Put Your (Screenwriting) Passion on the Page

You often hear people say that the most important thing for a writer to do is put pen to paper. But just as important a directive is this: Put your passion on the page.

Case and point: Years ago, one of my long-time clients embarking upon her next project approached me, full of excitement about an idea she always wanted to explore in script form. Now, on paper, the idea could not have been more wrong: It was a period piece. An origin story of a beloved fairy tale character that was just brought to screen by one of our most celebrated actors that very year. Did I say this was period? Set in Victorian England, no less. About a beloved character’s descent into darkness. So… Good times. I asked said writer to try to come up with some other ideas, if only to make sure that this was the one she HAD TO write. But none held the magic that this one concept held for her, which became easily evident. And so… Off she went to write pages, in the hopes that once she got this one script out of her system she would turn her attention to something that might be just a tad more viable for the market.

A few months later, she gave me a draft. And I had to acknowledge: The script she wrote was glorious. One of the best I’d read that year, the year before, and the year after. I still hand it out as an example of a script extremely well done. And it was her passion that pushed her unique and comprehensive vision through, beyond any rational argument for or against the material. As of now, the script has not yet sold. It didn’t make The Black List or The Hit List. It didn’t open every industry door. But It was the script that landed her a very powerful industry manager. The script that put her in contention for a paid, high-profile writing assignment that she recently landed. And most significantly for me, it was the script that reminded me of the undeniable importance of the writer’s passion.

For many writers, passion for storytelling is the only reason to be writing in the first place. This is a crazy industry, and a highly competitive profession. Many an emerging writer will try for a career for years before they get anything resembling a break. There will be frustrations and disappointments along the way. Self-doubt will be prevalent. Passion, then, (rather than money or acclaim) is what’s going to keep the writer going when things don’t go as planned.

Passion on the page is indisputable. Regardless of whether the final product is good or bad, you always know whether the writer is sharing with you something that they felt strongly about and were invested in, or something they wrote only to serve the market. Whenever you read a script, no matter how mechanically sound, you know almost immediately if the writer had no passion for the story, characters, themes or subject matter. Therefore, when my writers embark upon a new project and ask me, “What sort of next-project ideas should I come up with?” I always tell them: “Don’t pitch me anything you are not now, and likely won’t one day become, passionate about.” In other words, passion on the page. That is one of those irreplaceable things that I’m looking for.

While I do work with those writers who select their next project with a sense of pragmatism – identifying those stories that have yet to be told or can be told in a new and interesting way and balancing those with their own level of engagement – I know they will develop their own degree of passion for the material along the way to typing THE END. Plain and simple, I’ve observed their processes enough times to know that – one way or another – they will get there. They are simply slow to dive in, take a bit more time to fall in love. But it’s their slowly baking passion that will make them the story’s best and most invested shepherd, that will fuel the battles they take on with studio and network executives on behalf of the work. So even if they don’t initially come to a new project from a place of pure passion, I know that in their own thoughtful way they will surely get there.

Emerging writers often rely on their day jobs to subsidize the after-hours-and-on-the-weekend pursuit of their passion, i.e. writing for film or television, networking, pursuing their screenwriting career, and writing again. And balancing a full life with writing aspirations is a lofty endeavor demanding a fair share of sacrifice, so it has to be the passion that keeps the writer coming back to the computer again and again, choosing to invest time and energy in the production of pages and the pursuit of a screenwriting career rather than socializing with friends or hanging out over the weekend.

Passion has to be fueled; it’s not a bottomless well, and so ongoing engagement is needed in order to effectively protect and preserve it. Which means that not only does the emerging writer have to balance a job, writing, family and social obligations, but also find active ways to remain inspired and passionate, whether through watching movies and television shows in his unique genre or space, reading, or going for an empowering hike. When it comes to fueling your passion, anything goes.

Many a young storyteller just starting out may think that this – the balancing of screenwriting and a job that earns income – is a temporary problem, one that will be solved once they break in and writing becomes the job. But what do you do when you finally break in, only to land your first writing gig on a show that doesn’t in the least inspire you? In fact, you may end up starting out on a show that you don’t in any way shape or form love, working under a showrunner with whom you don’t always see eye to eye. Or else, you may be a feature writer hired for a lucrative writing assignment that is generous in pay but meager on the sort of story and character that you yourself would develop if left to your own devices.

In such scenarios, I find many writers juggling their professional responsibilities with writing that serves their passion. That keeps the love of writing alive. If the gig in the room or the writing assignment becomes their primary writing responsibility and main job, then writing for themselves, writing the sort of content that fuels their fire, becomes the second job that they must now take on. While some television writers will engage in developing a new feature between assigned episodes or new pilots (if they are in a career stage where they are allowed by contract to develop for television), feature writers may develop a pilot while working on assignment, or instead, work on another feature in parallel, taking on the mentality of “one for me, one for them.”

No matter what career stage you are in, already working or just starting out, it is important to remember that passion is one of the most important assets you can bring to the table. It is tangible on the page, and critical for your journey, especially if you want to keep writing in a way that is satisfying and fulfilling. So be sure to take the necessary steps to preserve and nurture it – you will need it not only to fuel your screenwriting journey, but also to provide it the sort of meaning that will keep you going for years to come.