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Business of Screenwriting: Keep It Simple

Former screenwriting agent Michele Wallerstein explains why you need to keep it simple when writing your scripts and pursuing a screenwriting career.

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A lot of writers worry about the wrong things. I sometimes think it’s because they take too many writing classes, read too many books on how to write a script and listen to too many people who don’t know what they are talking about. Whoa there folks, too much of a good thing may not be a good thing.

I know that sounds like blasphemy, but it isn’t. What the hell, I’ve even written a book for writers, myself. I’ve given seminars, had one-on-one consultations to give advice to new writers and given some of those classes. I do a lot of talking to newbies, but I also listen to them. I hear the same questions and see the same confusions. You folks are getting too much conflicting information.

keep it simple

With the best of intentions you try to learn every author’s system of writing. You try to write short treatments and long treatments. You practice an elevator pitch, a pitchfest pitch and an agent pitch. You are told to write a specific structure but to write something different. Your poor minds are reeling from all of this information.

You are told you can be a successful screenwriter while living anywhere, and then you are told you must live in Los Angeles. You need a professional consultant, but which one should you choose. You hire someone to do “coverage,” but coverage isn’t what you need or wanted.

If you find all of the above a bit mystifying, you aren’t alone. Let me help you out a bit here.

You may read three of the top selling writer’s books, and then stop. You will have learned the basic structure of a script, how to develop your characters and what a plot should have in it. When you hire a script consultant, you must vet them as much as you possibly can. That means Google them, and read almost everything on them you can find. If they don’t have much of a track record with screenplays, forget them and try to find someone better. Be careful to read between the lines of their Bios. I recently checked out a consultant who listed the movies that her clients had written. It sounded amazing until I realized that she probably did not consult on those particular movies. Lots of consultants and screenwriting teachers have college degrees and nothing that puts them in the film industry. They have never walked the walk or talked the talk. If you want referrals or advice from them, you might as well ask your cousin the plumber. Everyone has an opinion. People hate to say, “I don’t know.” Caution is imperative when hiring consultants, managers, agents, lawyers and accountants. Become an expert on the people you hire before you hire them.

When it comes to your first scripts you should write a simple story with great and interesting characters. As a matter of fact, that’s all you need to do for the rest of your writing career. I often tell my clients to simplify their stories and complicate their characters. All of your spec scripts should be written this way, whether it’s a crime drama, murder mystery, sci-fi, romantic comedy or any other genre. The people who will be reading these spec scripts are looking desperately for someone who can write great dialogue, spoken by complex heroes. These people are professionals. They have read every story idea that has ever been thought of. They want someone who can structure a script and make the characters sing. They also want writers who know syntax, grammar and spelling. Keep your dramas at 109 pages and your comedies at 90 pages. That’s it. That’s all you have to do. Now, write five more. You’ll see that each script is better than the last one. Put the first one in a closet and move on.

Don’t write adaptations of books, plays or other movies. Don’t write Biblical stories or Civil War stories. These are not good as spec scripts. Specs are very specifically different from shooting scripts. They have their own paradigm. If you over describe the scenes you will bore your readers. If you “direct” your actors, you will annoy your readers. If you have 15 characters they will throw the script out of the window. Get it?

Another note is that too many new writers expect and think they should get agents when they are not ready. Don’t nag, push or annoy people to help you get an agent when you aren’t good enough.

Whatever length you are using to write a treatment, just tell the story. Tell: the who, what, when, where, why and how of the plot.

So, in a nutshell, keep your screenwriting life simple and direct. You will find that you will learn the craft and you will move forward with confidence. Keep writing!

Get more in-depth advice in Michele Wallerstein's online course
How to Break Into the Screenwriting Business


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