MEET THE READER: Don't Fool Yourself - Lies Screenwriters Tell Themselves

Screenwriters believe myths to feel better, to justify their choices, and to convince themselves they are on the right path, even if the evidence sometimes suggest they aren’t. Ray Morton shares some truths to counteract the lies that aspiring screenwriters tell themselves.
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MEET THE READER_ Don't Fool Yourself - Lies Screenwriters Tell Themselves

It’s hard to get started as a screenwriter and as new and aspiring scribes try to make their way, they often talk themselves into believing things they really probably shouldn’t. They do this to make themselves feel better, to justify their choices, and to convince themselves they are on the right path even if the evidence sometimes suggest they aren’t. That they do this is certainly understandable, but doing so usually leads to some pretty serious problems, if not outright disaster.

With all this in mind, here are some truths to counteract the lies that aspiring screenwriters sometimes tell themselves:

You actually have to know how to write.

Screenwriting is a demanding, exacting craft. It’s not something you can just wing. Unfortunately, due to the impressions given by too many dubious screenwriting gurus and authors of “How to Write a Script in 20 Minutes”-type books—too many aspiring writers think it is. This notion is seized upon by those with low confidence who fear they will never be able to master the craft, as well as those more mercenary folks who look at screenwriting as some sort of lottery or get-rich-quick scheme. However, the truth is quite different. Like any other discipline, screenwriting requires rigorous study and intensive practice.

[Script Extra: Work Habits of the Pros]

The study can be achieved by reading some of the better books on screenwriting and/or by taking a class or classes from reputable, experienced teachers. One of the best ways to study screenwriting is to read the screenplays of great films—ideally, you should read the original draft or drafts rather than a published version (which is usually not actually a script but is instead a transcript of the finished picture) so you can see how the narrative was originally conceived and described on paper and then compare it to the finished film so you can see how the writing was translated for the screen, which can teach you how to best craft your own work. It’s also useful to read bad screenplays (produced or not) so you can learn what not to do.

The practice can be achieved in only one way – by writing. Screenplays. A lot of them. Too many beginners write just one script and then bank all their hopes on it. This is a mistake, because the stats show that most successful screenwriters wrote ten or more scripts before they obtained representation, sold a spec, or landed an assignment. That’s because it takes that many to learn what you are doing and then apply that knowledge to a really great story. So, if you want to be a screenwriter, there’s no shortcut. You have to learn how to write.

And directly related to that…

There are rules, and you need to learn them.

Young writers are always eager to “break the rules” and do something different and unconventional. That’s all well and good, but you can’t break the rules until first you learn them.

I actually don’t care for the word “rules” when it comes to screenwriting. When it comes to creative endeavors, I don’t really think are any rules. However, there are principles of dramatic writing – elements, structures, and techniques—that make a piece of writing a play (screen or stage) as opposed to a novel or a short story or a poem. You must learn and master these principles so that you can understand exactly how and why a dramatic narrative works. Only then can you shake things up – learn how to bend and twist and subvert the form to create something new and different but that will still work as drama. Unfortunately, too many new writers try to do these things before they master the form and the results are almost always an unworkable mess.

You have to actually write the script.

Too many dubious gurus and books give aspirants the idea that you don’t actually have to write a screenplay – that you can sell pitches or treatments or even just a one-liner. That might have been possible twenty-five years ago at the height of the spec script boom (although even then it was never as common as it sometimes seemed), but it is not true today. If you want to sell a screenplay, you actually have to write the thing.

And you actually have to write it. I’ve written about this before, but there are a lot of folks out there who try to get other people to write their screenplays for them – to either ghost write or co-wrote, with the hiree doing most of the work but the hirer taking first position and the lion’s share of the proceeds. You might get away with this once, if the outsourced screenplay is really good. But you will never be able to build a career off it, because as soon as you sell the script, the industry is going to want to know what else you have, and you’re not going to be able to produce (and it is highly doubtful that, once your hired hand sees that their work has sold for big bucks, and you have kept the bulk of the profits, they are going to want to do a repeat engagement).

It has to be good.

There’s this weird idea that sometimes circulates among aspiring screenwriters that, as long as the central idea of the script is good, the screenplay itself doesn’t have to be – that if a potential buyer likes the basic idea of the script, he will buy it and hire other writers to fix the script itself. Again, this is something that might have been true in the ’80s and ’90s – when first-look deals and development money were plentiful – but it has not been true for a very long time. Ideas are fine, but good ideas are a dime a dozen. It’s the execution that makes the difference and these days the execution has to be as terrific as the concept or else it’s a no-go.

[Script Extra: Cracking the High-Concept Code]

No one will notice.

A lot of new writers “borrow” from older films – ideas, premises, lines, and sometimes even entire scenes and sequences (I can’t tell you how many times I have read versions of the “comparing scars” scene from Jaws). These sticky-fingered writers do this because they are desperate and they assume that – because the films are older and therefore presumably not well-known (although how anyone could think Jaws is not a well-known film is beyond me). This is a monumentally bad assumption. Certainly, the average person on the street may not be familiar with older films (although even most of those folks are probably familiar with Jaws), but most people who work in the movie business are movie fans and so are quite likely to know the movies that are being ripped-off (especially when it’s freakin’ Jaws). They’re gonna notice.

You are never the exception.

There are a number of industry guidelines that writers are asked to observe. Two of the most well-known are that spec scripts should never run longer than 120 pages and that they should be written in standard industry screenplay format. Despite the ubiquitousness of these tenets, new writers routinely submit screenplays over 120 pages in length (sometimes well over – a few weeks back I received a script that was 203 pages long) and that do not employ the standard industry format (the most common deviations include smaller type size and wider margins, which writers use to make it appear as if their screenplays are shorter than they actually are. However, a number of writers go even further and format their dialogue and action in stage play format or in formats that are entirely made up, using wholly invented screenwriting terminology).

I’m not really sure why aspirants employ non-standard formats – I’m not sure if they think they are demonstrating their creativity or if they think they are “breaking the rules” or if they are simply too lazy to research how it’s done. Whatever their motive, it’s simply incorrect. The industry’s standard screenplay format has evolved for good reasons – it not only allows the writer to tell their story in a clear and efficient manner, but it also lets all the other production departments know what exactly they need to do in the process of making the movie. If you use a non-standard format, these things will no longer be clear and, as a result, you’ve added another layer of work for people because now they have to determine how the hell to figure out what they need to do in addition to actually doing it, and there’s no one who wants to waste a minute of precious time doing that.

As for overlong scripts, writers need to know that one page of screenplay translates into approximately one minute of screen time, which means that a script that runs longer than 120 pages will result in a movie longer than the industry standard of two hours. Whenever I bring this up, people will point out that there are many movies that run longer than two hours, especially in recent years. I agree that this is true. However, I can guarantee you that none of those films began life as a spec script. More than likely, they were either adaptations of best-selling novels or sequels to popular franchise films – in other words, properties that have already proven their commercial worth are worth the risk of making a longer film (the longer a movie is, the fewer times it can be shown in a single day, which means it has to be an almost-guaranteed hid to be worth the risk). Original specs have not proven this worth and therefore no producer wants to deal with an overlong new piece. Also, it takes a great deal of skill to tell a strong screen story in two hours or less and so prospective buyers will interpret an overlong spec as a sign that the author doesn’t possess a professional level of skill and ability.

Most of the writers of these overlong and/or improperly formatted scripts are aware of these industry tenets, but submit them anyway. When I’ve spoken to these writers, the impression I usually get is that they feel that they are exceptions to these rules – that their scripts are so good, or their talent so impressive, that readers, development execs, and producers will overlook the writers’ transgressions. All I can tell you is this—they’re not, it’s not, and they won’t.

[Script Extra: Tips for Executing Your Story Idea]

You’re not smarter than everybody else.

Professional screenwriters like to bitch about the notes they sometimes get from studio and network executives. Granted, sometimes those notes can be pretty dumb. But a lot of times they’re not. Unfortunately, this bitching has resulted in a myth that circulates frequently among new and aspiring writers – that all executives and producers, directors, development people, and even readers are morons who wouldn’t know a good script or good writing if their lives depended on it.

Don’t believe it. Sure, there are dummies everywhere, but the majority of folks who work in the entertainment business are pretty sharp cookies. They have to be – this is a challenging, ever-changing industry and you have to be pretty clever and adept to stay afloat in it. They often have different goals for the movies and tv shows they make than screenwriters do and this is what accounts for the majority of the suggestions that frustrate working scribes. However, this doesn’t mean they aren’t keen, so don’t think you know better than they do, don’t lecture them on their ignorance or lack of perception regarding the inherent brilliance of your work, and certainly don’t try to put anything over on them because they will know it right away. Remember, they’re the people who are ultimately going to decide if your project gets made or not, so it doesn’t pay to offend or make an enemy of them. Plus, there’s a lot they can teach you, so learn from them.

[Script Extra: The Value of Discussing Your Script Notes]

Nobody owes you anything.

Screenwriting is a tough game to break into, advance in, and endure in. Therefore, it sure helps to have all the help you can get – advice, mentoring, and a hand up here and there. And there are many, many people in the industry who are willing to help newcomers and aspirants. But no one owes you this help – no one is obligated to give you their time, their input, or their assistance. No one is obligated to give new talent a look or a chance or to open the doors for anyone. This is important to state because many new writers can become very insistent – sometimes to the point of rudeness—that people in the industry do owe them all this and more. It is certainly okay for you to ask for all the help and favors you want. And if they say yes to one or all, that’s great – take all the advantage of this beneficence as you can. But if your request is met with a no, accept it – with grace and respect and with thanks. A long time ago, I was given a great piece of advice – it wasn’t enough for me to be talented, I also had to be someone they could stand to be in the room with. Work hard and do all you can to get ahead, but always be someone they can stand to be in the room with.

Copyright © 2020 by Ray Morton

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