Screenwriting Careers: The Biggest Tragedy of All

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Why are some writers able to achieve careers while most aren’t?

After three decades of research into what separates those who are able to achieve creative success from those who aren’t, Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck believes the answer is rooted in a person’s mindset.

According to Dweck, those who believe they were born with all the talent they’re ever going to have approach life with a “fixed-mind set.” Those who believe their abilities can expand over time have a “growth-mind set.”

And it’s the people with a growth-mind set who go on to success.

“Society is obsessed with the idea of talent and genius and people who are ‘naturals’ with innate ability,” says Dweck, who is known for research crossing the boundaries of personal, social and developmental psychology. “People who believe in the power of talent tend not to fulfill their potential because they’re so concerned with looking smart and not making mistakes. But people who believe that talent can be developed are the ones who really push, stretch, confront their own mistakes and learn from them.”

The fundamental weakness with the conventional approach to teaching screenwriting is that it is generally rooted in this fixed-mind set, focusing on product. Students bring in their work and are told what’s working and what isn’t and given suggestions. But if a writer doesn’t yet possess the required skills, this is an exercise in futility. These writers won’t be able to go home and write at a professional level, and no amount of class notes or suggestions will change this. These writers are being set up to fail.

I recently did a script coaching for someone I’ll call Joe. Joe moved his family from the East Coast to L.A. to become a professional screenwriter. He had written 11 scripts in eight years with no success. He wrote his 12th script and hired me to give him feedback. I found it to have an interesting premise and some good character work, but it didn’t contain professional-level conflict and so had no real chance to succeed.

I asked Joe if I could take a quick glance at his other scripts, and he sent them to me. They all suffered from the same problem. Which means Joe had been basically wasting his time. None of his scripts had the professional level of conflict required to engage readers and make them want to keep reading.

Simply Wasting Your Time

I often bring Michelle Tanner in to speak to my UCLA classes. Michelle has nine years experience reading and analyzing scripts for the studios and major production companies. Her main advice is always, “Do whatever you can to learn how to write in professional-level compelling conflict. Because without that, you have no shot at making it. Without writing in compelling conflict, you are simply wasting your time.”

She is not alone. In his memoir, Rewrites, Neil Simon talks about the years he poured his heart into writing plays that weren’t very good. They kept getting rejected, and he didn’t know why. He finally turned for help to his older brother, Danny, a successful TV writer, who taught him the key to success was learning how to write in compelling conflict.

This is a story you often hear from professional writers who talk about the years they spent writing script after script (or play after play) that simply weren’t good enough. Scripts that were lacking something. And usually these writers had no idea what the hell was missing until someone came along, often an experienced, successful writer, who mentored them in how to write in compelling conflict.

But most writers tragically don’t train themselves how to write like this and end up writing script after script with very little to no success. When they finally throw in the towel and quit, they do so with the conclusion that they just didn’t have enough talent when the truth is they never learned and developed the essential skills.

If they had, who knows what they could have achieved?

And every time a writer unnecessarily quits, we are all deprived of the amazing, powerful, original stories that only he or she could tell. How many American Beautys, Hurt Lockers and Pulp Fictions are we not getting to experience because of this?

That is the greatest tragedy of all.

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