When it comes to screenwriting, what’s going on right now in the industry is just an exaggerated version of what’s always been true when it comes to selling a script and making a career out of it.
I’m not telling you anything new when I say the best chance you have of selling a script is something that is A) well-written and B) commercial.
Whereas a few years ago, well-executed, high-concept material might have sold, right now it means getting an agent and parlaying your script into meetings, pitches, and writing assignments.
Today, more than ever, screenwriters need to have a business-like approach to their career and learn to maximize all their opportunities to find success. With the proper knowledge and right approach, you can break through the noise and become what you’ve always dreamed of—a working screenwriter. By applying the W.I.S.E. Screenwriting Method outlined in this article, you can be well on your way to success.
Here’s the breakdown:
This first step is not just about being a good WRITER, it’s about being a great SCREENWRITER. Being a screenwriter includes having the ability to write crisp action lines, snappy dialogue, and have rock-solid structure to your stories. If any one of these elements is lacking, you have to work on your skills until you get the process right. The sad thing is that I know many great writers who just can’t seem to crack the screenplay format and execute on a level of what studios expect technically. The problems I encounter on a regular basis include:
1. Too much prose
As I wrote about in Magic Bullet: Action Lines, a previous Scriptmag.com article, one of the ways to get your script to read like a studio writer’s is to write crisp action lines with evocative visual verbs and keep your paragraphs to three lines or less. Write in present tense only, and embrace white space on the page as your friend. Think of your script as a poem—stay concise and excise all unnecessary words.
2. Too much information
Your script is not a Jack Ryan novel. Only describe what we can SEE or HEAR onscreen, don’t use camera directions, and only write what we need to move the story forward. Do not make the mistake of being a "director" writer, where you describe every little action the character makes, rather than just describing pertinent action to the story or character development. The link mentioned above has more detailed information.
3. Too much dialogue
A script is not a play. Your goal is NOT to have dialogue that looks like a bunch of monologues. Again, keep your dialogue to three lines or less 99% of the time. Clever dialogue is found in quick back-and-forth exchanges, not prose-y speeches. I go over this and the next point with more depth in my Magic Bullet: Dialogue post.
4. Lack of subtext
The absolute number-one mark of an amateur is dialogue that lacks subtext. Never, ever have a character come out and say what he is thinking or feeling. Brilliant characters have us discover/uncover what’s going on inside them by their actions, or how they dance around important topics, not how they address them head-on. A lack of subtext is one of the culprits behind another common problem—characters sounding exactly alike. Remember, each character in your script is a living, breathing, thinking person with different wants, needs, and a different point of view from the others.
5. Lack of a solid structure
Many times I see scripts with fantastic first acts that flounder in the second and lose my interest. (Though it may have a great ending, most won’t read that far.) This shortfall is a casualty of not planning ahead. If you plan all three acts of your story ahead of time, and follow all the rules of story structure, you won’t fall into this common trap. We get excited about great openings or magnificent endings, but the middle is just as important—oftentimes, it’s where the war is won or lost.
Since our brains are wired to come up with beginnings and endings, one trick is to think of each individual act as having a beginning, middle and end. That way, even if the middles of all three acts are sub-par, it’s less likely to be noticed because you wowed us six times, and consistently, rather than just two times with a huge gap in between.
To break into the business, it’s not enough to be a great screenwriter anymore. You have to be a great screenwriter AND write commercial ideas. And while there is a better chance of selling a script because it’s high concept, that’s not the reason to write a commercial spec anymore.
It used to be that "writing samples" were screenplays that were low-concept but brilliantly executed. Writers like Allan Loeb wrote dramas like Things We Lost in the Fire that led to the studio assignments that kick-started his career.
Those days are falling behind us, and the question on every industry mind while reading an unknown’s spec is "Can this guy/gal actually write high-concept stuff?" If you don’t answer that question with a writing sample of commercial quality, then your uphill battle just got even bigger—despite being able to garner interest with your well-written low-concept material.
Whereas before, when Loeb got paid studio assignments off the back of his independent scripts, nowadays what ends up happening is writers are asked to do "free drafts" in order to prove they’ve got the mettle to write a commercial movie.
As if writing draft after draft for free isn’t bad enough, because it’s usually based on someone else’s idea, you have no rights to the material and most likely end up with just another writing sample.
Many books and advice columns talk about high concept as being "a TV Guide capsule"—that it takes just one sentence to excite and encapsulate the story. Others talk about the "mashup" descriptions, like "It’s Titanic meets 28 Days Later."
I go over what high concept is and how to identify it on Magic Bullet: High Concept, but what it boils down to is not TV Guide capsules or big explosions. Instead, it’s an idea that, as soon as it comes to you, your first thought is, "How in the world has a corporate-owned studio that takes zero risks NOT made a movie like this yet?" That sounds silly, but the litmus test for whether a movie is high concept is whether you think a corporate fat cat, who doesn’t give a fig about story, would hear your idea and place a $100-million bet on it.
Okay, so while pretty much every screenwriting book in the world covers some aspect of the first two, Writing and Ideas, these last two are not only just as important, but it’s criminal that more books don’t cover them.
Sales? Sales. You might be thinking to yourself, "WTF?" I say unto you, just listen.
First, you must sell yourself as a writer. When you meet people, whether you know if they work in the industry or not, you have to "sell" yourself as not just One More Aspiring Screenwriter. You have to sell yourself as a Fantastic Writer who is on the cusp. If you entered a competition, you would easily win it. In business, it’s called selling from a position of strength. There are three main reasons for this approach:
A) You will be taken seriously when you reveal your aspiration.
B) You will be remembered.
C) If they aren’t in the industry, they might know someone, and if they are, they might ask to read your stuff.
And that’s really the key to this whole shebang—you have to get people to read your script. You can have the most amazing script in the world, but if you can’t convince anyone to read it, it’s all for naught. So, sell them on your talent, and sell them on the idea that they are missing out if they don’t read your work.
If you lack confidence, fake it. But DO NOT be obnoxious, pushy, cocky, or directly present yourself as the Next Coming of All Screenwriters, because that will have the opposite effect. Just casually talk about your script’s story as if Steven Spielberg paid you $10 million for it. You have to maintain the mindset that it’s not only good, but that even a kindergartner would think it’s good.
Selling yourself to industry people is a situation that requires subtlety and a whole different set of skills, phrases, and mindset than presenting yourself to non-industry people. While I write more in depth in Magic Bullet: How to Get Your Script Read, what you need to know is ...
A) We all operate on fear. We don’t want to be the ones who passed on the Next Big Thing. If someone else is reading your script, mention it. If someone has optioned your other work, mention it. If you’ve won awards, mention it. In all these cases, it’s a casual mention. Like, "Also, I should probably let you know Joe Producer is reading this, too," or "Oh, and just so you know, another one of my scripts is currently optioned at XYZ production company."
B) We see right through you. If someone is reading your script and hasn’t gotten back to you in a couple weeks, don’t e-mail to say something like "Just wanted to say Happy Holidays." We know what you want. Or if you say something like "Spielberg was attached at one point, but Will Smith said ... "—we hate name-dropping and we can fact-check lies in about two seconds. Hollywood is like a small high school, everyone knows everyone else, so don’t try to pull a fast one. If a big star truly was involved at one point, present it up front, don’t sneak it into casual conversation.
The second aspect of sales is being able to sell your scripts or ideas themselves. If you’re lucky, using this skill set means you are going to pitch meetings. Even if you’re not going out on pitch meetings to Bad Robot or Paramount, you need to have the art of pitching down cold. Why? If you don’t knock that pitch out of the park, at best you threw away thousands of dollars, and at worst an entire career. You never know what could have been your Pulp Fiction or Star Wars, so treat every opportunity like it’s your last.
This skill of being able to sell your ideas also includes simply being able to explain the script in one or two sentences and do it in a way that completely grabs the attention of whoever you’re talking to. Again, you never know who you’ll run into or who you will be talking to. If you can excite someone enough to want to read your work over five seconds of standing in line at Starbucks, that skill could be the difference between making it or not. You need to tweak your logline for everyday conversation. To find out how to write a killer logline, go to this informative piece on ScriptMag.
Lastly, and this is one of the biggest advantages you can give yourself, learn how to sell yourself as a PERSON in order to make contacts. Earlier, we were talking about selling yourself as a WRITER. When you’re selling yourself as a person, I’m not saying you need to become someone else (unless you’re a complete jerk), I’m saying you need to "be" the best parts of yourself in front of industry professionals at all times.
While it’s hard but not impossible to make contacts at parties or coffee shops, the easiest way to make them is to work for the companies you think would like your scripts. If that means being an unpaid intern for a month, so be it—all you really need is one well-connected industry person to read and like your script, and you’re home free. So be yourself, but be the most pleasant, humorous, easygoing, hardworking version of yourself as possible.
And lastly ...
Notice I didn’t say "ethics," which is a whole other thing altogether. No, your ethic will be one of the cornerstones dictating whether you succeed or fail. If you work hard, if you put in long hours toward your writing, you will be way ahead of the game. But ethic doesn’t just apply to being diligent about writing.
I have known several screenwriters who sold a script and then thought "great, the hard part is over," and they start to think that because they sold a script and have an agent that everything is all set for them. Wrong.
Not only do you have to work hard, not only do you have to make sure you write quality work (and fast), but you have to continue to keep acting like that hungry aspiring writer AT ALL TIMES, no matter where you are in your career.
If you slack off, even for just a few months, it’s hard to regain the momentum you had. This truth applies to writers who have sold their first script, or gotten their work optioned, or won a contest. It applies even more to writers who have started to get discouraged, or lost contests, or gotten rejection letters/e-mails. And to some degree, it even applies to writers who have sold numerous scripts and live in mansions built by the fruits of what they created in Final Draft.
Being a Hollywood writer is a CAREER. And it’s a career that has a revolving door of talent fighting for work. If you’re serious about making screenwriting your dream career, you have to treat it like you’re working your way up a corporate ladder.
Screenwriting seems like this big, chaotic mass of people all individually vying to get their work onscreen. In reality, every writer is in his own cubicle, working at the same "company," trying to get as much of his work read by "the boss" as possible so he can get recognized and move his way up. The initial goal is to get a job as a low-level gofer at the company (your first option or contest win), and the eventual goal is to become a part of the corner-office CEOs—writers like Orci and Kurtzman—who can pretty much write their own tickets and don’t have to contend with the cubicle gofers anymore. If you’re going to succeed, you have to stop thinking of it as a dream and start treating it like a job.
So, that’s the W.I.S.E. Screenwriting Method, and it will hold the key to your success in these uncertain screenwriting times. With more competition and less spec purchasing, it will be absolutely critical to put each of these into practice if you want to break through the noise and come out the other side with a WGA card and a workable plan for a long, successful career.