The Undeniable Screenwriter
In the industry, the term “Undeniable” has become that unique identifier for a screenplay or a pilot that, try though you might, you just can’t say No to. Managers and agents can’t find a good enough reason (other than their own personal taste) not to take it to market; development and current executives can’t find a good reason not to move the project – as long as it fits with the company’s developing or programming missions – up the chain. While industry insiders know an undeniable project when they see one, few can tell you exactly how to put it together.
In my experience, there are not only undeniable projects; there are also undeniable screenwriters. The sort that the industry can tell are going somewhere from a mile away, long before they’ve been able to get the sort of tangible industry traction that can lead to a job or a sale. Long before those strides are made, the industry begins to notice that these undeniable writers might just be here to stay. It senses that those are the writers that they should keep their eye on, and monitor their progress. And while I do believe that every undeniable writer has become that in their own unique way, I also know that there are some common characteristics that those undeniable writers begin to exhibit early in their journey.
What are those? Let’s break it down:
First, of course, is craft
Undeniable writers are ones who relentlessly pursue the mastery of their craft, and then utilize all they’ve learned to tell their unique stories in a new, exciting and fresh way. They take the classes. Read the books. Participate in writers groups with other smart writers who challenge them along the way. When it comes down to it, they may opt not to follow all the rules when executing their pilot or screenplay, but they know those rules inside and out, and are therefore able to choose when and where to set them aside, and when to utilize them. They don’t write to exhibit their mastery of the craft; they use their mastery of the craft to deliver and elevate the story they are passionately compelled to tell.
Knowledge is gathered and amassed
Stand out writers utilize their extensive knowledge of the industry, its players, and content creators at every turn. Yes, they are writers first, but are also fans of the people and companies that have come before them, and have a deep knowledge of the content that inspires them and populates their chosen space. They know every writer on their favorite show, every pod that makes the type of content that they write or show that they want to write on. Many also know the managers and agents that are representing the talent that they admire. They understand how the industry works, and never need to be educated about the way things are or how the business works when talking to industry professionals.
Brand is not up for discussion
Undeniable writers understand their brand inside and out. They know their space, and have clarity about what it is that they do best. They will never be those writers who try to please everyone by aiming to do this AND that; they know where their writing belongs, and where they can find long-term productivity and success. Not only do they know where they most excel; they are also able to encapsulate it – to talk about it and speak to their brand – in just a few words that perfectly define them. They have vast knowledge about those projects, in a multitude of formats (TV, films, podcasts, books, etc.) that have come before theirs, and can speak to them and their creators in great detail and in a knowledgeable manner.
Agency does not need to be granted
Working or not, these writers don’t need permission to do what they do, or define themselves as writers. They are firmly within their agency, and completely own the moniker. Whether they write on spec in the safety of their own home, in a room or on assignment is a pure technicality. Even if there is a day job that eats up a good portion of what could be their writing time, there is no question ever about how seriously they take the pursuit of their craft, the role that it plays in their day-to-day life, or how committed they are. It’s not what they say. It’s – to put it in the simplest terms – how they show up, making writing and their professional pursuits a priority at every turn.
Generosity is par for the course
While these scribes always have their ears perked up for any and every opportunity that may come, they are also incredibly generous, eager to extend a helping hand to anyone they meet along their chosen path. Whether it’s providing a set of notes on another writer’s work, sharing their insights on a particular executive as another writer preps to take a meeting, helping other writers prepare for those fellowship interviews in which they’ve been successful themselves or offering information gathered from their unique expertise on topics ranging from law, to growing up in a cult, to Navy Seals, these writers, one and all, understand that the most dependable, long-term relationships are built in the spirit of generosity.
Community building is an ongoing effort
Keeping the above – that the best relationships are built in the spirit of generosity and curiosity – always front of mind, undeniable writers are always out there, meeting more people, growing their networks. Unless they are in the middle of a job or traveling for pleasure or work, they are not likely to pass up the opportunity to meet up with a variety of execs and writers: other writers they have been introduced to through common friends, execs that they met through generals and hit it off with, even other writers not yet quite at their level, but certainly on their way. While these scribes don’t have to book themselves out for every breakfast/lunch/dinner/drinks availability they have (you have to write sometime, right?), they understand that when the time comes to put their best foot forward with their writing program applications, writing assignments or staff writing positions, it could be those all-important relationships that will help put them over the top.
Preparation is constant
Whether they’re meeting with a network executive, grabbing coffee with a producer or going to a panel, preparing is one thing you never have to tell them to do. Before a meeting is even put on the books, if they are hoping the meeting gets set, they are going to read up, do their research into past work and past employment and cyber stalk (in an entirely not-creepy way, of course). At a panel, they will have read up on the panelists, and come up with smart questions to ask beforehand. At a round-table, they will have the information necessary to stand out before they even sit down, which will easily make industry pros notice. When showrunner or staffing meetings are on the line, they will not only binge a ridiculous number of episodes from previous seasons, they will also reach out to everyone they know (remember those Community Building efforts?) to source any episode scripts written but perhaps not yet shot. They will be versed not only in the Executive Producer or Network Exec’s current show, but also in past projects, episodes and potential development slate. If there is something that they are not familiar with in any individual’s past employment it will be obscure and relatively unknown. But overall, they will become expert at finding as much information as they can, at turning over every stone.
One of the great luxuries of my job (#lovemyjob) is that it has given me a front row seat to writers breaking into and ascending the professional space. Those writers have generously allowed me into their process and their journeys to varying degrees, and have granted me the opportunity to take a step back and consider what they all had in common that helped compute into the industry chomping at the bit to work with them. While it is absolutely true that each such writer is completely and entirely unique, it’s also true that each of them exhibited some level of the above-mentioned behaviors and characteristics along the way. Don’t get me wrong: You can break in without doing all of this. But if you want to build a long-lasting, exciting career and become the sort of writer that multiple production companies, studios, networks and streamers want to be in business with, you may want to consider how to become an undeniable writer yourself.