The journey to becoming a screenwriter is a lengthy one that requires mastering multiple, challenging and varied skills. That leaves many the aspiring writer uncertain where to begin.
The biggest challenge may be that there is no “one” path. There are dozens. From esteemed graduate programs to innovative online courses and everything in between. Ask any accomplished screenwriter and you’ll hear a unique story of how they got to where they are.
Before taking a single step in pursuit of their dreams, the aspiring writer is faced with the uncertainty of options.
If you want to be a lawyer, there is a clear, step-by-step path. Major in pre-law as an undergrad. Take the LSAT. Go to the best law school you can get into. Maybe add in some summer clerkships. Take and pass the bar exam. Not that any of this is easy – it takes seven years, a ton of studying, a massive amount of memorization and developing an entirely new thought process – but the path is crystal clear. No question of what to do next.
Lately, several of my consulting clients have been early in their writing journey. The goal of our work together is creating a customized learning curve of skills to build the strengths they need that will last them a lifetime and enable them to see their scripts to fruition.
I truly enjoy mentoring writers. I was fortunate to have good mentors over the course of my career in the industry, that helped shape me and my thinking. While these writers are using my Mentorship Packages, I’ve come to think of myself as a Personal Trainer. My job is to help writers build and strengthen the many screenwriting muscles needed to do the heavy lifting – to push them do more reps, to lift more, to encourage them and cheer their accomplishments.
There is an enormous learning curve to screenwriting. They must learn craft skills, understand the art of storytelling and develop a writer’s voice. This means there is a monumental amount for an aspiring writer to master when it comes to how to write a screenplay.
This wouldn’t be the first time I’ve written about the importance of building and bulking up your screenwriting muscles. My column, New Year’s Resolutions: The Writing Exercise Workout, has an array of exercises designed to help both the aspiring writer build strength and those with several scripts under their belt to stay in shape and hone their voice:
- Logline Workout – A Warm Up, An Exercise, and a Next Level Work Out
- Read, Watch, Repeat – A Master’s Class Series of Exercises: Reading scripts and watching films with a purpose
- Aerobics – Sculpt your Sentences and Slim Scenes
- Cardio – A Fast Paced and Fun Idea-Generating Exercise
- Fitness Class – Appointment Exercise: Making Time to Write
- Not In the Mood for the Gym – Pointers for Productivity: When You’re Not in The Writing Zone
Let’s answer some of the questions that plague the aspiring writer:
Chicken or the Egg?
If you are an aspiring writer with an idea, what comes first?
I’m continually struck with the frequent comments I see in online screenwriting groups that essentially say, “New to screenwriting. Help! What do I do?”
Sometimes group members give constructive answers. Sometimes they pick apart typos, poke fun or make a snarky suggestion to just “Google it!” The threads range from helpful to brutal.
There is a long and complex learning curve to becoming a writer. The ultimate answer is:
Don’t start writing!
If you want to grow up to be a surgeon, you get an undergraduate degree in a related field of science. You take the MCAT, and hopefully get into a good medical school where you study for four years to earn the initials M.D. behind your name. Then you spend five years as a resident at a hospital. Add on one to three more years if you choose a specialty. Next, you have to pass an exam to become licensed. Not done yet! You also have to become board certified. More than a dozen years to be able to practice medicine!
Aspiring surgeons progress from study human anatomy in a textbook, to dissecting cadavers, to observing surgeries, to holding an instrument during an operation – all before ever cutting into a living person.
There’s a lesson here for the aspiring screenwriter hoping to “practice” this demanding storytelling specialty.
Where to begin?
Read The Classics On Story
Reading is definitely the first step for the aspiring writer.
1) Begin with “The Classics.” Aim to read a minimum of three. It’s easy enough Google “Top Screenwriting Books,” but I think most writers would agree on these:
- The Art Of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egri
- Screenplay by Syd Field
- Writing Screenplays That Sell by Michael Hague
- Story by Robert McKee
- Save the Cat by Blake Snyder
These tomes are the standard bearers if you’re trying to build a foundation for further learning. As an aspiring writer, a solid grasp of the fundamentals and the vocabulary is the essential first step.
I’ll add in a new one that I think will become a classic in due time:
- Bulletproof: Writing Scripts that Don’t Get Shot Down by David Diamond & David Weissman
2) Read several of the top current screenwriting books that are popular favorites. This is actually a good place an aspiring writer to ask for recommendations online. Everyone will have an opinion. Not every guru will click with you, but they all have valuable things to say. Find those pointers and perspectives that resonate with you.
3) Free online resources have some great offerings. I’m a fan of writing team Terry Rossio and Ted Elliott's website Wordplayer with the goal of offering “a crash course in everything the aspiring writer needs to know.” Many writers swear by the brilliant John Augusts’ Scriptnotes, with a blog plus podcasts with screenwriter Craig Mazin.
Save Steps Two and Three until you have at least three classics under your belt.
Next Up: Anatomy
Understanding screenplay structure is essential for the aspiring writer.
Story is structure.
Like it or not, screenplays run on structure. Period. Full stop.
Screenplays, the blueprint for a two-hour story that is consumed in a single viewing, are especially dependent on structure to engage audiences from start to finish.
Dispute the need for structure all you like with another aspiring writer. But industry pros, from execs to writers, will argue the case for structure every time.
I can practically hear my readers countering with seeming exceptions to the rule that went on to be successful films – but in all likelihood they, too, can be proven to have a solid structure.
A frequently controversial example is by Christopher Nolan, writer and director of Memento, with its notably fragmented style. It was an intentional creative choice. Nolan himself maintains that he used conventional structure, and describes the finished film as “dis-linear.”
I wanted it to have a somewhat conventional underpinning beneath the complex structure, or actually wanted a fairly conventional rhythm to what happens when—I wrote it from page one to page 125, and when I finished it to my satisfaction, I would go back and reorder it the way it is on screen to check the logic of it.
Christopher Nolan, Remembering Where it All Began: Christopher Nolan on Memento, Creative Screenwriting Magazine
Even the exceptions are based in the rules of structure.
One of my favorite quotes on structure is from Christopher Riley, screenwriter and screenwriting format book author, in his article, Why Story Structure Matters, Even If You Don’t Want It To. I even love his title!
I wonder if airplane designers debate whether the laws of aerodynamics matter. If they entertain the notion of casting aside those outmoded, restrictive physical laws that mandate things like thrust and lift, and that result in a dull sameness among aircraft, each with some form of motor and wing.
I wonder if any of those free-thinking designers build flying machines without regard for the rigid and stultifying laws of aerodynamics, build them in bright colors and novel, bulbous shapes without wings, without motors, then wrap silk scarves around their necks and take their machines to the skies.
I wonder if they die in pain.
The classics above all delve into structure to one degree or another. You might like their terminology; you might not. You might find it confusing or even contradictory. But when you boil it down, the gurus are all saying the same thing: Beginning, Middle and End – the building blocks of all story plus the story elements that need to happen along the way in order to engage an audience and keep their attention for two hours.
That’s why I created a Structure Template and Handout that endeavors to put all the terminology in one place. My aim was to prove that whether a structure guru was saying Page 60 or Midpoint Twist or the Middle of Act Two, or if they referred to the Catalyst, Call to Action or the Inciting Incident, they are expressing the same language of age-old story structure. My goal is to give writers a tool to use for structuring scripts that works with any terminology, because the underlying philosophy is identical.
Do Not Pass Go, Grasshopper
You have your exciting idea, you’ve done some of the recommended reading, and now you’re ready to hit the keyboard and turn it into a screenplay. Not so fast, grasshopper.
Sorry for the ancient reference to the 1970s TV series, Kung Fu, starring David Carradine as a peace-loving Shaolin monk and martial arts expert traveling through the American Old West. He frequently flashes back to his training with old blind Master Po and his Taoist advice, who nicknamed his neophyte student, “Grasshopper.”
Essentially, it refers to how the blind master had achieved such a heightened senses and how far the young student had to go. You can watch the clip here.
You’ve read the books. You’ve studied the anatomy. Now it’s time to start learning from the masters by dissecting their work.
This means reading great scripts. Read and read and read. Just like artists examine the brushstrokes of the Great Masters in search of technique, study the great masters of screenwriting.
Read to learn. Notice what worked and why. Pay attention to what grabs your attention and when your interest in the story wanes. Ask yourself, why did the writer make that particular decision? How did it serve the overall story? How does the writer use words to create visuals? Study the cinematic writing required in screenplays that shows not tells. And, as every good diet is varied, add in a few scripts by novices. They encourage you into figure out what is and isn’t working and why. Find more useful questions to sharpen your observations here.
I recommend, “Read, Watch, Repeat.” In my article, The Writing Exercise Workout, I offer the aspiring writer guidelines for a Master Class in choosing what to read and why. There are also goals for how many scripts you should consume, from the classics, to writers you admire, to a genre you aspire to work in and more. Try to find original scripts or shooting scripts if you can’t find those. If you uncover both, read both, as there’s a lot to be learned from how a project changed from selling script to shooting script.
As an aspiring writer, your goal is to master not only the fundamentals of craft, but the use of language, theme, tone, structure, symbolism, and the styles of cinematic storytelling. By delving deeply into the works of the masters, you will be able to identify their distinct voices. Don’t copy their voice, but discerning that quality will bring you closer to developing your own voice, grasshopper.
Are we there yet?
Almost, now it’s time for the tools.
Another question I frequently see asked in writing groups is about software. Remember, first things first. You don’t need a computer program until you’ve done the studying.
While there used to be only two options for formatting programs, now there are many.
Yes, Final Draft is and will likely continue to be industry standard. It’s a financial investment that most writers consider worthwhile. And it offers a free 30-day trial. Many writers swear by Celtx, which offers a free version and a subscription option with added features.
Here’s where the aspiring writer can canvass and benefit from the experience of others. Solicit advice on good free options before shelling out the big bucks. Then take the screenwriting process for a test drive. See how it feels to express yourself in this cinematic medium. It might not come naturally.
A word of caution: As with any technology, once you get acclimated it quickly feels comfortable. A switch might be challenging when you’ve formed habits. After one completed script, so you can experience rewriting in the program, it might be time to make the commitment to purchasing a program and sticking with it.
I see endless questions on how to convey something with words on a page that is meant to be a visual experience. You may find some good pointers to your questions on format issues through online advice. Or you might get a pile on of options.
While pursuing the discussions in one of the online forums, there was a debate about bolding sluglines. One writer insisted that they were going to do so because they liked “the way it looked.” Grrr.
I think we can agree that the use of bold draws one’s eye. The question is: Do you want to draw the reader’s attention to the slugline – the one piece of the formatting with the primary purpose of breaking down a script for creating a shooting schedule – or do you want to focus the reader on something important on the page about the story?
The point of formatting, beyond the fundamental rules, is creating a clear and smooth reading experience for your target audience – that reader who holds the power to advance your material. That’s what it’s all about.
Super tricky formatting questions? You can turn to the online writers’ groups for this one and get a plethora of opinions, but I recommend sticking to the formatting gurus.
Caution: Look to the more current books, as some formatting standards, such as CAPITALIZING all SOUNDS for the sake of the SPECIAL EFFECTS department, have gone out of fashion. They are an unnecessary visual distraction unless absolutely essential for occasional for impact. When in doubt, turn to ScriptMag’s own Dr. Format.
Bottom Line: I implore you to stick to standard, conventional, clean, current formatting.
Ready, Set, Stop!
Law school is famous for using the Socratic method of teaching. Professors randomly call upon students to answer challenging questions. It’s a high-pressure situation that not only tests their knowledge of the subject, but allows for the exploration of complex legal issues and teaches the critical thinking skills students will need as lawyers.
See the Socratic method in action in the film, The Paper Chase, as Professor Kingsfield challenges his students with questions, demanding accuracy and creativity in their responses, and humiliating those who are unable to respond.
That’s the purpose of all these suggestions for the aspiring writer. The hours and years of work you put in, understanding the craft, building vocabulary, developing strengths, reading screenplays and learning to dissect them – as much as getting an advanced degree – doesn’t make you into a writer. It changes the way you think. This – plus putting the skills into practice over the course of writing numerous screenplays – enables you to progress from “aspiring writer” to confident, capable screenwriter.
Have a favorite book or learning resource? Share in the comments below and then get one free logline feedback when you sign up for my – occasional – mailing list. More info here.
With a foundation beneath you, now you can pass go. But don’t plan to collect $200, even in Monopoly money. Plan to write two to three scripts a year for at least a couple of years before you can expect to collect any accolades.
It takes practice to complete the climb of this steep learning curve. It’s a long route to the top with a great deal to be accomplished along the way. But the kind of discipline required to put in the amount of work and the hours spent coming up with ideas, reworking them outlining them, watching and reading prototype films, reworking an outline, and then writing a draft, rewriting, honing and getting it to the point where it’s ready for outside eyes, getting feedback, learning what to incorporate and what to ignore, (find tips for handling notes like a pro here) and possibly doing a complete tear down and starting over, and then beginning a new project where the process starts anew – this is the true way to build the skills and confidence to make the leap from Aspiring Writer to Working Writer.
Read more on Mentorship – the most powerful way to break into the industry, and how it has impacted my learning curve and my career.
And check out my New Mentorship Consulting Package, on sale till the clock strikes midnight on New Year’s Eve. Use any time.