Letting it Go: Your First Screenplay

Before I lunge into this blog post, let me start with a disclaimer: If you only have one story that you want to tell, one script is all it’s going to take. You will revise and revise and revise, invest blood sweat and tears to see it up in lights, to make it become the movie you’ve dreamed of. Don’t let it go; instead, pursue it hard with unwavering dedication, no matter how long it takes. Chase it, share it, expose it everywhere. Because really, what you’re trying to do is get this one movie made.

But if it’s a screenwriting career you’re to build? It’s going to take a lot more than your first screenplay to get there.

You’ve heard it said a million times before, and I will say it here again: Your first script will not be your best. Your third script will be better than your first. Your fifth better than you third. Your second will likely suck. Your forth will stand a chance. The good news? From script to script, if you get notes, rewrite, and continue to expose the work, you will only get better. But in order to get better, and to give your screenwriting career a fighting chance, you’re going to have to let go of that first script you wrote, the script that represented the very first time you honestly believed that your stories have a place in the cinematic landscape.

First scripts, like first loves, are hardest to let go of. They represent hope and promise and the journey you’ve imagined for yourself. Letting it go might indicate that it may just be as tough to make it as the proverbial “they” always said. But think about it: how many of us lived to marry our high school sweetheart and live happily ever after from there on out? Few are that lucky. For the rest of us, first loves have to be let go of in order for us to graduate to our better lives and our better selves, and the same very much is true for most first screenplays. Ironically, you will likely work harder on your first screenplay than you will on the screenplays that will follow; this is a skill-based craft, and it takes cutting your teeth on that first, stubborn script to start on your journey towards becoming a masterful cinematic story teller. The good news here is that once you’ve let go, you will likely find that your second script comes easier, and your third comes easier still. You will always be a better writer for fighting through and then letting go of that first script.

I work with a slew of professional writers; writers who are repped by known agents and managers, writers who get paid WGA rates and far above for their specs and their original pilots and the writing assignments they’re hired for. And for every last one of those writers, it took a lot more than that first spec; the first spec or original teleplay is usually just a writers entry, the first exposure they get to what they can do within the confines of the craft. All of these writers have worked on many screenplays, many original pilots before they’ve gained traction in the industry space, learning to consistently and methodically work on a screenplay, complete, get notes, revise, then move on to the next. It’s the consistent churning of new content that will not only make you a better writer, but will build that all-important writer’s body of work.

For those trying to build a screenwriting career, the truth remains that a career is most often initially built off of a voice, rather than a single script. An industry executive will ask you “what else do you have?” because something they read of yours convinced them that you have a strong voice; now they want to find out whether you have something in that voice that more closely meets what they’re looking for. It is an absolute rarity for an unknown writer to deliver to an executive exactly the script they were looking for upon a first encounter. So it’s that second, third and forth script the writer provides that indicates to the executive whether this is a writer who could potentially produce what they’re looking for, or be viable to team up with on a project in the long term.

At the end of the day, in order to start taking real, tangible steps towards being a bona fide working screenwriter, you’re going to have to let go of that first love, that first work. You’re going to have to take the lessons you’ve learned on that first one, and apply those to the next one, and the next one, and the next in order to amass your body of work. You will have to keep evolving your voice, to keep finding worthwhile and exciting stories to tell. It will be nothing less than your job to compile that appealing and cohesive body of work, full of effective, compelling, exciting original pilots and/or screenplays.

After all, if it’s just that one screenplay you’re trying to get out there, the same one you keep revising and submitting to contests, talking about year after year at pitch events, the truth of the matter is that you’re not trying to build a screenwriting career, where the industry will be looking to you for fresh new content again and again. You will not be able to aptly provide an enticing answer to “what else do you have?” What a single screenplay implies is that what you’re trying to do, as stated earlier, is get a movie made. And while that is a worthwhile cause all its own, it does not a screenwriting career make.


Want to read more? Check out my new best-selling book GETTING IT WRITE: AN INSIDER’S GUIDE TO A SCREENWRITING CAREER now available on my site with a complimentary companion piece!