I had decided to attend one of the many networking events in Los Angeles. This one was going to be a small, private gathering at my teacher’s acting studio. A studio executive was kindly going to speak to us about how studios consider projects and give us some direction about how movies get made.
As he was talking to us about various projects he had seen, and as an aside he said, “…because of course the best scripts don’t get made.”
There was a collective gasp in the room. He paused to address us.
“You do know that, right, that most of the best scripts don’t get made?” he repeated. The collective gasp surrendered to a stunned hush.
He continued to explain how the best scripts, many of the ones that appear on the notorious agency “black list” get lost in the business process, optioning (when someone obtains a property for a specific amount of time), turnaround (the gap that can occur in between optioning where it’s not clear who owns the property) or maybe it’s just that no one knows exactly how to make it.
It took me two years to truly process this. But it’s true. There is no perfect screenplay and what this multi-billion dollar industry doesn’t want you to know is that your script doesn’t have to be perfect to be made. So writers should carefully consider those who promise them the perfect formula to write the perfect screenplay that will get your script produced. Here is the reality. There is no perfect formula for writing your screenplay. Every screenplay is different because every writer is different. Rewriting forever and forever can become a waste of time and at times an obstacle to real growth. Don’t get me wrong, as a writer and teacher of writing, I will tell you that rewriting is a required step in the process, but where things get murky is why. Why are you rewriting? Is it because 12 different people told you 12 different things that were wrong with your script? If no one is paying the writer to make specific changes to her screenplay, (assuming that she has mastered screenplay format and the style of screenwriting), the only reason she should be rewriting is because she’s looking for a deeper truth. No one can teach a writer that. That’s the work of real writers. But if you’re going to pay someone, pay someone to help you find your voice and make it clear.
When I first came to California, I came like a lot of transplants. I came from film school with a script and a short film. My short film had won some awards and my script, Charlotta, had gotten a lot of attention at my graduate school. I spent a little time the first few months I moved here working on it while I searched for a full-time job. I sent out queries to a few places and I sent the script to maybe 2 places who passed with positive comments. As a receptionist at a management company, I managed to keep steady hours without too much stress and I wrote 2 more screenplays in less than 2 years. I managed to get one of the managers there to read one of them and he loved it. He told me that I was a very good writer. Certainly there were notes about sections to remove and places to tighten, but he liked it. He offered to send it to the Sundance Institute for me, and he did. I was thrilled. I didn’t get in, but I was still happy to have my writing validated.
Over the next 4 years I would write 2 more screenplays that I would revise several times. I took numerous classes and workshops, programs online and in person. I met with various agents and managers. I joined numerous screenwriting organizations and paid good money for membership. I started my own writers group with friends. I even had a few professional writers read one for me and write in beautiful ink “you got the goods!” And yet, I could never achieve the perfect screenplay. I spent hours and hours trying to adapt my script to the various writing structures I read about or was referred to. I tried breaking my script into 2 acts, 3 acts, 4 acts, 5 acts; I broke them down by scenes and wrote on notecards. I did character breakdowns in my prewriting and post-writing. I would start stop start stop the process of writing and rewriting until there were times where I had no idea what I was writing and why. I couldn’t tell if anything was working in my script, and I forgot the story I wanted to tell.
The funny thing I’ve realized all these years later, is that I’m a writer, a very good one. Yet still I rewrote my stories looking for something that I didn’t even know. What happens to writers is that on the search for the perfect screenplay, they seek out other people’s opinions. Feedback is useful and necessary, but it is also biased. Other opinions especially too many, or too critical ones can cause doubts that can lead the writer astray. The writer begins to lose track of her original vision and worse, the script begins to turn into a patchwork of everyone else’s visions. The script loses cohesiveness. Old parts of the script don’t make sense with new ones. Then suddenly all the people who originally liked her script (but still gave you some notes) are wondering why she changed it! The thing is a writer should not be seeking the perfect script because there is no perfect script. Every script is more or less flawed and despite that, movies get made anyway. So what is a writer to do?
A writer should write her story, share it with 2-3 people she trusts, make her rewrites and put it away for a while so she can get some perspective and do some honest investigation about what is really working. Usually when I work with other writers, I find that they already know that something isn’t working; however they are looking for some kind of confirmation and for a solution which another person truly can’t provide. In the end the writer is the best person capable of resolving the issue of the script. However personal obstacles can get in the way. Obstacles like procrastination, fear, or being too close to it. At those times, a trusted and encouraging voice can help spark what the writer already knows she needs.
Yet a writer must always be open to writing something else. She must always be creating. One of the deepest fears most writers have deep inside is that they only have one good story, which is what causes them to stick with one script forever. But writers have endless stories within them although sometimes there is one special story that must be told. When that happens, the writer will try submitting to any random producer out there, but take every rejection as a personal criticism of their writing. That is wrong. The producer could be rejecting the script for a variety of reasons (budget, marketing, exposure, talent, and more) , and a writer shouldn’t waste her time trying to uncover an answer that a producer may not be willing to provide. What the writer should be seeking is the producer who has the greatest potential to connect to their material by researching a producer’s previous projects, talent relationships and material. The perfect script is supposedly the script that everyone loves, but that assumes that everyone is the same and of course we’re not. Everyone is different and one script will appeal to one person, while another script won’t.
You are the only one who can tell your story. It’s one thing if someone is paying you to tell their story, but if you are writing your own story, you have to stay with you. No one knows more about a given script than its writer. It’s important for writers to remember that in the beginning, what they are writing is a piece of them, and that needs to come through most of all.
Now having said all of that, if you are a new writer there are some basic things that need to come first.
1) World, character, quest. You need to be able to tell a visual story that communicates these basic ideas. My teacher broke it down for us back in grad school: Writers need to understand and be able to communicate who the character is, what he wants, and what are his obstacles and conflicts, both tangible and intangible. I love character breakdowns and I always start there because stories are about the choices a character makes. What is the world that they live in, both physical and emotional? The writer has to know this inside and out. Finally what is the character’s journey or quest-what are they seeking, how will they get it, and what are the obstacles that are in the way?
2) Grammar. People hate grammar. I know that because I teach it. But in order to be a good writer you need to have a good handle on grammar, how to play with parts of speech, how to punctuate, and how to create good sentences. Writing a screenplay is different than writing a book and the style is different. There is a focus on action–what is happening on the screen–as opposed to description; pacing becomes paramount to moving a reader along. If you have a good command of grammar, you know how to manipulate words to express the feelings of your characters and you know how to draw the reader into your story.
3) Story structure. There are thousands of books on screenplay structure. Admittedly I own many of them. Finding your story’s structure is a writer’s journey, but a basic understanding of beginning, middle and end is important. Writers can pay a lot of money to go to a lot of seminars or a writer can also learn these things by watching movies, reading books, or studying scripts and plays. Look up Gustav Freytag’s dramatic structure. Read a little Shakespeare or so Ibsen, and check out Aristotle’s Poetics. I happen to love Lajos Egri’s The Art of Dramatic Writing though it is more about character and structure. In the end just try telling a little kid a story. We innately understand from childhood that a story is a series of events that create a beginning, middle and end; make it simple. Something happens, and then something else happens, which makes something else happen. The end.
4) Screenplay format. Writing a screenplay has a unique and specific format geared towards scene creation. It can be learned but you must take the time to understand it so you can practice it. The main emphasis in writing a screenplay is efficiency and economy. My teacher told us, “get out of a scene as early as you can, enter as late as you can.” There are a lot of software programs that help you along the way, but you still have to understand why you’re doing what you’re doing. In one of the classes I teach on grammar and screenwriting, I remind people that screenplay format is about creating an outline for all the other people to do their jobs. Dialogue is for actors, slugs are for PMs and ADs, caps are for sound and prop people. The script is not only a story, it’s a blueprint for the movie.
If you can master these things, you can write a very good screenplay. Remember, it doesn’t have to be perfect, but it needs to be good, good enough to attract talent. Perfect scripts don’t get movies made; packages do. (That is another story). That requires a lot of work outside of the writing process. But it all starts with the script. Happy writing!