By Rich Whiteside
I am not a structure guru and have always offered my articles as insights from an avid student and writer. I have been successful in many arenas in my life and have found that successful habits translate across fields of pursuit.
The article being reprised here was written over ten years ago, but it is still valid today. For 25 plus years, I have been as serious a student of screenwriting approaches as you will ever find, and I have been a professional technical writer for over thirty years. Much of my time that could have been spent writing spec scripts was diverted to technical writing—earning over a million dollars in that field. Having come to this town after age 40, I was never able to sustain the breaks I did attain and have pretty much run out of time.
That’s the screenwriting life.
It is my hope that entry-level screenwriters can benefit from my experience and study and advance faster and with less angst. On my office bookshelf is every salient screenwriting how-to book published—heavily underlined, I might add—and dozens upon dozens of lesser known books, some dating back to the start of filmmaking. Training-wise, I completed three years in the UCLA Professional Program in Screenwriting, studied the USC World Building approach, taken Lew Hunter’s Screenwriting Colony, Robert McKee’s workshop, and dozens of other workshops. I have studied all the major camps of structure, first to absorb the teacher’s philosophy and second to determine how that philosophy might enhance my writing process and my writing style.
I have interviewed over a hundred writers, producers, directors, studio development executives, agents, screenwriting professors and authors of major screenwriting how to books. These interviews were used to turn out dozens upon dozens of articles under my byline for screenwriting magazines, newsletters and for my book, The Screenwriting Life. I hope you find a few useful nuggets in my thoughts.
My most valuable advice is to simply write—writers write. That’s the only way to learn and grow. Soon I will be publishing a series of short pamphlets to help those of you coming to screenwriting to help you find clarity in the sea of advice and structure camps out there. Find whatever approach that takes away your fear of writing—that is probably the greatest value the books and classes offer. Again: writers write every day.
Don't direct the actor (i.e., limit your parentheticals in dialogue). You don't need to tell the actor or the reader how every line is to be emotionally delivered or to call out every articulation of the character's hands. If the writing is clear, the emotion and tenor will usually be self-evident. For example, if the dialogue is in caps or ends in an exclamation mark, you don't have to write "(shouting)." This emotion is implied by the exclamation mark and UNMISTAKABLE IF IT'S IN CAPS! Now, I'm not saying that you are not to use parentheticals. Just be judicious in their use. Again, don't waste the page real estate.
For those not familiar with the use of parentheticals in dialogue, here's an example:
BEGIN OVERWRITING EXAMPLE:
END OVERWRITING EXAMPLE.
Get rid of the parentheticals and lose all those exclamation marks, especially the mixed punctuation (!!?). It's bad writing, and it's all unnecessary if the dialogue is clear and well-written. See how the scene flows and how the emotion rings through without telling the reader every emotion, without all those slammers (!).
BEGIN CLEAN-UP EXAMPLE:
END CLEANED-UP EXAMPLE.
1. Read tons of produced scripts. Try to find the spec script, if the produced script came from one. Study the writing styles of the screenwriters that you respect most.
2. Learn proper spec script formatting. See my book The Screenwriting Life or any of the number of screenwriting books or magazine articles on the subject. Don't be shocked to find differences of opinion. You will because script formatting is part art and part fixed rules. Read scripts written by the best screenwriters in town. Pick up their techniques, and incorporate them in your style. Mimic at first, and, over time, you will develop a unique style.
3. Learn how structure is modified for the various genres. After you've finished your first script, write another script and then another and so on.
4. Every time you start a new script, your skills and knowledge should be on a higher plane. You should have a more complete understanding of what to improve upon the next time. Otherwise, you are just repeating the same bad writing form.
5. As a new writer, don't get bogged down rewriting and rewriting the same script. This is not new learning. Move on. Later, when you have honed your skills, if you still love a particular script, go back and re-envision it. But when you are learning, move on and tackle a new story. However, just writing script after script without learning, without growth as a screenwriter, is not the best use of your time. Writing is important, but you also need to be growing as a writer and an artist. Constantly ask yourself, "How can I create more compelling characters and stories? How can I make my writing more powerful?"
6. Write, write, write and write some more. You only learn by doing. Reading about screenwriting only gives you head knowledge. For example, you can't become a world class tennis player only by reading and watching. You have to get out on the court, build muscles, develop muscle memory and endurance and discover the kill shots unique to you that will win matches. Writing is no different. What are your kill shots? Allow yourself the opportunity to grow and learn. Be willing fail by writing scripts that don't work completely and learn from that experience. In other words, learn by doing. AND BUILD UP A LARGE BODY OF WORK.
Here are some additional tasks to consider:
1. Submit to competitions. After you master these basics and you have that winning script, submit it to the competitions.
2. Write query letters. Learn to write a powerful query letter. If you're not in the system, search for companies that accept scripts from writers without representation, and write to them. There are many who are looking for material outside of the closed loop of A-list writers and agents.
3. Network. Become a student of the business; that is, learn the politics. Play the game. If you're scared or repulsed by the thought of playing the political game and your people skills are weak, work on those. Talent alone is often not enough to break in. Politics and people skills are always going to be part of a career in this business, so work on them.
4. Master dialogue. Watch movies that inspire you. Study the dialogue. Master creative exposition.
5. Read the trades and keep up with what's happening.
6. Find a mentor, seek out seasoned writers within your circle of friends and ask them to read and critique your scripts. Ask them to be brutal, and don't take the comments personally. Learn what works and what doesn't.
Here are some specific goals for a beginning screenwriter:
1. Read one feature-length produced script per week. If you have never written a screenplay before, start by reading. You can find these on-line, in bookstores and in some specialty shops. Check the Script magazine website for links. I suggest that you try to get the original spec script or first draft as well as the final draft. I have numerous scripts in the first version. For example, I've got "Pretty Woman" when it was titled "$3,000," a very dark anti-fairytale about a hooker who is a six-year veteran of the streets and a drug user. The original story ends tragically, a far cry from the movie that was ultimately produced.
2. Dedicate time to write each day, and stick to it! Whether the amount of time you can devote is 30 minutes or several hours, set a schedule. This should be a consistent time of day. Routine is important. Some people get up early and write before going to their day job. Some, like me, prefer to write late at night.
3. Read one book on screenwriting or writing each month. Make a list of books, and read them. If you talk to ten screenwriters, you'll get ten lists with little in common, but the point is, make a list and start reading. Here is my beginning list (alphabetical by author):
Poetics by Aristotle
The Art of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egri
Lew Hunter's Screenwriting 434 by Lew Hunter
Story by Robert McKee
Screenplay: Writing the Picture by Robin Russin and William Missouri Downs
How to Make a Good Script Great by Linda Seger
Creating Unforgettable Characters by Linda Seger
The Writer's Journey by Christopher Vogler
4. Buy a script formatting program. (I use Movie Magic Screenwriter.)
5. Come up with a story idea. (Set a date to complete.)
6. Flesh out the characters and the events. (Write an outline. Set a date to complete.)
7. Write the first draft. Break this down into daily goals, such as a certain number of pages a day.
8. Get your script critiqued. At first have family and friends read it and critique it. Later you might want to consider paying to have a professional critique your script. (Set a date to complete.)
9. Improve the story. (Set a date to complete.)
10. Get another critique pass. Take a second pass with your family and friends (or screenwriting group). (Set a date to complete.)
11. Network with other screenwriters. Do this in person when possible. Use the internet to augment your in-person meetings. Join a screenwriting group. Look for ways to meet new people, and set a goal of attending and making new contacts.
Write another script and then another script, and so on. Lew Hunter's rule of thumb is that it takes six to seven scripts (new and different stories, not rewrites) to "get it." Give yourself that time to master these basics. Don't rush out there with your first attempt.
Goals for the semi-pro screenwriters (You should have at least three solid writing samples to show). In addition to the above actions:
1. Read the trades daily.
2. Send out 10 query letters a week. Write and mail ten query letters a week to agents. This means you have to set a goal of making a list of agents and agencies, get their addresses and write to them. Script has wonderful articles on this subject.
3. Read three produced, feature-length scripts a week (or teleplays if TV is your area of interest). Stay on top of the every changing marketplace. If you're interested in writing for TV, learn the unique formatting for your show of choice. Formatting will vary from show to show. It's the art of the process.
4. Have a professional editor correct bad grammar and spelling. After you have finished your script. Before your send it out. Have it checked. (See what I mean?) (Set a date, and put aside funds, if necessary.)
5. Set up a table read for your latest effort. (Find a place and actors. Get them copies of the script ahead of time. Set a date to complete.)
6. Absorb the comments, and improve your material.
7. Apply for advanced classes in screenwriting, ones in which writing is a critical part of the program. UCLA has an excellent on-line professional program. It's a little expensive, but it's exceptional, and they have an annual contest for the students, the winners of which are written up in the trades. This is one of the smallest contests you can enter that gets attention from agents and production companies. Decide what classes you want to take, raise the money, and apply.
8. Enter one screenwriting contest each quarter. Make a list. Note the date that you have to submit by, and meet that deadline. (FYI, for me, the Nicholl is the most prestigious, but enter more if that is your desire.)
9. I applied to the Warner Bros. drama writing program. I polished off a JAG script and submitted it to the program. If you want to do this, find out the entry deadline date, and meet it. (Set a date.) (BTW, they have a comedy writing program as well.)
10. Network like a son-of-a-bitch. Be on the lookout for opportunities to meet new people in the business. Do this in any practical and socially acceptable way you can. If you're not in L.A., go online, and meet people. Go to screenwriting groups, and meet people. Attend industry events, and make contacts. Talk to people whenever and wherever you can, and make contacts. I can't stress this aspect of the business. This is vital to your success. Admittedly, a proper goal should have a time limit (a date to accomplish it by), but for me, this is one of the most valuable aspects of my career building process. It's something I do on a daily basis, but I don't have a goal of meeting a set number of people per day or week. My goal is to be open to new experiences and approach successful people whenever possible and, again, socially acceptable. Goals for the Pros: Ask me when I get there. When I've done it, I'll give you my opinion.
Final Thoughts on Goal Setting
So many factors have to come together in just the right way for a script to sell or a career to take off. Many of these elements are out of your control because making a sale has partly to do with the story, partly to do with your writing skill and a whole hell of a lot to do with timing and who gets excited about the project. Only story, skill and networking are in your control. Keep your focus on those three, and the rest have a better chance of happening. Before submitting this final version, I had it read in my weekly writers' group. I listened to their comments and then reworked the article. Then I sent it to my editor. So I do what I have suggested above, even on free articles. Among the wonderful comments, one writer-producer wanted me to stress the need to be flexible and cognizant of budget.
If you should get beyond getting read and get into substantial discussions with producers, be prepared to rewrite for a limited budget. I know that it's best when you first start writing to focus solely on your story and cut off any self-criticism that deals with budget. But be prepared as a professional writer to have to change locations and events to help the producers make your story. This is where the collaborative nature of making a movie impacts on you as a writer. And you will have to be up to the task, or your script won't get made or it will be given to another writer to rewrite. Be prepared to be professional enough to be a team player. All the artisans from the costumers to set designers to the special effects artists have to deal with budget restraints. It's part of the reality.
Whether you are a beginning or more experienced screenwriter, you should now have more than enough information to create your own list of goals that will put you on a path out of the darkness. And, I'll hit you one more time with this: none of these goals is selling a script, getting one read or being signed by an agent. By continuing to meet my personal goals, I've achieved finding representation, getting read by both major studios and A-list production companies and having a script optioned. And I have open doors all over town for anything new I write.
Good luck, and, as Lew always says, "Write on!"
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