Although my focus for the past ten years has been writing novels, I have also attempted writing screenplays from time to time, first when I lived in Los Angeles and earned a Bachelor’s degree in Film Production from Loyola Marymount University, and second when I spent the last eighteen months, sort of on a whim, writing three different feature-length screenplays that I’ve since sent out into the world.
Screenwriting is a whole different beast than novel writing, and I thought I would share with you ten things I’ve learned over the years that you should absolutely know if you want to give a screenwriting career a go…
1. Learn the basics first.
It’s in your best interest before you dive in to buy a few craft books on screenwriting and learn the basics. Learn what scene headers are. Learn how long each scene should be (usually 2–3 pages). Learn how long a screenplay should be (on average, 100 to 110 pages). Essentially learn how a screenplay should look. Buy the right software (Final Draft). Before you figure out the story you want to tell, learn the basics of screenwriting first.
2. Read lots and lots of screenplays.
The other thing you should do before writing your first screenplay is read lots and lots of scripts. As many as you can stand. Scripts that have been made into movies, the good and the bad. Scripts that have never been made. Old scripts. New scripts. Anything. There are plenty of web sites that have hundreds of free screenplays at your disposal, like Simply Scripts and Drew’s Script-o-Rama. You’ll be a better screenwriter if you’re well read in screenplays, and you will have more confidence moving forward.
3. A career in screenwriting is almost impossible if you don’t live in Los Angeles.
This is something else worth considering. It’s sad but true: for the most part, you’ll struggle getting your career as a screenwriter going anywhere if you don’t live in L.A. There are exceptions, of course. You can write screenplays from anywhere, sure, and if your work is stellar, you will get recognized. But it is expected of you to at least make the trip to L.A. from time to time to take meetings and pitch your ideas, and the farther away you live from Los Angeles the more difficult this will be.
4. Write an outline of every scene in detail before you begin writing the actual screenplay.
I only write a limited outline when it comes to my novels, but when it comes to my screenplays, I write out every single scene before I begin. The reason this is so essential is that, unlike novels, screenplays have such a strict structure. You can’t just write 160 pages, or 76 pages. The screenplay, even the first draft, should come in somewhere between 95 and 115 pages, and if you have a clear outline to work from, this important goal will be met. Also, it’s always super helpful to sit down at the computer every day knowing the two or three scenes you’re going to be writing.
5. It’s important to write a marketable screenplay, not just any screenplay.
When it comes to novels, you can essentially attempt any kind of story you want, but in screenplays, your options aren’t as numerous. When it comes to a screenplay, you need to understand the market. What genres do well financially? What are harder sells for a newbie screenwriter? What markets might your screenplay be aimed at in the future? These are questions you should absolutely ask yourself before you begin writing. It will be a waste of time if you spend the next six months writing and revising a screenplay that has no market value.
6. Screenwriting competitions are, for the most part, a waste of time and money.
There are exceptions, of course. If you win one of the big competitions like Nicholl or Big Break or Austin Film Festival, you will make contacts and potentially be able to sell your script. However, the problem with most competitions is that they cost a lot of money (usually $50 and up), and odds of being in the top ten, let alone the winner, are so outrageously unlikely due to the fact that there are thousands of submissions being reviewed. When it comes to screenwriting competitions, you can spend $500 easy, and then receive nothing in return. If you are going to submit to competitions, do your research, and pick two or three you feel you might have the best chance in, and that offer something significant if you win.
7. Script listing sites are similarly a waste of time and money.
The big ones are Inktip and The Black List. Apparently some screenwriters have found success on one or the other, but from the experience I’ve had and the research I’ve done, they’re mostly just ways for people to prey on naive screenwriters by taking your money. Again, if you feel like you have a super marketable script and want to take a shot at one or the other, feel free, but keep in mind that six months later you might have paid $100 or more for nothing in return.
8. It’s almost impossible to sign with a literary agent as a new screenwriter. Instead, a literary manager is your best option.
When it comes to novel writing, literary agents are your best options, but when it comes to screenwriting, you want to query literary MANAGERS, not literary agents. Literary agents in the film world won’t look at your work without a manager. So if you feel your screenplay is the best it can be and you want to find representation, the best thing to do is send a short letter to literary managers that are open to unsolicited queries. You can find their e-mails on imdbpro.com (a service that costs $149 a year). You might be able to find their contact info elsewhere, but imdbpro.com has worked the best for me. You won’t hear from many of them, but, if you’re lucky, a select few might reach out and ask to read your screenplay! So make sure your script is ready before you query.
9. Your screenplay probably won’t get made into a movie.
This is the hardest one to take in, but it’s simply the truth. Thousands and thousands of scripts are written and registered with the WGA every year (by the way, you need to register your script with the WGA! It’s only $20 and lasts for five years, so do it to protect yourself.) Of those, only a few hundred are purchased, let alone made into an actual movie. The odds are not on your side. If you’re lucky, you might place well at a screenwriting competition, or sign with a literary manager, or, if you’re super, super lucky, you might even sell your screenplay! But the odds of actually getting to the point where your screenplay is turned into a movie is rare. Super rare. Which is why…
10. If you want to be a screenwriter, you need to write lots and lots of screenplays.
You can’t just write one screenplay, send it out, and wait for the money to pour in. You can’t write write one script and think your life is about to change. If you’re compelled to be a screenwriter, by all means, go for it and start writing! But realize you’re going to have to write lots and lots of scripts. Ten, or fifteen, or even twenty — that’s right — before your luck might change. Again, there are exceptions of the occasional wunderkinds who write the perfect script the first time out and find representation and make good money, but those people are few and far between. Yes, you’re probably going to need to write ten scripts or more. And if that scares you or bothers you, screenwriting might not be for you.
In the end, if you’re serious about screenwriting, you’re going to have to be in it for the long haul. Accept that. EMBRACE that. Have fun with it! And never give up.