Want a Successful Screenwriting Career? Be Good at These 3 Things!
A couple of weeks ago, I met with a writer who wanted to know:
What are three things I should be good at if I want to be a successful working screenwriter?
Over the years, I’ve gotten a ton of questions that are similar… but different: What are some of the traits of successful screenwriters? What steps should I take to get repped? How do screenwriters break in? But somehow I’ve not written about the skills required to be successful at the job (in non-strike times, and only once the AMPTP and the WGA have agreed to new terms that provide writers fair pay among other things, obviously) once you have arrived in it.
It got me thinking. And so, drawing on my many years working with professional writers, below is what I came up with: the three things every writer has to be good at if they want to not just get that first break, land that first job, get that first meeting, or get that first seat in a writer’s room, but instead build a tangible, sustainable, long-standing (contract negotiations pending!) screenwriting career. And – just as importantly – a few suggestions for how you might be able to get yourself ready for that magical moment when preparation meets opportunity.
Good on the page
If you want to have a successful screenwriting career, you have to have a mastery of your craft. And that means, well, everything: Structure. Character. Themes. Voice. Process. Knowing how to deliver a story in a way that is both structurally effective and emotionally resonant. Understanding what it takes to not only write a fantastic TV pilot, but also how to write a pilot that sets up a show. Developing the sort of screenplay that capably takes the reader through a powerful, unique, brilliantly executed story utilizing thoughtful and carefully orchestrated story design and architecture, which leaves the reader excited, moved, eager to meet and work with the scribe behind its pages.
There are a million different ways to develop your craft, but it all starts with one thing: Writing. You can take classes. Read books. Read other scripts. Watch movies and TV show. Break them down to understand their architecture. Write more. And then some more. That’s the only way to develop not only your craft and sensibility, but also your voice and process. Whether you are a believer that mastery requires 10,000 hours, or put in your time without a clear hour goal in mind, the point is a simple one: The secret to writing is writing. And once opportunity presents itself, you want to have your craft dialed in, well honed and practiced in order to be able to not only show up but impress on the page at every turn.
When writing professionally, there is also a question of velocity. While it’s critical to, when working on your own original material, take the time required to thoughtfully develop the material in the best possible way and not rush through it for the sake of sticking to a schedule (as I’ve said many times before, no one gets a gold star for fast), it’s also important to know how to deliver quality material in a limited amount of time. Therefore, you may want to challenge yourself to write an outline, or else a screenplay draft, a pilot or a spec TV episode (based on a fully developed outline) in a designated amount of time in order to better understand your process when working within such parameters.
For my favorite writing classes, books and more, check out my resource guide.
Good with notes
While writing an initial draft of your original beats, treatment, outline, screenplay or pilot is often – and unless done as part of a writing class or in conjunction with a writers group – can be a highly solitary exercise, working in the industry, be it in a writer’s room, on an Open Writing Assignment (OWA) or even writing the screenplay or pilot you pitched and sold, is at stages incredibly collaborative, even though the writer will be the only one doing the writing. Producers and executives are likely to weigh in with notes on treatments, outlines and story areas long before the writer is sent off to pages. The challenge that the writer faces is not that of taking an easy note that resonates and incorporating it in the work, but rather incorporating even the most arduous notes in a way that feels organic and authentic to the work.
In order to become good with getting and applying notes… you have to get lots of notes. Good notes. Bad Notes. Notes that excite you. Notes that just outright piss you off. Getting input from writer’s groups, writer friends, screenwriting instructors, consultants and readers is a great way to begin exploring how to incorporate other’s ideas into your work in a way that feels cohesive and authentic. That doesn’t mean that you should take every bad note given to you just to take it, but there is an exercise to be had in considering notes that at first may feel bad or wrong, only to find an elegant way to address them and make them your own. Again, I am not advocating implementing notes that feel wrong for your original screenplay or pilot just for the sake of implementing them. Instead, I encourage you to consider some of the more challenging notes that you receive, and how you might incorporate them if this was mandated by a studio executive, showrunner or producer paying you for your writing services. In other ways, engage in the exercise, whether or not you ultimately decide to implement a specific note into your original work.
Good in a room
In today’s industry, when writers are not on strike, they are in rooms taking general meetings, pitching on Open Writing Assignments or putting forth pitches for their own projects. Writers who go on to have successful screenwriting careers are those who are able to not only speak about themselves in a unique and interesting way, but also articulate the intricacies of their work and ideas. Being good in a room is all about connecting, engaging, and communicating both ideas and stories, be they personal or project-driven. This is doubly true in a writer’s room where writers are required to pitch both season and episode ideas when breaking story on a regular basis.
For many writers, being good in a room is where it gets uncomfortable. But just because it’s uncomfortable doesn’t mean it should be avoided or ignored. The industry loves connecting the story to the storyteller, so being eloquent about both is critical to the writer’s ongoing success. That said, not all writers are born extroverted. Therefore, it’s important to work on your personal narrative, consider taking improv or acting classes if you really need help getting out of your comfort zone, in order to help you develop and refine both your meeting and pitching skills.
However, being good in a room is not just about pitching yourself and your ideas. It’s also about connecting. About building genuine, meaningful industry relationships. About forging your professional and writerly community, made of people who are your fans, and with whom you want to work and be in business.
Whether you’re already well on your way or just taking your first steps, look to develop these important skills in order to be successful in the screenwriting career you’re pushing toward.