Nobody starts out writing great screenplays. It’s a learning process that starts with educating yourself about screenwriting, reading books on the subject, taking courses, studying screenplays, viewing films and writing and rewriting scripts. You have to start out knowing that you’ll have much to learn, and that your first scripts may be—to a degree –stepping stones.
What does that mean? It means your first script probably won’t sell. And by probably, I mean – it won’t. But it might. You have to think it will or you won’t do your best work. And it might sell. Or it might not. Or it might be the perfect writing sample you need to start your career.
Confused? Sure. However, that’s the best way to think about writing your first screenplay. It might sell, it might not –it probably won’t, but it will be a stepping stone to the career you want. You need to be able to hold all of these contradictory elements in your head, and keep writing. And you’ll need to compartmentalize those thoughts, when you center yourself to write.
The process can feel arbitrary and confusing. You might not know where to start. At some point you just have to start writing even though you don’t know everything about the process. I remember starting out thinking, “I need to read this one more book on screenwriting before I start.” Then it’s one more and so on. I kept putting off actually writing that first screenplay.
Where do you start then? You have to start somewhere. I say read a few books, watch a lot of movies, read some scripts and take the plunge. Get into the process. At the same time, don’t start without a basic knowledge of what scripts look like and how stories build. There are a lot of gray areas in the process.
The truth is you’ll never know enough about writing screenplays, and you’ll also probably know too much – in fact you’ll be overwhelmed. The knowledge itself – the theory only, won’t get you anywhere. It’s the combination of the knowing and the doing. There’s a kind of a Zen to it.
As your career as a writer unfolds, you’ll pass through some “stages.” Novice to Master. The names of the stages aren’t important, and the process isn’t exact, far from it. But it’s a good way to think about your writing career.
Just as your life develops in stages, you’ll start out exploring, and trying to form skills. As you learn and assimilate those skills, you’ll put them to work and hone them. You’ll develop your craft. You’ll get better. You might get better with each draft. Hopefully, you will.
And as in life, you’ll develop an identity along the way (you’re the class clown, or the nerd, or the jock, or whatever) your writing voice will develop. You’ll decide on the genres you like to write. You’ll decide on a style. Will you write about dark subjects, or funny subjects, or both?
As this process unfolds, you’ll be developing new skills, and reading more scripts, and seeing more films. Most importantly you’ll be getting feedback along the way. How you approach the feedback will be the major predictor of your success.
It’s understandable that your first script will be your “baby.” You’re going to be overprotective. You won’t want to hear any criticism at all. Most likely your first script will be the most significant self- motivated creative achievement of your life.
Unfortunately, if you take the attitude that your first script cannot be criticized, or judged, you won’t get very far in this business. People starting out often don’t realize they’re jumping into a field that’s all about judgment.
Your script will be judged. You’ve got to get used to that or you’ll have a very short career. The process is full of judgment. Agents will judge you. Producers will judge you. Everybody you show your script to will be judging you. You might as well get used to it. Remember, every writer goes through it.
Just like in life, if you’re not able to adjust, make changes and adapt you’ll get stalled out at one of the stages. There’s a “screenwriting Darwinism” at work. Survival of the fittest. Those who adapt and assimilate new information and skills will move on.
In order to do your best work, you’ve got to also write every script as if it was your best. You’ve got to pay attention to detail. On some level you have to believe every script you write is going to sell. Now, you might point out I’ve been somewhat contradictory. First I say your first script won’t sell, but then I say you need to write it like it will. Correct.
You will have to write every script as though it was your best work. You don’t do shoddy work on purpose. What are you talking about, you ask? It’s that gray area. Approach everything you write as though it were your masterpiece, but expect criticism.
As I’ve said, you can’t expect to sell your first screenplay. However, it might be a good sample to show around. It’s a stepping stone. If you’re a screenwriter without a script, nobody will take you seriously. You need to have a “calling card.”
There is the possibility that your script will be good enough to place in a contest, or get you an agent. Those steps are important. They’ll set you on the right direction in your career. No matter what happens, don’t stop with that first script, though. Keep writing.
As you continue with your subsequent screenplays –you’ll find yourself maturing, and your scripts will get better. Unless you fight the process. Assimilate. Adapt. Keep writing. That’s your mantra.
That’s the mindset you’ll need to get through the stages from novice to intermediate, to journeyman, to professional, to master. Work hard, pay attention to detail. Be bold. Find a big story. Be open to learning more, to accept criticism, and feedback.
That’s how it’s worked for every writer ever on the planet. Believe me, the pros get judged and criticized like everybody else. Not everything they write will sell. If their scripts do sell, rest assured they’ll be getting studio notes, producer notes, and so on. They’ll have to assimilate and adapt. We all do it.
Image credit: Creative Commons, zen, 2015,by Iggyshoot, licensed by creative commons CC BY 2.0
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