SAY WHAT??? Things Screenwriters Should Never Say
Let’s face it: We all say things we shouldn’t. We don’t mean to – and most of us come to regret it later – but things don’t always come out of our mouths the way that we intended. I am just as vulnerable to this as anyone else: When I was younger, I was constantly in a state of panic about the many and varied ways I might have just put my foot in it. Especially with a glass of wine in my hand.
A professional setting, however, allows you the luxury of being prepared. Of planning. Of refining words on the page. And preparation allows you to think about the things you are going to say.
Don’t get me wrong: We all have said things that we regret and will again. And many of us have said things that sounded very different out of our mouths than they did in our head. But as a screenwriter there are some things that just… should stay out of your mouth and off the page. To shed light on this, here are some of the phrases that writers have said to me over the years, that I wish they would have takes back, or not said in the first place.
I wanted to write novels, but then I saw a screenplay and realized that this was so much easier (and took that much less work).
The person telling me this often shared this as a point of pride: I wanted to be a writer, and I was smart enough to find the easiest, least work-intensive way to accomplish this, based on words on the page and the beauty of white space. But what it always sounded like to me is this: I wanted to be a writer, I just didn’t want to put in the hard work. I went into screenwriting not because I love the format or can’t get enough of visual storytelling, but because it was the shortest path to a completed product. And what it boils down to is this: Don’t tell anyone you’re doing this because it seemed easy. Because it was easier than something else. That you – effectively – took the easy way out. Ever. If they’re going to pay you a lot of money, hire you for assignments or put you in writer’s room, let them do it because they believe you’re talented, hard working, a born storyteller, someone who has something to say.
I saw all these movies/read all these scripts and thought: “I could do it so much better!”
I may hate this one even more then I hate the last one. Sure, everyone needs some sense of bravado to get into this game. And there are name filmmakers who got in the game by seeing something on the big or small screen and thinking that they could do better. However, take from a person who reads scripts on a regular basis, some of which do come from those who tout their ability to do better: A person watching a movie, thinking that they can do better and generating a winning script and an exciting career is the exception, not the rule. I am in no way saying that it can’t be done, but the belief that the aspiring writer – often inexperienced and untrained – can do what others have done, only better, by just sitting at a computer and typing FADE IN is – much of the time – an insult to every writer, director and producer who’s spent the better part of his adult life doing this. Now, don’t get me wrong: In order to get into this game, especially as a storyteller, you HAVE TO HAVE a story to tell and a point of view to share. But assuming that you can do it better than others right out of the gate is an immediate turn-off for anyone who’s been working at this, and for those of us who support them and really understand what it takes.
I write to get rich.
Okay, no one ever said it quite like that, but I have been told things like “How much do you think I can sell my script for? I have debt to pay!” or “I hate my job so I thought I’d sell a script instead and quit my job,” or “I don’t really want to be a writer – I just want to sell a script for a few million dollars.” There is so much to unpack here… I don’t even know where to begin. But let me start with this: Your script is not your lottery ticket. There is no get-rich-quick scheme here. For a script to sell (on the feature or the TV side), it’s going to have to be amazing. And that’s just not something that most people will be able to produce easily. I remember years ago, I talked to a manager friend. A client he let go of three years prior just went on to sell a script for a respectable $75k. I asked him if he regretted the decision to let her go way back when. He told me something to the tune of: “She sold the script she was developing back when we were working together. My take on it would have been 7.5k. That would have meant that for every year I worked with her, I would have been paid 2.5k. And we both know that the hours you put into developing a new client per year are worth a lot more than that.” Which is all to say that while that writer and that manager were clearly not a fit, which is why the relationship ended in the first place, it takes time in this industry to get paid. A client of mine recently had his script named to the prestigious The Hit List. His wife, by his side for the entirety of his screenwriting journey said: “Great. Is there a Hit List check?” Because she learned what many of us know: While there is potential to one day get paid and – especially if you’re writing on the TV side – get paid well, the reality is that it takes some time before writing will generate the sort of income that you need, let alone get you out of massive debt.
I know everything I need to know about writing/the industry.
Here’s the deal: I study this industry every day, and I still don’t know everything about the industry. In fact, that’s part of what holds my interest in it: It is always shifting and changing. What is true today may not necessarily be true tomorrow. It keeps you on your toes. Somebody once emailed me and said “I think I know everything I need to know about the industry, so I’m not sure why I should work with you.” First of all: No one has to work with me. But much, much more importantly, if you think you know everything there is to know about any one thing, you probably stopped being a student of it. And it’s through learning that growth exists. So while everyone should figure out their own path to getting to know the industry, you should never ever think you know everything there is to need to know, because that is likely when you will start making big mistakes and stop developing. Or as Albert Einstein once said: “It is not that I’m so smart. But I stay with the questions much longer.”
I’m ready to give this writing thing six months/a year/two years.
It’s one thing for me to hear this statement. It’s a whole other thing when one of my manager or agent friends is told this. As Jennifer Au of Untitled Entertainment told me when I interviewed her for my new book, BREAKING IN: TALES FROM THE SCREENWRITING TRENCHES: “I once sat down with someone, a potential client meeting, and I said, “Are you in it for the long haul?” And they said something like, “I’m giving it two years, and then I’m out,” and my response was, “Great, well, I’m out right now.” That’s as long as it takes to get me a draft and for me to get it out there and for me to get you some fans, and maybe you haven’t even written the second piece by then.“ The bottom line: If you’re in it, be IN IT. Don’t put a time limit on it, but rather get ready to work on your craft and your relationships as long as it takes for you to make it happen. After all, that’s what you’ll be asking of anyone who is willing to take you on for representation; the last thing you want them to say is: “Okay, we’ll take you on for six months, but if you/we can’t make anything happen, we’re dropping you!”
I know the script is not good, but I gave it to you so that you can see that I can write.
A writer told me just that in a recent email, in response to a slew of notes I gave him on his script. What???? I literally couldn’t wrap my brain around this sentence. The writer knew that the script is not good… And yet he was surprised to get notes from me… He told me that he sent me the script to show me that he can write… But isn’t an example of your strong writing an equally strong script? Don’t get me wrong – I am a safe space, and my writers should (and hopefully do) feel that they can send me anything at any state and lean on me to help make it better. I’m all good with that. But sending me a bad script as proof of good writing? That is beyond me…
Page 1 rewrite? Great, I’ll get it done in the next few days.
This is one I heard during my days in development, and that I still hear today, from young or inexperienced writers most typically. I’ve also heard statements like: “I’ve rewritten the script 22 times in the last month!” all of which tells me that the writer doesn’t quite yet understand all that writing a great script encompasses. You can’t effectively rewrite an entire script 22 times in 30 days. And most writers (especially feature writers) don’t have the capacity to rethink major plot points and get them on the page, re-imagined, in just a few days. Writing takes time. Thought. Percolation. It’s not just about throwing words on a page. And when a young writer tells me something along these lines, I know that they haven’t quite yet processed the entirety of the notes on their hands, or the sort of impact on the material that they are expected to have. It’s only on TV, when working on an existing show, or when writing a TV spec, that I expect a very experienced, hard working, thoughtful writer to be able to deliver at that pace.
I don’t watch movies or television or read scripts because everything out there is so bad.
I agree: Not all the work that gets put out there is great. Much of the content being put into the world – specifically on the feature side – leaves many of us wanting more, looking elsewhere (hello, golden age of Television!). BUT any writer trying to break into the industry is trying to break into the space that created that content. Which means that… The agents and managers you will be talking to represent some of the writers who wrote THOSE movies. The producers and executives you will be meeting with may have had a role in getting those projects to screen. You don’t have to love everything you see. And you are certainly allowed your opinion about it. But you have to know the scripts in your genre that have sold, and have seen the movies in your space that have made it to the big screen. And even if you hate it all, you have to find a way to talk about it in a manner not entirely offensive. That is, if you want to become part of the working industry.
If there is one thing that I am certain of, it’s that the writers who have said these unfortunate phrases to me in one form or another over the years didn’t mean to go down in the things-to-never-say Hall of Fame. They thought they were being smart, or appearing knowledgable, or coming off as professional in some way. Which all brings us back to the point which is my mantra: Prepare. Yes, it takes a lot of luck to make it in the business. But the two things that negate luck are hard work and preparation.
I am just a beginner at writing screenplays. I waited a long time to start, because I thought writing shooting scripts was too hard. I thought writing scripts would be easier. But while imagining the concept is easier, it is no easier to write a Script on Spec than it is to write a shooting script. In fact, writing a screenplay is NOT easier than writing a novel! If you think it is, here’s a challenge: Pick a novel, any novel. Now turn it into a 120 page, 2 hour movie. I’ll give you six months! (You can even pick a novel that has already been made into a movie you’ve seen.)
The other thing I’d like to mention is that is wasn’t the idea that I would see a movie, and think “I could do better than that!”, that motivated me to want to write screenplays. It was watching thousands of movies and seeing certain dialogue, plot elements and characterizations handled the exact same way, that made me think, “Do they ALWAYS have to say that?” “Do they always have to have that ending?” “Why do they always make people act like that, when that happens?”
I am working on a Pilot for a Science Fiction series set in the year 9986. I guarantee you, that when our hero gets ready to join the battle of a lifetime to save the planet, his girl friend will not be saying “… Be careful!”
I agree with Frank. I’ve sold a few short stories and writing a screenplay is just as difficult as fiction writing. They’re two entirely different beasts. There are some scenes and dialogue which may look good in a short story or novel which would not work at all in a screenplay.