Screenwriting Wisdom (Volume 2): THE CRAFT
If you’ve been reading my blog for any length of time, I am sure you’ve noticed this one thing about me: I LOVE myself some good advice. I lean on it in my personal life. I make a meal of it in my professional. Shut up and listen has been my mantra (said purely to myself) for a long, long time. Insights from writers, reps and execs were my guiding lights when I wrote my book, Breaking In: Tales From the Screenwriting Trenches. It’s been a privilege to have friends and clients working in and around the industry continue to share their insights with me. And it were those very insights that lead me to publish Screenwriting Wisdom from Working Writers (Volume 1) The Craft a few months back, and what I wanted to keep building on now because… You guys! This stuff is just too good to pass up.
To refresh, I posed this question to a few of my working writers:
What are a few simple (or not so simple) things that every new writer should know or keep in mind going into this (this being screenwriting)?
Here are some more invaluable nuggets they came back to me with:
Greta Heinemann, a graduate of CBS’s TV Writers Mentoring Program, whose TV credits include Good Girls and NCIS New Orleans as well as mini-rooms for Netflix and Apple+, whose feature pitch Dakar sold to Amblin in a competitive situation, and who currently has shows in development at Netflix and FX and a movie in development at Amazon, said:
It’s all about the material. If you don’t get the reactions/break you want, don’t look to blame the unfair system. Also don’t look to blame yourself. Look to improve the material. Rewriting and learning the craft is part of the journey & the best material will rise to open the doors. (I will add to this, that I, right now, after nearing 10 years in this biz, am just now realizing that I have a lot to learn in terms of rewriting for networks/producers… so the journey never stops).
Writers working with me have heard me say this all too often: There is no screenwriting career to be built without great screenplays or pilots to put the writers craft, voice and skill on display. So learning the craft, developing your body of work and exposing your work is instrumental for anyone who wants to see their writing pave the way to a screenwriting career. Not every screenplay is going to be great. Not every pilot will land as the writer wants it to. But the important thing is to learn from every single pilot your screenplay, even if they’re not as well received as the writer had hoped, while developing new work at a high level that, with hard work and the proper exposure, will open those doors that will eventually lead to a screenwriting career.
Hussain Pirani, Story Editor on FBI International and graduate of NBC’s Writer’s on the Verge shared this with me:
“Our character’s emotional reaction to the story is the story.” That quote gets repeated a lot in our writer’s room. Storytelling is about investing in our characters. And integrating their personal journey into your plot and storyline is in itself a skill worth sharpening.
Now before all the naysayers decide to come in and talk about character work on network procedurals, let me just say that I love this advice SO MUCH. I am a big proponent of character driving plot, earning meaningful story turns through needs and stakes, rather than plot dictating the character’s journey. In development, I always look to track the character’s emotional arc, and seek to see character turns earning the evolution of plot. I find this to be such an important guideline that I even wrote a blogpost about what I consider to be the 3 pillars necessary for writing an active protagonist.
Crosby Selander broke into the industry when his screenplay, Bring me Back, sold for 7-figures in a bidding war in 2020. Since then, he’s been spearheading a pilot for Village Roadshow. Crosby shared this with me when I posed the above question to him:
It takes time for your craft to catch up to your taste. There’s a fine line here – where you have to be hard enough on yourself to keep getting better, but kind enough to yourself so you have the confidence you need to keep writing. You have to have enough confidence to defend your ideas and your vision, but not too much ego that you can’t listen to others and learn from the feedback and make your work better. So be kind to yourself. Stay open to criticism. Draw lines to protect yourself and your self-worth and remember that the work doesn’t reflect on you as a person. Doing bad work doesn’t mean it won’t end up being good eventually.
Crosby is absolutely right. Craft – and voice! – evolve over time. The more you write, the more you will find yourself on the page. The more masterful you are on the page, the more confidence you will have in your skills and your ideas. This, by the way, will not absolve you of bad scripts or bad drafts. My artist mother has long instilled in me this one idea: Every artists needs a trash can. And while many scripts may first arrive as not-so-great, in time you may refine them to be exciting projects or writing samples.
Some scripts will be more successful than others. Some concepts will take more time to develop and make shine. Unlike a book or a painting that exist in their own right, a screenplay or pilot is going to require a lot of buy-in from reps, executives, buyers and financiers in order for the project to move forward. Finding the balance between listening and taking notes and holding onto the heart of your vision takes time, but it’s a skill that every writer developing original material for the big and small screen is going to have to master.