Seven steps that will take you from newbie writer with no track record to making your first sale.
Now, we’re not saying learning how to become a screenwriter is easy. Far from it. But it’s certainly not impossible, and if you have the drive and passion, you too can join the ranks of those who go from aspiring screenwriter to pro screenwriter.
The post is divided into 7 steps—each a different step along the road you need to take to learn how to become a screenwriter. It’s a long one, but the benefits will be tremendous. In this post you will learn:
♦ How to decide if screenwriting is for you
♦ How to make the decision to become a screenwriter and stick to it
♦ How to create a writing routine and stick to it
♦ How to master the craft of screenwriting
♦ Which practical things you can do to help your writing career
♦ What to include in a screenwriting portfolio
♦ How to research who to send your script to
♦ How to send your script out into the industry
So let’s get started!
How to Become a Screenwriter Step #1: Decide If Writing Is For You
From the outside, screenwriting can certainly appear to be an attractive career option. If you “make it” you’ll be pretty much self-employed, potentially be paid hundreds of thousands (or even millions) of dollars and be able to let your imagination loose to come up with stories people can enjoy and revere all over the world.
However, there’s a flipside to the coin that aspiring writers need to consider while figuring out how to become a screenwriter. The thing is, not everyone is cut out for a career writing screenplays and this section should help you decide whether it’s something you’re destined to do or whether you’d be better off focusing your energies elsewhere.
Some Cold Hard Facts
Let’s take a look at a few sober realities when it comes to starting a screenwriting career and then we’ll return to the question of whether this is something you think you want to do and what you should do about it.
The truth is, a large percentage of fledgling screenwriting careers end before they even got started. Scripts are written, sent out to agents, managers, contests and so on, but no one in the industry seems to be interested. The rejection emails pile up and eventually the writer gets despondent and gives up.
Now, we’re not saying this is going to happen to you, but this is the career trajectory of the majority of aspiring screenwriters out there currently trying to break into the industry.
There are many reasons for this: the super competitive nature of the film industry, sub-par writing skills, lack of dedication, lack of staying power, etc. but does all this mean you should just give up now and save yourself the trouble of wasting all that time for very little ROI?
It depends. The typical journey of the aspiring writer described above doesn’t have to be your journey.
Is Writing a Part of Who You Are?
All of the obstacles described above can all be overcome if you have the desire to really learn how to become a screenwriter and put in the work required, but first, you should decide if this career is for you.
When Jack White from The White Stripes was young, he was so obsessed with music that his bedroom became filled with musical instruments, guitars, keyboards, two drum kits, and recording equipment. Eventually, he got rid of his bed to make room for all of it and slept on a mattress curled up on the floor.
Now, that’s dedication.
We’re not saying you need to take things to these extremes, but if you’d rather put your feet up and watch TV after coming home from work every day than write, then maybe you should rethink if screenwriting is really for you.
Take a look at the following statements, and see how many you agree with:
♦ I’m not in it for the money, I’m in it for the joy of writing.
♦ Writing’s in my blood—it gives me more pleasure than anything else.
♦ I devour all forms of cinema: Hollywood, New Wave, Mumblecore, Film Noir, etc.
♦ If I’m not writing, I’m watching movies, reading about movies or talking about movies.
♦ I feel like if I don’t become a screenwriter my life will be incomplete.
♦ I’m willing to stop at nothing until I realize my dream of becoming a screenwriter.
If the above statements don’t really resonate with you—and you’d rather spend your weekend hanging out with friends than writing—then maybe this isn’t the career for you.
If, however, you agree with all or most of them and decide you have the passion and belief necessary to succeed in this business, then it’s time to consider the somewhat precarious life of a writer once you’ve actually “made it.”
The Reality of Life as a Screenwriter
Not only aren’t there any guarantees you’ll become a screenwriter, there are no guarantees you’ll be able to sustain a career as a screenwriter even if you do break in.
When it comes to getting paid as a professional screenwriter, things aren’t exactly simple and the six-figure pay deals of the 1990s can seem a very distant memory. The haphazard nature of a professional screenwriter’s salary, means most writers live from paycheck to paycheck, with a constant fear that they’ll have to pack it all in and get a job in insurance or teaching.
What differentiates them (and hopefully you) from all the aspiring writers who get despondent and give up, is that they held different beliefs and took different actionswhen they were learning how to become a screenwriter.
In short, it doesn’t matter how few people become successful screenwriters if you adopt the same beliefs as successful screenwriters and take the same actions, then becoming a screenwriter becomes much more probable. And this is what we’ll be taking a look at in this post.
Make The Decision and Commit to It
Stop introducing yourself as an “aspiring writer” at parties. Think and act like a writer and you’re a writer. While all this may sound simplistic, if you are to have any chance of making it a reality, it is super important that you actually make the decision to become a screenwriter.
Commit to the craft and things will start to happen. Take a post-it note and write a positive affirmation on it, something like “I am a screenwriter” or “I am going to sell this screenplay within one year.”
Stick it above your computer. Make sure it’s right there when you look up from your screen and start to believe it more and more each day. You can even set yourself adeadline of, say, one year, five years, or your 40th birthday, or whatever and commit to giving making it as a screenwriter your very best shot.
If nothing much has happened by the end of the time period, well, at least you can say you tried. At least you can look back when you’re older and not regret doing all you could to realize your dream.
This is the fundamental element that separates an aspiring screenwriter who turns professional from one who doesn’t. And all it requires is making one psychological mind-shift:
Make the decision to become a screenwriter.
It’s simple but super, super effective.
How to Become a Screenwriter Step #3: Draw Up a Writing Schedule and Stick to It
However, there’s no point in making the decision to become a writer if you don’t stick to the plan. And that plan means writing. It’s something of a cliche but the most important thing you should be doing if you want to become a screenwriter is write. And not just when the mood takes you, but every single day.
If you want to know how to become a screenwriter, you need to write each day for as many hours as possible, because there’re plenty of people out there doing just that who are getting the deals you could be getting.
How to Write Every Day
We all need a little motivation, though, from time to time and so here’s a tip from Jerry Seinfeld on how you can make writing every day a little easier:
♦ Go buy a calendar and a big fat sharpie.
♦ Put the calendar up somewhere conspicuous, like above your computer.
♦ Decide how long you want to write for every day: six hours, an hour, half an hour.
♦ Put a red cross through every day that you write for your committed time.
♦ Keep going every day without breaking the chain of crosses.
Even if on some days you only write for ten minutes, it all counts. You’ve written something. It’s much easier to commit to writing even for ten minutes than it is for an hour, and you’ll probably find that the ten minutes soon turns into twenty or sixty anyway.
Seinfeld’s trick is a surprisingly powerful tool to get you in the rhythm of writing every day. Stick to it and you’ll be putting yourself at a major advantage over the vast majority of aspiring screenwriters out there.
Set goals for yourself, minimum word or page counts to achieve every day and make sure you stick to them. The Seinfeld trick should help you with this. Take this step, and you’ve cracked one of the hardest parts of how to become a screenwriter.
We recommend a minimum of three hours writing a day, but it all boils down to how much you really want it. If, before they turned pro, writers like Terry Rossio (Pirates of the Caribbean) could get up at five am and write for three hours before going to work, what’s stopping you?
How to Become a Screenwriter Step #4: Master the Craft of Screenwriting
Some writers are great at creating characters, but not so good at coming up with interesting plots. Others find it easy to come up with page-turning plots but create characters who fall flat.
To succeed as a screenwriter, of course, you generally need to be great at everything:characters, plot, dialogue, description, theme, formatting and so on. And this is no mean feat. So what do you do?
Focus on Each Aspect of Screenwriting
The advice to write every day is all well and good, but if you’re just writing away alone without any real direction you may run into problems. There’s a strong chance you’ll end up just making the same mistakes over and over, and that’s why you need to add some structure to your writing routine.
We recommend tackling each of the main areas of screenwriting: concept, character, structure/plot, scenes, theme, dialogue, description and formatting and mastering each, one by one.
A good approach is to spend a period of time, say, a month, and blitz one aspect of screenwriting—doing exercises, reading up on it, writing scenes that focus on it, etc.—before moving on to the next.