistency and determination, all things that will power you to that ongoing career. The projects that populate your body of work should have unifying ideas running through them, and should be of the same or similar quality, making the case that you have what it takes to write high quality works and do it on an ongoing basis. For more on your body of work check out my blogpost: The Screenwriters’ Make-or-Break: Body of Work.
But your body of work is only the beginning. Along with your body of work, make sure you also have the following:
Logline for each project
For each of your completed projects, you want an effective logline. If a rep reads an initial pilot and wants to read more, he will likely ask: What else do you have? An industry executive is likely to do the same. Having those loglines, which have been developed, vetted and tested at the writer’s fingertips is going to prove crucial to make the most of those situations.
1-2 page synopsis for each project
Synopses are not nearly as critical as loglines, but may get requested occasionally, be it from a screenwriting lab for which the writer is submitting an application, or from an executive whose interest has been piqued by the logline, but who’s not quite sure she’s ready to commit to reading the complete script just yet.
2-minute pitch for each project
Apparently I am all about quotes and clichés today, because the first thing that came to mind as I was writing this was the Albert Einstein quote (which could be applied to both loglines and pitches): “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” As the author of your work, you have to know how to speak about it in a manner that’s effective and enticing, and communicates what’s at the heart of your project. Whether you’re at a writer’s event, a paid pitching situation or meeting an industry executive at a dinner party, the opening to deliver an elevator pitch for your latest project is an opportunity for which you want to be prepared.
Show bible for every pilot
If you are a TV writer, be sure to complete a show bible for every original pilot that you write. A show bible should speak to the longterm, sustainable vision of the show, making a case for its “legs” and potential for multi-season longevity, which is very much what buyers are looking to assess when considering your TV pilot. If you’ve done some big-picture planning for your show prior to starting your pilot, you likely have some, if not all, of the information with which you could populate your show bible. It’s important to get it on the page in a cohesive, carefully developed manner in order to come off as well-planned, thought-out and professional.
When it comes to developing these supporting materials that I just listed for your screenplay or TV pilot, remember that it’s always easier to do when you’ve just finished working on the material, rather than six or nine months later when someone asks for them. The further away you are from the completion of the material, the more removed you will be from the thinking behind it. For the sake of efficiency, I always recommend writers complete the items above once they’ve arrived at an industry-ready draft of their pilot or screenplay.
When it comes to your bio, personal logline, narrative and nuggets, the idea is that the story that you should know best is your own, and that, accordingly, you should be able to tell it in a way that immediately allows the listener (or reader) to feel like he’s getting to know you. Whenever I start working with a writer, I send over a questionnaire ahead of his Career Coaching Intake Session. On the first page of the questionnaire there is a request: Please provide your bio. You would be surprised how many times I’ve received a bulleted list of life events, a chronological list of educational institutions and jobs, or a write-up about what the writer writes in scripted form rather than the writer’s short biography written in prose. While a bio is something that is often refined and evolved, it’s also something you want to always have ready to show.
Your personal narrative is the answer you provide to the industry directive: “Tell me about yourself!” This directive can be asked for at the start of a meeting with an agent or manager you are hoping will sign you, with an industry executive whom you’re meeting for a general, or with a showrunner who is sitting down with you for staffing purposes. The personal narrative is a short, 60-90 second story that speaks to who you are as a person and a writer, that is based on your lived experience and is uniquely yours. To learn more about how to build your personal narrative, check out my blog post 3 Reasons the Writer’s Personal Story is SO Important.
The incomparable Carole Kirshner said the she stole the concept of the personal nugget from showrunner Glen Mazzara; regardless, I’m going to quote her (from her conversation with The Script Lab) as her words have put it best: Divide your life into five-year increments. For each segment, write down two or more colorful situations or events that happened to you or your family. Also write down at least one success or accomplishment. Then, starting at about ages 10 to 15, choose one success and one colorful situation from each time period. String them together in chronological order, and cut any that don’t show you in a positive light.
Your personal logline is your very own origin story, told in 3 or 4 sentences, that speak to the life experiences that have defined you and made you into the person and writer that you are today. Are there special skills or lived experiences you bring into the writing? Are there experiences that are particularly memorable or uniquely yours? Start making lists, look at your nuggets, and craft the personal logline that is uniquely yours and specifically memorable.
None of these items that are meant to populate your unique writer’s arsenal can be developed overnight. They take time, thought, practice and evaluation. Cultivate them carefully, running your pitches, your loglines (be they project based or personal), your bios and bibles by friends and writer’s group cohorts. Because when opportunity arrises (in those short opportunity windows that are also known to be very quick to close) having them ready to go is going to prove incredibly advantageous.