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How to Succeed in Screenwriting Without Even Trying

Meet one of our fabulous speakers at Screenwriters World East Conference in NYC, Susan Kouguell.

Now that I’ve caught your attention with a spin on this infamous Broadway musical title -- I must make a confession. This title is wishful thinking. How to succeed in the screenwriting world is not all about trying. It’s so much more than that. It’s about doing. And it’s about being brave, tough, having good manners, not being lazy or having a bad attitude. It’s also about perseverance, which is one major key to unlocking the film industry gatekeeper’s door. And the other major key to gain entrance into the industry? Write a great screenplay!

Succeeding in the screenwriting world requires dedication to your writing -- and it demands rewriting your script and marketing package until they are the absolute best they can be. You must be diligent; follow the industry trade publications to learn who is taking on new clients, which company is accepting new projects, and then submit your work to the appropriate companies, agents, and managers, and script competitions that are the right fit for your project and for you.

How do you increase your chances of script success?

KNOW YOUR CRAFT: Crafting a successful screenplay means understanding and conveying a compelling story that will prompt the reader to turn the page; a solid structure (this holds true whether you are writing a traditional 3-act structure or nontraditional narrative); a consistent genre (follow the rules of the genre conventions); dialogue that rings true (stilted and dull words does not an attention-grabbing script make); and empathetic characters audiences will care about. Audiences must care if your characters win or lose, and the (narrative) voyages they embark on to reach their goals.

PASSION: Succeeding as a screenwriter requires passion. If the passion you feel about your project does not come shining through in your script, film industry folks will not be impressed, thus increasing your chances of your script getting rejected.

FEEDBACK: It’s important to have an objective set of eyes read your work. Maybe your script is brilliant and is ready to be submitted to companies and executives, but err on the side of the caution. Get feedback on your work from someone who is objective (preferably someone with industry credentials, such as a script consultant, screenwriting mentor, or professor) and will tell you the truth about what’s working, what’s not, and why. Listen to, and implement critiques on your work with careful consideration.

REWRITE: Screenwriting success is about rewriting and rewriting some more even when you’re tired of rewriting but you know in your heart, and you’ve heard the feedback from those in the know, that a rewrite is needed.

PROPER FORMATTING: Always submit a script that 1) contains no typos, no grammatical errors, and no sloppy mistakes like pages missing; and 2) follows the industry standard formatting rules. A script with formatting mistakes demonstrates that you are not respecting the reader’s time and that you are an amateur. There is too much competition to even get your script read by industry folks to make these types of errors.

MARKETING: Writing a great script is just part of the equation on the road to screenwriting success. Knowing how to market yourself and your work is also a vital step on this journey. Present yourself as a professional. If, for example, you have the opportunity to pitch your project, arrive on time and dress appropriately. This meeting is essentially a job interview. Check your arrogance at the door. Being argumentative and disrespectful will be an invitation for the door hitting you on the way out. The film world is small (everyone knows everyone else) and you will quickly gain a reputation, but not the good reputation that you must have to reach success.

One memorable anecdote that I’ve shared in my book The Savvy Screenwriter occurred when I was consulting for Warner Bros., seeking acquisitions and directing talent at the Independent Feature Film Market. The setting: the Angelica Film Center in New York City. Women’s Restroom. A woman asked me if she could pitch her project to me. Right there and then. As much as I empathized with this person’s desperation to get her project noticed by a film studio, you can imagine that this setting was not winning me over. But she kept pitching her project -- even when I closed the stall door. It certainly left a lasting impression on me; but not the one she was looking for.

Marketing your work does not equate selling your soul or selling out. Invest the time and care that you did writing your screenplay into preparing your pitch (practice, practice, practice – with timers, with friends and colleagues, and fellow writers), writing your query letter, logline, synopsis and one-sheet.


Your script is your calling card to the film industry. But remember, the film industry is a business. It’s not for the faint of heart. While the road to screenwriting success might come with some bumps and bruises, there are no shortcuts. Always put your best work and your best self out there.

Meet Susan in person at Screenwriters World Conference in NYC April 5-7! And don't forget to read our checklist for pitchfests and conferences.


Come join us at Screenwriters World Conference East in NYC April 5-7, 2013.
We’re bringing Hollywood to the East Coast!
Use Code ‘SCRIPTMAG’ during check out to get $50 OFF
for Individual, Full and All Access


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Susan Kouguell, award-winning screenwriter and filmmaker, is the author of SAVVY CHARACTERS SELL SCREENPLAYS! and THE SAVVY SCREENWRITER. Recent publications include her monthly screenwriting column in and a chapter in NOW WRITE! Screenwriting: Exercises by Today's Best Screenwriters, Teachers and Consultants (2011, Tarcher/Penguin). Kouguell teaches screenwriting and film at Tufts University, and presents international seminars. Most recently, she taught screenwriting at the Prague Film School in the Czech Republic at their 2012 Summer Filmmaking Program. As chairperson of Su-City Pictures East, LLC, a motion picture consulting company founded in 1990, Kouguell works with over 1,000 writers, filmmakers, executives and studios worldwide. Learn more about Susan at Su-City Pictures East and on Su-City Pictures East Blog.