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BREAKING IN: The Sane Screenwriter

Do you need to be sane to write, sell, and develop a screenplay? Probably! Here's why - as well as some tips for staying sane in a crazy business.

Sanity. Easy to say, hard to achieve. If you’re a writer, you probably haven’t thought much about how your mental health affects your chances of selling a script. But it takes more than just creativity and determination to find success. Your mental health and knack for understanding other people matter, too. Your ability to maintain your emotional balance, make an accurate assessment of how “the average person” feels about things, complete tasks on time, and get along well with others, are all factors in your career. Keeping your sanity is vital during all three phases of creating and selling your script: writing, marketing, and development.

There’s been a lot of talk in politics lately about the importance of finding common ground. But that common ground - the things we all agree upon and have in common - has always been in evidence in film audiences. Despite all our differences, movie audiences generally laugh at the same things, cry at the same moments, root for the same kinds of heroes, and agree on what kind of behavior is “bad."

Sure, we have our differences, and not everyone is “average." But put a thousand or so American moviegoers in a room together and most will cry, laugh, or jump in their seats at the same moments. Most will be rooting for the hero, and hoping that the villain gets his comeuppance. Of course, some will be influenced by what the others in the room feel or do. And there are personal and cultural variations, too. But in general, most Americans agree on certain basic things about “life." They react to things in the same way, make similar moral judgments (at least while watching a movie), and have a similar emotional vocabulary. Regardless of our personal behavior or backgrounds, we all love our children and our country, root for the underdog, get scared in the dark, and believe that, in most circumstances, lying, cheating, murdering, or stealing are bad.

In fact, it’s this kind of commonality that is the basis of movies. This is fortunate indeed for the people who write and make them. If everyone’s opinion were different about what is sad or funny, scary or soothing, right or wrong, it would be impossible to create a movie that large numbers of people would go to see and enjoy.

Even nowadays, when films are released globally, there are many universal human values that often make movies “translate” well from one culture to another. When I was a kid, American film comedian Danny Kaye was the Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF. Watching him in the movies, it’s easy to understand why this hugely talented man had the ability to make children laugh, all over the world, even when he did not speak their language. He spoke the universal languages of love and humor. He could be “silly” in l40 languages, without saying a word in their native tongue.

What does this mean for you as a screenwriter? Part of your success depends on whether you understand people and know how the “average” person is likely to react to things. As a story analyst, sometimes I read a script that doesn’t work simply because the writer doesn’t seem to know how the average, normal person reading his script or watching his movie will react to his story. For example, he may have written a totally unappealing hero that the audience won’t root for, and doesn’t realize it. This doesn’t mean the hero has to be “nice” (and he can have all kinds of problems and neuroses), but it does mean that he has to be recognizably human and someone we can relate to on some level.

While planning and writing your script, you have to be able to anticipate exactly how your film audience will be feeling and what they know at each step along the way. And you have to be able to manipulate their emotions through your writing skill. There is nothing “cynical” about this - knowing how to manipulate audiences’ emotions is what writers do. It simply means that you are a reasonably sane human being with a basic understanding of human nature. If you’re not “normal” yourself (and many writers lead unconventional lives), you still must learn what normal is.

And how do you gain that understanding? By having an emotionally rich and fulfilled life that goes beyond just writing. You must read lots of books and newspapers, meet lots of people (in person - not just on Facebook!), and come to understand yourself and your fellow human beings. You must learn empathy and forgiveness even if it doesn’t come naturally to you. You must also take good care of yourself, and maintain your own emotional equilibrium. Patience and perseverance, and a strong work ethic, are also a good qualities to cultivate.

These skills will come in handy not only when writing your screenplay, but also during the marketing and development stages, as well. You will need patience, politeness, and the ability to stick to the job till the job is done. If your script gets optioned or sold, you will work with agents and producers, and will need a mature and cooperative attitude. Understanding and getting along with people who have different opinions from yours is critically important. You will have to meet deadlines. And when people who have hired you criticize your script and request specific changes, your response can’t be to throw a hissy fit.

Keep in mind that Hollywood is a place of substantial egos and… er… colorful personalities. Not everyone is easy to get along with. This means you will have to be even more even-keeled and responsible in response to what happens, so that you’re not throwing gasoline on the fire.

So, if you are hoping to become a professional screenwriter, or you are one already, try to learn about yourself and other people, and keep your sanity. You’ll be glad you did.

Keep pitching. See you next month.