BALLS OF STEEL™: How to Write a Screenplay That Sells Itself

Jeanne Veillette Bowerman explains how to write a screenplay that sells itself. The secret is right in front of you and absolutely achievable.
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Read Jeanne's Top 12 Screenwriting Tips

Jeanne Veillette Bowerman is the Editor of Script Magazine, on Stephanie Palmer's list of “Top 10 Most Influential Screenwriting Bloggers,” and co-founder of Twitter's #Scriptchat. Her narrative adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book,Slavery by Another Name, was selected for the Tracking Board's Top 25 Launch Pad Competition. Follow Jeanne on Twitter @jeannevb

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If in the years that I’ve been writing Balls of Steel you only listen to one thing I’ve shared about how to write a screenplay or how to stay sane as a screenwriter, this should be it. Ready?

Whether you get a script optioned by a major production company or not all depends on how high concept of an idea you have.

Here’s the second part of that tip…

If your concept is amazing, and I mean jaw-dropping, why-didn’t-I-think-of-that amazing, it’ll sell even if you write like an amateur.

That is how important concept is when you're trying to sell a screenplay.

I can hear some of you squawking, “But she said I should never submit my scripts until they’re close to flawless! How can amateurish writing sell?”

Breathe. I shall explain how to write a screenplay that sells itself.

Of course, the goal is always to have an incredible high-concept idea matched with flawless execution. That is a steadfast goal every writer should have, but those types of scripts are few and far between.

Believe me, all Hollywood execs would love to see more high-quality writers come across their desks, but the following examples are more likely what they’ll find:

  1. You have a great concept but you can’t write for shit.
  1. You have a mediocre concept but you write like Aaron Sorkin.
  1. You have a blow-your-mind concept, have a fair command of structure and formatting, but your dialogue is on-the-nose and a rewrite is definitely in order.

Which one of those do you think will sell?

If you said Number 3… winner winner chicken dinner!

Before I go on, most writers think their ideas are high concept already, but trust me, 99% of them are not. Being able to identify what a killer concept is takes experience. If you're just learning how to write a screenplay, look at the top box-office hits, and the loglines on The Black List or The Hit List. Read, read, read and watch great movies.

Back to the tips...

Let’s start with the first part of the tip. If you are a top-notch writer, you constantly have story ideas floating around your head. You scribble them on napkins, scraps of paper, or your mobile device until one of them screams, “Write me, write me!”

But before you let that new shiny idea distract you from the others, make sure it’s the highest concept idea in the bunch. Stop wasting your time, sometimes years, working on scripts that don’t make people ecstatic when they hear the logline.

The hook is what is going to get you reads.

When I was recently in an online forum, I noticed a discussion taking place with feedback on the top specs floating around town. They didn’t start reading the scripts in the order of their listing; they started reading the ones whose logline grabbed them by the throat. Those, they knew they had a shot at selling.

Lesson #1: Hook them and they will be excited to read.

Since said scripts were on the magical Hollywood lists, even if it didn’t grab them in the first few pages, they kept reading because they were vetted in some way.

Lesson #2: Sure vetting helps, and it’s obviously better to be a “fast read,” but even if you only have somewhat of a command of how to write a screenplay, if the concept is good enough, they’ll keep reading.

And that is what you need for a sale. Excite the reader about your story. They can fix mistakes later, like dialogue. They’re looking for a storyteller, not just a screenwriter. Why? Because if that sparkly concept will get them a sale, that’s a commission in their pocket, this is a business after all. Sure there are managers and agents who will hold your hand and sing Kumbaya, but ultimately, no one is in this just for love. Everyone needs to eat.

how to write a screenplay

Am I saying you don’t have to worry about your craft?

Absolutely not! You do have to be a great writer if you want a career, but selling one script does not make a career.

That is the downside of focusing solely on the concept and not on the writing. You need to do both if you want to last a long time in Hollywood.

Having a high-concept script that sells will get you a manager and/or agent because it’s easy money for them. But what will most likely happen is you’ll get fired after your first attempt at a rewrite, and the studio will bring in the big guns who have mastered how to write a screenplay and let them take it across the finish line.

Don’t fret. That’s still a good deal. You’ll most likely get “story by” credit, you’ll have representation, and that representation knows you are an idea person. Having a great idea is more than half the battle. So before you write your next script, sit your ass in the chair and come up with as many ideas as possible, run them past your reps (or people you trust), and then knock out a first draft that they can give you notes on.

If you’re lucky, your manager will want to mold you into a career writer. If not, you can still keep selling your ideas.

Not the kind of career you envision?

Then work your ass off on your craft. Show those reps you aren’t just an idea person. You are a writer. Listen to notes. Improve. Work harder than you did to get in the door in the first place. Show them you are no one-hit wonder. Double-dog dare yourself to execute the idea flawlessly.

Then, you will be a career writer, not only selling more scripts, but you’ll also be hired to rewrite the newbie writers who haven’t learned that lesson yet.

But you’ll still get fired on projects. That’s just how Hollywood works. There’s no shame in that. Your first step is to get through the velvet ropes. Once you do that, the real work begins… staying there.

Oh wait... there's more.

There actually is another scenario of writer, and that’s me. The girl with the high-concept idea, a narrative adaptation of a Pulitzer Prize-winning book, and written well enough to recently be chosen as Top 25 in Tracking Board’s Launch Pad. But despite the pedigree and six years of writing and rewriting, I can’t get it sold to save my life.

The other day, Slavery by Another Name (SBAN) received this review from The Black List:

As horrible and terrible and cruel and hard to read as this [subject matter] is, it is such a compelling and enthralling story. There's so much excitement and intrigue and a dire need to know the outcome. The script does a fantastic job of building up suspense, and really creating an environment of fear and frustration that can be felt strongly throughout… This is a great story that needs to be told.”

But… it’s a black film. Not to mention I’m a white girl who wrote a black film. Yeah, that’s a whole other Balls of Steel article. I never did like taking the easy way.

So what does a writer like me do? Write some more high-concept scripts that are more marketable. I won’t give up on SBAN, but it might take another 10 years to find a ballsy enough producer who will make it. I’m the first person to admit I’m frustrated as hell, and if one more executive says to me, “This has to get made!” and then wusses out, well, I’m a Sicilian black belt, so I won’t finish that thought, but I will tell you, I don’t quit. I also look at it as the cup being half full – I have an amazing writing sample that has opened a ton of doors and made execs from the Tracking Board and in my own network say, “Send me your next script.” That’s invaluable.

When you know you have that idea that has to see the screen, you just keep at it until you find the right champion. They’re out there. It just might have to be put aside for a while.

But I will tell you what I learned from this experience. While I was doing endless page-1 rewrites of SBAN, crying and bleeding on the pages, I should have written other high-concept scripts to follow it up sooner. Oh, I’m writing my ass off now with my writing partner, Unknown Screenwriter, and it’s the kind of hook that when anyone hears it, they want to be the first on our list of sends. We went through dozens of ideas before this one shot to the top. Here’s the funny thing – it’s a horror script. I went from an historical exposé of slavery post Civil War to writing a horror franchise. Hey, we can write anything, but why not write something that can sell. That’s what being a writer is, and our job is to prove we’re capable of being career writers.

The key to longevity in this industry is celebrating and enjoying the journey, not just the destination. If you can’t see the blessings and silver linings in the baby steps, you’ll drive yourself mad. But why make breaking in harder than it has to be by spending years working on scripts that don’t have a chance in hell of selling because they are lackluster in concept? Only spend years on the kind of script that will open doors for you, even if just as a stellar writing sample.

Now go make a list of ideas and keep hacking at them until you find that one that makes your heart pound and execs say, “I want to read that!”

Then, and only then, do you sit down to write. Believe me, you’ll save yourself years of wasted time just by writing the right script, not just a script.

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