There are a lot of books, podcasts, webinars, and lectures discussing how to become a paid screenwriter. What’s the ‘secret’? I can now definitively answer that question.
Are you ready? The number one secret to moving from unsigned to signed writer is…attention to detail.
'Wait,' you say. 'That’s it? I spell check all my drafts before emailing a stranger. Surely I’ve ticked that box?' Yeah…no.
Obviously, you need talent, command of craft, experience blah blah blah. But without attention to detail, all of that becomes irrelevant.
Attention to detail does not mean spelling and punctuation. Although it helps to write coherently. It means paying attention to every single word in your script.
You know that feeling when you read your draft and there’s a scene that’s not quite right, but the next scene is awesome, so you think your script is ‘good enough’? Yeah…no.
You know that feeling when you have two characters having a conversation, you’re not super sure why it’s there, but there’s some really witty banter? Yeah…no.
You know that feeling when you realize you’ve paid almost no attention to a supporting character but you don’t care because they’re only there to help move your hero’s story along? Yeah…hell no.
Every word in your screenplay matters. Not just every scene, or every line of dialogue. Every word.
I know – analyzing every word sounds boring and time consuming. Quit whining, and remember you want to be a paid screenwriter. Which is a job. A hard job very few people get to do. You aren’t developing a hobby.
Just like EVERY other job, hard work and attention to detail is required to earn the big paycheck and be considered among the elite of your profession. So ignore the fantasies of bashing out a masterpiece in a weekend. Rid yourself of the notion ‘the idea writes itself’ or any other crap that gives you an excuse not to do the hard work. Take your job training seriously, not romantically. Which means paying attention to everything.
Detail matters, because it shows a reader you’ve thought about what you’re doing. Anyone who reads unsigned writers for a living can spot detail within 3 pages. We can tell whether you’ve thought about introducing characters, describing the setting, and dialogue. If you are basing your characters on people, or cliches? Are you relying on a shot of unpaid bills like everyone else? Are you repeating dialogue in a scene? Are you? Repeating?
Have you really thought about your lead character’s emotional journey? Do you know what information you’re giving the audience in EVERY SCENE? Have you thought about why every scene is in your script in the first place? Do you know how you want the audience to FEEL in every scene? This stuff becomes apparent ridiculously quickly.
It’s important to take what you do seriously because you want professional people to take you seriously. They may not offer to rep you, or buy your script, that’s out of your control. But they can respect the work, and notice the professionalism. Just like they can spot the lazy, sloppy writer, and immediately feel like their time is being wasted. Or worse…far worse…they see the really good script lurking inside this lumpy draft, and they get a little sad and annoyed that those extra hours fine-tuning and really looking at everything wasn’t done, and may never be done.
Everything in your script needs to earn its place. No waste. No repetition, no ‘good enough.' Get the script to a point where you can justify everything. So when someone asks why Billy does this, or says this, you can confidently respond, because you’ve thought about it, and you know.
I’m not saying analyze the thing to death. I’m saying get the script lean and tight and in a place where you have full command of everything in it. So when you get feedback, you can see if your intentions are connecting with the audience, and adjust/react accordingly. (Please note, sometimes your intentions may be wrong. Be open to that.)
If you put in the time – then at the very least professionals will know you are taking this gig seriously. Which makes it easier for them to take you seriously. Which you absolutely need to have happen if you want any shot at getting paid to write. There’s no hiding. At the risk of repeating myself – professionals can tell when you haven’t thought things through. It’s WAY more obvious than you may suspect.
Attention to detail is absolutely the #1 secret to making the leap to getting a job as a writer. Writing is work. It’s not fantasizing about award speeches or winging it because the muse is on your shoulder. It’s work. The more time and energy you put into everything, large and very small, the more it will pay off. So focus, roll your sleeves up, and own every word.