Here’s one big problem with most of the screenwriting approaches I see floating around: Their focus is almost exclusively on writing a screenplay. Obviously this is important. You must be able to translate your talent, voice, and vision for a story onto the printed page. A script not only is a commodity which you can sell, it is also a representation of who you are as a writer.
But while a screenplay is an end product of what we do, there is so much more to actually being a screenwriter than simply writing a script. And much of what that is about, that ‘stuff’ we ingest along the way, impacts how we approach our writing, where we put our focus, and what ends up on the page.
In other words, it is not just about writing a screenplay. It’s about thinking and acting like a screenwriter. And to do that, we need to learn the craft.
How? Just as there is no right way to write, there is no right way to learn the craft. However here is a list of areas I think any writer would be wise to include in their learning process:
Theory: Some writers need less of this, some require more, but at least a basic take on the fundamentals of screenwriting theory.
Research: While it might not be necessary to determine a specific approach, a writer should know their way around a library or nowadays the Web. Perhaps more important, a writer should engender and feed their curiosity to dig into the subject matter of the story they are writing as that is the surest path toward being able to create a world that feels authentic to a reader.
Prep: While it may be fine to approach writing a novel with zero advance work, screenwriters who choose to work on assignment are not allowed that luxury. Generally we have about 10 weeks to turn in a draft and one key to managing to pull that off on a consistent basis is to break your story in prep. This varies from writer to writer, but often an outline becomes their best friend.
First Draft: Some call it a ‘vomit draft,’ others a ‘muscle draft,’ however a writer refers to it, they ought to develop a mindset whereby they can knock out that first draft without constantly going back or getting stuck. This is where the value of prep emerges in a big way because if a writer breaks the story before they type FADE IN, they are much more likely to be able pound out a first draft.
Rewriting: There is perhaps no other narrative form to which the saying ‘writing is rewriting’ pertains more than screenwriting. So part of this learning curve is not only developing an approach to the rewrite process, but also an embrace of this as an ongoing reality of what screenwriters do. For a screenwriter, rewriting is akin to breathing. It just is.
Production: If a writer is lucky, their script becomes an actual movie. That sounds wonderful, and it is, but it also means every scene gets translated by the film crew into the nuts and bolts of actual production. Therefore it behooves a screenwriter to understand the connection between what they write on the page and what that entails when a movie gets made. Helpful hint: Make some short films to put yourself on the set.
Post-Production: There’s a lot involved in post, but the single most important point of focus for a screenwriter is to be mindful of the editing process. Indeed a writer thinking like an editor when crafting a script, everything from scene construction to scene transitions, can make for a better read and benefit the entire production and post process.
Acting: One of the smartest things a writer can do is take an acting class (or two). Yes, this is about writing dialogue that is ‘actor friendly,’ but it is also about something incredibly fundamental: understanding characters. Actors ask the same questions about a character writers do: motivation, personality, backstory, want, need, goals. The more a writer can grasp how actors think about their craft, the more that can translate into strong characterizations on the page.
Business: While a writer relies on their agent, manager and lawyer for career advice as well as inside information about industry trends, it is important for a writer to understand the basics of the entertainment business. From acquisition to development to production to marketing to distribution to finance, a writer’s stories get touched by people in all of these areas, so it just makes sense for them to have a basic comprehension of how the film business works.
Producers: Per this last point, one of the most important ways of thinking about screenwriting is as a producer. The ability to put on their ‘hat’ and see things through their eyes can be enormously helpful for a writer in terms of everything from story decisions to business strategy. Producers are often a writer’s best friend on a project. Understanding their world view is a plus.
Critical Eye: The movie business is incredibly competitive and it is ridiculously hard to get any movie produced. Therefore a writer must adjust their analytical instincts accordingly. A good place to start is with this basic question directed at each story a writer takes on: Is this a movie? The ability to answer that question honestly and without prejudice is key. A writer can use that same level of scrutiny to story choices: Is this distinctive? Is this cliche? Is this the very best I can do? If not, do better.
The World of Cinema: Any writer who hopes to grow a career as a screenwriter must immerse him/herself in the world of cinema. See every movie. Read every script. Know film history. This is important for a myriad of reasons including the simple fact that everyone in the business constantly refers to other movies, therefore a writer must know their stuff to be able to converse knowledgeably in development meetings, meet-and-greets, social circumstances, and the like.
There’s a lot more I haven’t mentioned — how to pick your battles, how to incorporate script notes, how not to be an asshole, and so forth — but the point should be clear and worth repeating: Learning the craft is much more than knowing how to write a screenplay..
It’s about becoming a screenwriter.
For the rest of the 30 Things About Screenwriting series, go here.
[Originally posted November 3, 2013]