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Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The 8 Steps to Becoming a Screenwriter

So how do you go from total I-Never-Even-Knew-Movies-Had-Screenplays to thanking the Academy? It’s easy (grins ominously) No seriously it is. The biggest obstacles are the ones inside you and they can be overcome.

STEP 1 Read the Books and Get the Software: The first obstacle you have to get by is your own ignorance. Don’t be offended. Nobody is born knowing how to do this stuff. And it’s so easy to correct. All the info is out there. First thing you need to do is learn the format. Format. Format. Format. Please people there’s no more excuse for improperly formatted screenplays. Syd Field books have been around since the 80’s. You can get old copies for pennies on eBay. Final Draft is out there. Can’t afford Final Draft? There’s Celtx for free. These programs do 90% of the work for you. You just have to know how to use them correctly. Above all grab some free scripts from sites like Simply Scripts. Read those thoroughly. Read a lot of them so the format really sinks in. Read and study. That is a life long habit you should form if you are serious about becoming a screenwriter. Correct formatting is the first of many tests and it is mandatory that you ace it. D+ will not be enough. C or B will get you bounced.

STEP 2 Learn the Structure: This will make things so much easier. It’s not that hard really. It’s nothing more than counting pages. You have to know what the three act structure is and how it’s used. Again read more scripts and see if you can identify when the second act break occurs, what happens in the midpoint etc. Learn how to outline a screenplay. Outlines make writing a screenplay so much easier. They break down 120 pages into smaller bite sized pieces making the whole thing easier to tackle.

STEP 3 Write Screenplays: Get off your butt and write! Get on the computer and start typing. Set aside certain hours of the day. What you have time to read this blog but you don’t have time to write? Bulls*t! Get to work! Outline your story and start getting your money’s worth out of that screenwriting software. What do you write? At this stage it doesn’t matter, (as you’ll see in a minute) so write what you really want to write. Write what you love. Write what you want to see. Anything. The next Star Trek. An adaptation of the Blondie comic strip. In college I actually started (though I did not finish) a sequel to the George Lucas/Ron Howard film Willow and an entry in the Nightmare on Elm Street series. My first two finished screenplays were a John Woo shoot ‘em up and a Lovecraft horror story with Baywatch babes. Whatever gets you over the finish line. You’re never going to write a screenplay if you never write a screenplay. Seems like a duh moment but people just can’t appreciate what an effort it really takes to see something like this through from start to finish.

STEP 4 Get Tough: Okay you finished a masterpiece right? Wrong. Unless you are a total prodigy, what you wrote was complete crap. If you submit it to a contest you’ll be bounced immediately. You get feedback it will probably be devastating. If you send it to an agent that will be the last you hear of it. You suck. You’re worthless. You wasted months of your life. Knock it off! You did not waste anything, least of all your time. The fact is you completed a script. That’s something most people can’t do. What you did was extraordinary. Now it’s time to do it again. Now is the time to be even more extraordinary. You poured your heart out into that last script. Refill your heart. You’re exhausted? Shake it off. You think this hurts? Wait until you actually get good. Wait until you actually have expectations. Wait until you actually have some distance to fall. Think it smarts getting bounced in the first round? Try making it all the way to the finals. See your life about to change then hear you didn’t make it. That happened to me. I was a finalist in the Disney Fellowship. I was this close to getting 30K for an entire year to just sit back and write. I was the final person cut. Crash! I didn’t go to work the next day. A week later I was writing again. Now the stuff I put out now is miles better than that screenplay that almost but didn’t quite make it.

STEP 5 Study the Craft: There’s probably a million reasons why your first screenplay sucked from bad dialogue, to bad plot to the fact that it’s about Captain America. Whatever. You’ve proven to yourself that you can write a script, now it’s time to show you write a good one. Back to reading and studying and, here’s the fun part, going to the movies. Go to as many movies as you can. If you can afford it try to see one every week. See the good, the bad, and the lousy. You can learn more from a bad movie than you can from a good one. A bad movie you can watch and think, what would I do different. And study study study. Read books, read more screenplays, get feedback on your latest script and join a writer’s group. This will tell you what you need to focus on. Dialogue needs a lift? Bone up on dialogue. Plots going awry? Study plotting. Study your subject. You probably haven’t done any research since college (maybe you didn’t even do it IN college) Fix that. They say write what you know. Well the more you know, the more you can write about. About this time you should be figuring out it’s more a marathon than a sprint. Then you’re ready for the final step.

STEP 6 Study the Business: It’s been a long road to get to this point. You’re probably already miles better than that guy who thumbed through Syd Field utterly mystified. You’re to the point where you can write a screenplay and the reader doesn’t hate it like poison. It’s actually kinda good. But can it sell? That’s the question. After all this talk about passion, craft and art we’ve finally come down to commerce because that is what it’s all about. You don’t just want to write a great script, you want somebody to PAY you for it. Time to put aside the writer and become the salesman. And no one ever made a sale without first knowing the market and the buyers. Time to get out from behind the computer screen (or not) and meet people. Writer’s conferences, Expos, Pitch-fests are all great ways to meet people if you don’t live in LA. If you do there’s internships, assistantships and reader positions. Then there’s always the internet and things like Twitter’s #scriptchat. It’s amazing who you can meet online. Subscribe to the trades. Make as many contacts as you can. Ultimately you want to find out three things, what is selling, what is this particular company looking for, and can you submit something to them.

STEP 7 Write Something That Will Sell: You’ve honed your craft. You’ve made your connections. Now is the time to put it altogether. Passion, craft, and business acumen. Look for that story that will do it all. Find that logline/concept that the company cannot ignore. Write with every ounce of craft you possess, don’t give them an excuse to put it down ever. And write something close to your heart. Something that really only you can write. The last thing you want to do is whet their appetites for something you really can’t deliver because your heart isn’t in it.

STEP 8 Remember to thank Screenwriting Foxhole when you accept that award.

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