No personal blog crapola.
Just one guy's quest to unlock the mysterious art of storytelling on screen.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

How To Be A Screenwriter In Three Easy Steps!

"Millions are to be grabbed out here and your only competition is idiots. Don't let this get around."
-- Herman J. Mankiewicz to friend Ben Hecht, urging him to come to Hollywood, circa 1928 (Leonard Maltin's Movie Encyclopedia)

Before you dust off your screenplay and hot-foot it to Hollywood after reading that quote, remember, this was almost 80 years ago, when Hollywood was starting to get comfortable with the idea of 'the talkies'. Title cards were no more. The technical marvel of recorded dialogue had arrived, and it radically redefined the job of writing for the screen. But for smart former news reporters like Mankiewicz and Hecht, adapting to the new medium was never going to be a problem.

In 2006 some things have changed. Screenwriting is a mature craft, we have global real-time connectivity, and moviemaking is a billion-dollar industry. Still there are idiots competing for your screenplay sale -- there's just a lot more of them. A planet full. Ahead in this article, I write about how the internet has made it so much easier for anyone to learn the trade. That's good. What's not so good is that studio readers, agencies, and production companies get flooded with scripts from bad writers. It's tough enough you have to compete with all the smart screenwriters out there without this legion of wannabe screenwriters jamming the channels and screwing up the signal-to-noise ratio.

So don't think it's gonna be easy. But you know what? If you learn everything there is to know about screenwriting (as if!) and you keep plugging away at it day after day after day... eventually you will sell a script and earn the title of Working Screenwriter.

How to be a screenwriter in 3 easy steps:

  1. Learn how to write
  2. Learn how to tell a story
  3. Write a screenplay using everything you learned in steps 1 & 2
  4. Profit!

Is it really that easy?

Of course it is! We're all about simplicity, here at Rage Against The Page. The only step out of your immediate control is number 4. For that one, you'll still need to put in a lot of work, but little of that work will involve writing or storytelling. Step 4 is all about networking and shmoozing and getting your killer screenplays into the hands of the right people. But if you faithfully accomplish steps 1 through 3 then you're miles ahead of the wannabes out there who jumped right to Step 3 and wonder why Step 4 hasn't kicked in yet.

Steps 1 and 2 are interchangeable. You don't need to know storytelling to learn how to write well and vice versa. Tackle each separately or in parallel. I recommend studying them simultaneously, but go with whatever works for you.

Writing is the nuts and bolts: working with words, arranging compelling sentences, assembling those sentences into logical paragraphs, and so on. Imagery, brevity, sentence length, composing ideas -- yadda yadda. Once you've learned the craft of writing, that skill naturally improves all your communication channels -- diary, email, letters, documentation, novels -- not just your screenplays.

Storytelling is all about the ideas, baby: characters, motivation, unfolding events, conflict, change, beginning, middle, end. You don't need sharp writing skills to tell (by voice) an engrossing story. Likewise, you can author a well-written document without using a single element of storycraft -- although, I would argue just about any piece of writing becomes more engaging with the addition of story elements. Consider the following:

Shopping List
  • One head of broccoli
  • One cup egg mayonnaise
  • Ten slices bacon
  • Half cup of sugar
  • Two tablespoons white wine vinegar
  • Half cup sunflower seeds
Yawn. But what if a shopping list could tell a story?

Shopping List
  • One head of broccoli. Mary's new boyfriend probably loves broccoli, same as her. I bet they have sooo much in common. I wonder if anyone choked to death on broccoli. Must google that tonight. With any luck, Martin will be the first.
  • One cup egg mayonnaise. Better get the Lite kind. I could stand to lose five pounds. No, ten according to Mary. Note to self: when your girlfriend asks you to step onto the scales, DON'T. It'll end in tears. Yours. For five years not once did she mention my weight, and all of a sudden out come the calorie counter books and comments like, "Wear your other jeans. They make your butt look tighter." Me: "What are you saying? That my ass looks like a watermelon squeezed into a condom? Is that what you're saying?" Her: "Sweetie, I'm not the one who's been absent from the gym for a month." Uh-huh. Well, Sweetie, maybe if you had skipped gym for at least a month then maybe your personal trainer, Martin, might've found some other girl to chat up and steal from me. How about them apples, huh? Wait, no apples in this recipe. Next comes...
  • Ten slices bacon. I dunno about that. I may as well just strap it to my hips and call myself Fatty McBuns. Sure, I'll have no trouble attracting stray neighbourhood dogs, but it's not a good look now that I'm back in the singles meat market. Is there some kind of tofu replacement for bacon? I'll ask that girl at the meat counter. She seems to know her meat. What's her name? Anthea? Andrea? No way was I gonna stare at her name tag. Don't want her thinking I'm checking out her rack.
  • Half cup of sugar. Hell, I'll just ask for her name. I'm a modern guy. Be up front, get it all out there right from the get-go. Was there a ring on her finger when she passed me my chicken kebabs yesterday? Don't think so. Damn, all I can remember is those eyes. Green. Circled with the blackest eyeliner I've ever seen on a woman. The eyes of a cat before it pounces on a quivering mouse.
  • Two tablespoons white wine vinegar. Wine. Does cat lady like wine? I could ask her about what wine goes best with what meat. That's innocent enough. Work around to what she likes to drink. Sounds like a plan!
  • Half cup sunflower seeds. OK, I'm done here. Time to go shopping. Then to gym. Now, where the hell did I put those jeans that give me the tight buns?
Hardly a riveting story, but you get the idea.

Where were we? Right -- steps 1 & 2, learning the crafts of writing and storytelling. I'm not going to say much about how to learn those two crafts. Google and the Net have made your job infinitely easier. Way back when, I had to send away to Hollywood's Script City to get my screenplay copies, waiting three or more months for them to crawl all the way to Australia and my doorstep. I had to plow through library shelves and magazine stands to learn from the pros. You'll be able to learn all that and more in a tenth of the time I took. No excuses for you, buddy.

So let's assume you spend a couple years banging away at learning the crafts of writing and storytelling. We can go ahead and put a big fat tick against those suckers in our list. Mission accomplished: you can write good and you know how to tell a story well. Congrats. All we need is for you to write that outstanding screenplay and the check for $250K up front (with a $100K backend) is yours for the grabbing. Yoink!

Step 3. Right away, I should point out we've got a little sub-task to complete, if you haven't tackled it yet: screenplay format. If your script isn't in industry standard format, it won't get read, no matter how brilliant the story or how effective the writing. It will get glanced at and immediately dismissed as the work of a lazy wannabe screenwriter and tossed in the bin. If you really annoy the reader, he or she will toss your script and open up the Big Book of Screenwriting Shame and jot down your name and address in there. Once your name is in the Big Book, my friend, your screenplays will be read by exactly nobody anywhere ever.

Harsh, yes, but fair. Hey, I did try to warn you.

But if you stay out of the Big Book of Shame, if you take the time to ensure every page of your screenplay has correct spelling and formatting, then you have a fighting chance at getting your masterpiece eyeballed. Talking about it now, I'm reminded about a call I got from my agent a coupla years back concerning my horror screenplay Fresh Prince of Hell-Air, which he'd sent to one of the major studios.

Agent: "Mr Mogul read your script accidentally. He thought it was the new Kasdan spec. However, he did like it and wants to buy it for mid-six figures."

Me: "Holy... Are you kidding? Dude, they never read my stuff! I'm in their Big Book of Shame, remember?"

Agent: "Yes, I wondered about that. Wait a sec', doll face. Got a call on the other line. Hang five..."


Agent: "You there, slugger? That was Mogul's PA. Turns out, the script he read was in fact the new Kasdan spec. The mail department had already dumped your script in the furnace that warms the llama enclosure at the studio petting zoo."

Me: "Right. So... can we push for low-six instead?"


Me: "Hello? Hello?"

A properly formatted screenplay is the price of admission onto an agent or producer's desk. Pay careful attention to format. Content should be the only thing that varies between your screenplay and Jim Cameron's script for Titanic. You will not tilt the playing field in your favour by getting creative with your formatting. You are not William Goldman. Enough said.

Reality check time for Step 3. You can write. You can tell a story. You know screenplay format.

It's time.

Write. Your. Screenplay.

That's all I'm going to say about that. For now. I'll have more to say about this step in future blog posts.

Yes, I listed a fourth step, and this post is titled How to be a screenwriter in 3 easy steps. Step 4 has nothing to do with becoming a screenwriter. If you write screenplays, you are a screenwriter, just not necessarily a successful one. You can rightfully call yourself a screenwriter and not get that eye twitch that announces the lie to everybody in the room. But that's all. Don't pat yourself on the back just yet. Until you make your first sale, that screenwriter title is all that separates you from the million other apes swatting away at a million other keyboards.

Can you be a successful screenwriter without making money at it? Absolutely not. Don't kid yourself. You achieve nothing by writing scripts that will never come to life on a movie or television screen -- nothing except that right to call yourself a screenwriter.

How to get successful when every day in Hollywood it rains scripts? Good question. Why would anybody look at your screenplay instead of the hundred other screenplays they trip over every day?

Think of the money. Great bulging sacks of green stuff. Huge overflowing barrels of hundred dollar bills. Fountains jetting liquid gold into the twilight sky. OK, so that last one isn't even possible, maybe, but don't let it stop you from dreaming. Let the thought of your first screenplay sale drive you forward. Let it convince you to do one more rewrite, one more polish. Take a moment to think about Jim Carrey in 1987 writing himself a check for 10 million dollars as inspiration, and about Carrey slipping that check into his father's pocket at his father's funeral in 1994. Think about it carefully, because you're going to need some equally powerful motivation to keep you going through the times of self-doubt and depression. They will be many and prolonged.

Yes, think of the money. Because I guarantee you, right now, every A-list screenwriter in Hollywood is thinking very hard about the money, and how to make sure you get none of it. Well, I'm telling you, one of those fountains of gold has your name on it, my friend. And if you don't believe that in your heart of hearts then put down your copy of Hero With A Thousand Faces and get the hell off my blog :-)

To finish, here are some more quotes from screenwriter Ben Hecht:

"For many years Hollywood held this double lure for me, tremendous sums of money for work that required no more effort than a game of pinochle. Of the sixty movies I wrote, more than half were written in two weeks or less. I received from each script, whether written in two weeks or (never more than) eight weeks, from fifty thousand to a hundred and twenty-five thousand dollars. I worked also by the week. My salary ran from five thousand dollars a week up. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1949 paid me ten thousand a week. David Selznick once paid me thirty-five hundred a day."
"A movie is never any better than the stupidest man connected with it."
"I've written it was easy money -- and that's a misstatement, if you examine the deed. Writing cheaply, writing falsely, writing with 'less' than you have, is a painful thing. To betray belief is to feel sinful, guilty -- and taste bad. Nor is movie writing easier than good writing. It's just as hard to make a toilet seat as it is a castle window. But the view is different."
-- Ben Hecht, Charlie, 1957



Fun Joel said...

Hey man! Just found your site. Like the design (especially the cool changing top banner), and the name, especially. Nice long posts, full of juicy content, that I'll read soon! But allow me to welcome you to the Scribosphere and wish you luck. Thanks much for the link. As always, appreciated.

Belzecue said...

>> But allow me to welcome you to the Scribosphere and wish you luck

Thanks, FJ, for the welcome to this rich and delicious scribosphere.

I'm rapidly acclimatizing. Pretty soon I'll uncurl from the fetal position. Meantime, please step OVER the cord until I can find something sharp... :-)

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