BALLS OF STEEL: How to Write a Screenplay That Sells Itself

Read Jeanne’s Top 12 Screenwriting Tips

Jeanne Veillette Bowerman is the Editor of Script Magazine, on Stephanie Palmer’s list of “Top 10 Most Influential Screenwriting Bloggers,” and co-founder of Twitter’s #Scriptchat. Her narrative adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Slavery by Another Name, was selected for the Tracking Board’s Top 25 Launch Pad Competition. Follow Jeanne on Twitter @jeannevb

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If in the years that I’ve been writing Balls of Steel you only listen to one thing I’ve shared about how to write a screenplay or how to stay sane as a screenwriter, this should be it. Ready?

Whether you get a script optioned by a major production company or not all depends on how high concept of an idea you have.

Here’s the second part of that tip…

If your concept is amazing, and I mean jaw-dropping, why-didn’t-I-think-of-that amazing, it’ll sell even if you write like an amateur.

That is how important concept is when you’re trying to sell a screenplay.

I can hear some of you squawking, “But she said I should never submit my scripts until they’re close to flawless! How can amateurish writing sell?”

Breathe. I shall explain how to write a screenplay that sells itself.

Of course, the goal is always to have an incredible high-concept idea matched with flawless execution. That is a steadfast goal every writer should have, but those types of scripts are few and far between.

Believe me, all Hollywood execs would love to see more high-quality writers come across their desks, but the following examples are more likely what they’ll find:

  1. You have a great concept but you can’t write for shit.
  1. You have a mediocre concept but you write like Aaron Sorkin.
  1. You have a blow-your-mind concept, have a fair command of structure and formatting, but your dialogue is on-the-nose and a rewrite is definitely in order.

Which one of those do you think will sell?

If you said Number 3… winner winner chicken dinner!

Before I go on, most writers think their ideas are high concept already, but trust me, 99% of them are not. Being able to identify what a killer concept is takes experience. If you’re just learning how to write a screenplay, look at the top box-office hits, and the loglines on The Black List or The Hit List. Read, read, read and watch great movies.

Back to the tips…

Let’s start with the first part of the tip. If you are a top-notch writer, you constantly have story ideas floating around your head. You scribble them on napkins, scraps of paper, or your mobile device until one of them screams, “Write me, write me!”

But before you let that new shiny idea distract you from the others, make sure it’s the highest concept idea in the bunch. Stop wasting your time, sometimes years, working on scripts that don’t make people ecstatic when they hear the logline.

The hook is what is going to get you reads.

When I was recently in an online forum, I noticed a discussion taking place with feedback on the top specs floating around town. They didn’t start reading the scripts in the order of their listing; they started reading the ones whose logline grabbed them by the throat. Those, they knew they had a shot at selling.

Lesson #1: Hook them and they will be excited to read.

Since said scripts were on the magical Hollywood lists, even if it didn’t grab them in the first few pages, they kept reading because they were vetted in some way.

Lesson #2: Sure vetting helps, and it’s obviously better to be a “fast read,” but even if you only have somewhat of a command of how to write a screenplay, if the concept is good enough, they’ll keep reading.

And that is what you need for a sale. Excite the reader about your story. They can fix mistakes later, like dialogue. They’re looking for a storyteller, not just a screenwriter. Why? Because if that sparkly concept will get them a sale, that’s a commission in their pocket, this is a business after all. Sure there are managers and agents who will hold your hand and sing Kumbaya, but ultimately, no one is in this just for love. Everyone needs to eat.

how to write a screenplay

Am I saying you don’t have to worry about your craft?

Absolutely not! You do have to be a great writer if you want a career, but selling one script does not make a career.

That is the downside of focusing solely on the concept and not on the writing. You need to do both if you want to last a long time in Hollywood.

Having a high-concept script that sells will get you a manager and/or agent because it’s easy money for them. But what will most likely happen is you’ll get fired after your first attempt at a rewrite, and the studio will bring in the big guns who have mastered how to write a screenplay and let them take it across the finish line.

Don’t fret. That’s still a good deal. You’ll most likely get “story by” credit, you’ll have representation, and that representation knows you are an idea person. Having a great idea is more than half the battle. So before you write your next script, sit your ass in the chair and come up with as many ideas as possible, run them past your reps (or people you trust), and then knock out a first draft that they can give you notes on.

If you’re lucky, your manager will want to mold you into a career writer. If not, you can still keep selling your ideas.

Not the kind of career you envision?

Then work your ass off on your craft. Show those reps you aren’t just an idea person. You are a writer. Listen to notes. Improve. Work harder than you did to get in the door in the first place. Show them you are no one-hit wonder. Double-dog dare yourself to execute the idea flawlessly.

Then, you will be a career writer, not only selling more scripts, but you’ll also be hired to rewrite the newbie writers who haven’t learned that lesson yet.

But you’ll still get fired on projects. That’s just how Hollywood works. There’s no shame in that. Your first step is to get through the velvet ropes. Once you do that, the real work begins… staying there.

Oh wait… there’s more.

There actually is another scenario of writer, and that’s me. The girl with the high-concept idea, a narrative adaptation of a Pulitzer Prize-winning book, and written well enough to recently be chosen as Top 25 in Tracking Board’s Launch Pad. But despite the pedigree and six years of writing and rewriting, I can’t get it sold to save my life.

The other day, Slavery by Another Name (SBAN) received this review from The Black List:

As horrible and terrible and cruel and hard to read as this [subject matter] is, it is such a compelling and enthralling story. There’s so much excitement and intrigue and a dire need to know the outcome. The script does a fantastic job of building up suspense, and really creating an environment of fear and frustration that can be felt strongly throughout… This is a great story that needs to be told.”

But… it’s a black film. Not to mention I’m a white girl who wrote a black film. Yeah, that’s a whole other Balls of Steel article. I never did like taking the easy way.

So what does a writer like me do? Write some more high-concept scripts that are more marketable. I won’t give up on SBAN, but it might take another 10 years to find a ballsy enough producer who will make it. I’m the first person to admit I’m frustrated as hell, and if one more executive says to me, “This has to get made!” and then wusses out, well, I’m a Sicilian black belt, so I won’t finish that thought, but I will tell you, I don’t quit. I also look at it as the cup being half full – I have an amazing writing sample that has opened a ton of doors and made execs from the Tracking Board and in my own network say, “Send me your next script.” That’s invaluable.

When you know you have that idea that has to see the screen, you just keep at it until you find the right champion. They’re out there. It just might have to be put aside for a while.

But I will tell you what I learned from this experience. While I was doing endless page-1 rewrites of SBAN, crying and bleeding on the pages, I should have written other high-concept scripts to follow it up sooner. Oh, I’m writing my ass off now with my writing partner, Unknown Screenwriter, and it’s the kind of hook that when anyone hears it, they want to be the first on our list of sends. We went through dozens of ideas before this one shot to the top. Here’s the funny thing – it’s a horror script. I went from an historical exposé of slavery post Civil War to writing a horror franchise. Hey, we can write anything, but why not write something that can sell. That’s what being a writer is, and our job is to prove we’re capable of being career writers.

The key to longevity in this industry is celebrating and enjoying the journey, not just the destination. If you can’t see the blessings and silver linings in the baby steps, you’ll drive yourself mad. But why make breaking in harder than it has to be by spending years working on scripts that don’t have a chance in hell of selling because they are lackluster in concept? Only spend years on the kind of script that will open doors for you, even if just as a stellar writing sample.

Now go make a list of ideas and keep hacking at them until you find that one that makes your heart pound and execs say, “I want to read that!”

Then, and only then, do you sit down to write. Believe me, you’ll save yourself years of wasted time just by writing the right script, not just a script.

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22 thoughts on “BALLS OF STEEL: How to Write a Screenplay That Sells Itself

  1. JAG Writer

    The most common problem is some aspiring screenwriters are unwilling to accept criticism. Furthermore, these screenwriters refuse to make any changes within their scripts.

    I’ve talked to a few producers that shared scenarios where a screenplay could have been optioned if the writer welcomed a few tweaks. These writers refused to entertain this constructive criticism.

    Give any passionate writer an opportunity to sell their screenplay and they will do whatever is required to make this happen. We shouldn’t get so attached to our scripts that we refuse to make revisions/adjustments.

    Your tips are great! Well written guide to write high concept scripts. I agree with number #3 as well.

  2. Leona Heraty

    Thanks for another wonderful article Jeanne!

    I think this is one of the most valuable and important of your articles I’ve read so far, and they’re all great! Thanks also for the link to the brainstorming ideas/mind mapping info and the Tracking Board too, which I’ve never heard of before. Keep on keeping on! Take care! 🙂

    Leona Heraty

    1. Jeanne Veillette BowermanJeanne Veillette Bowerman Post author

      Thanks, Leona. There are so many things to learn about the craft and business of screenwriting that sometimes the most obvious lessons aren’t realized early on. I now won’t write anything as a script unless it’s high concept enough. And yes, Tracking Board has been a great experience. I highly recommend it!

  3. Patrick Mahon

    Congrats on the great Black List review, Jeanne. And kudos for sticking to SBAN through thick and thin. This film will be made. Of that there’s no doubt in my mind.

    Also, I agree that concept is paramount. With one exception…

    In order to get noticed you often need to write something personal / ‘only you would write’ / that showcases a unique voice. It doesn’t necessarily have to be commercial or high concept. In fact, sometimes your script will stand out more if it’s not. (After all, this is what a lot of the scripts on the Black List are there for- they didn’t sell but their voice stood out). However, once you are noticed you will often have to tailor your voice to a much more high concept commercial idea in order to actually get across, and stay across, those velvet ropes. Oh the irony…

    I would also suggest one more step. When you spend the time coming up with all those great high concept ideas, and finally settle on the one that makes your heart beat fast with excitement, the one you have never ever seen before, that you know will blow people’s socks off — stop. Don’t start writing. Instead, spend the next few days researching the absolute s**t out of that concept as regards the market place.

    There is very likely to be a similar project to yours out there, either sold, in development or about to be released. It is staggering how often people come up with the same ‘original’ concepts completely independently. Call it synchronicity, call it the zeitgeist, call it collective unconscious. We don’t come up with our ideas in a vacuum. And often have the exact same influences as others, hence similar ideas.

    This has happened numerous times to me and it can be heartbreaking if you don’t know where you stand before you get waist deep into your draft. It’s enough to drive you to drink, throwing in the towel and to insanity. And not necessarily in that order.

    However, if you become aware of similar projects BEFORE WRITING YOURS then you can go deeper into your embryonic concept and tweak it to make it more unique, more personal and, hopefully, stand out in a increasingly saturated marketplace. This is hard to do. But if you don’t do it, you run the risk of hearing: “That sounds just like X” months down the line as an off the cuff dismissal as to why no-one is even willing to consider reading your draft.

    Don’t lose heart. Keep the faith. Dig deeper. You have to make your version: yours. The gold is buried deep within yourself. Not floating out there in the aether. Which leads me back to voice + concept. You need a great concept. But you also need to OWN that concept with your unique take. It’s a tightrope to walk at times. But that’s the calling.

    As an aside, a great example of not giving up on your high concept when you encounter something similar is Vince Gillian’s story of not knowing about WEEDS when he was brainstorming BREAKING BAD (see link below). He said if he had known it would have aborted his own embryonic concept because of the similarities.

    Although similar in essence (a middle class suburban parent resorts to selling illegal drugs) the choice of which drug makes all the difference. Weed = light tone. Meth = dark tone. So it really comes down to specificity, I think. Specificity of voice + concept.

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/17/vince-gilligan-breaking-bad_n_1679038.html

    Wishing you and Unk all the best in your new spec! Patrick 😀

  4. Persistent Poet

    Hello Jeanne,
    Unfortunately, I must put you in the Winner Winner Chicken Dinner category and not a unique one. To begin, I don’t think your logline is as interesting as it could be. With respect to your synopsis, I don’t believe that you are committed to Jon Davis as the hero. This is a screenplay now.
    Here is a suggested rewrite for the logline:
    Forty years after Lincoln emancipated the slaves, a black farmer is arrested on false charges and leased to a barbaric plantation owner. With the help of the first U.S. Deputy Marshal of color, this slave by another name, must win over the justice system to gain his freedom and hold his master to account.
    On a final note, don’t let “The Mag” keep me down. Please post my comment.

    1. Jeanne Veillette BowermanJeanne Veillette Bowerman Post author

      Thanks for your input. When I was talking about “winner winner chicken dinner” it was about the writing of the actual script not being stellar, not a logline one might feel needs tweaking. A logline doesn’t make a writer’s career or sell a script. The point of this article was to tell writers to pursue high-concept ideas.

      1. Persistent Poet

        Thanks for your response. Sometimes, my comments just seem to get “lost”.

        But, uhh…, did you read that other article this week?

        “The logline is an art form all its own. It’s a one sentence poem, an ode to your script and the film it could become. It must be concise yet thorough, imaginative yet simple, commercial yet unique. So what’s the trick? What’s the formula for writing a logline that accurately and compellingly conveys the essence of your script?”

        Anyway, here is my second and last take on your logline.

        Two score after Lincoln emancipated the slaves, a recently widowed black farmer is convicted on frivolous charges and leased out to a cruel plantation owner. With the help of the first U.S. Deputy Marshal of color, this slave by another name must covertly win over the justice system he despises to regain his freedom.

        Also, this isn’t a documentary, right? It’s not about slavery in general but one man in virtual slavery that represents it? If so, I would change the title to “Slave By Another Name”.

        And, if I am not obnoxious enough, I would suggested a tagline of “Chained Again”.

        Hopefully, I haven’t deflated your Balls of Steel. I understand that some folks like their balls that way though. Go Seahawks!

        1. Jeanne Veillette BowermanJeanne Veillette Bowerman Post author

          Again, thanks for your thoughts. It is not about one man. It is about the entire African American community post-Civil War and the laws that were created for the economic gain of the South. Those laws made it a crime for a black man to speak too loudly to a white woman or not being able to prove he held a job. The new laws created during Reconstruction gave opportunities for local sheriffs to arrest blacks, charge them with the cost of their arrests (which they had no means to pay), toss them in jail and then lease them to plantations, coal mines, steel mills, etc. Hence, ‘slavery by another name.’ Also, the script is an adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book of the same name. The title of the script is the title of the book and is based on the true stories of that era. A logline isn’t going to sell it. A ballsy executive who isn’t afraid of the subject matter will.

          1. Jeanne Veillette BowermanJeanne Veillette Bowerman Post author

            I’m confident in my work on SBAN and my knowledge of how to market my script. Please don’t confuse the sharing of my experiences with whining. I am merely informing other writers of the struggles they may have if they choose to take on a subject matter that Hollywood isn’t comfortable with. I have nothing more to add to this conversation. Again, thank you for your comments.

          2. Unknown ScreenwriterUnkScreenwriter

            Wow… Persistent Poet, you’re a bit of a whiner yourself, aren’t you? It seems to me that you’re the one WHINING about material that isn’t even yours. LOL.

            Unk

          3. demneptune

            This persistent poet might go on a bit, but he may be right about the title. When I read it, I just assumed it was a documentary, and moreover, about modern “wage slavery”. Yours sounds very close to actual slavery, so the “by another name” bit doesn’t really resonate much. It sounds like a movie with an ensemble cast, or a doco, or something similar. It’s like Django Unchained: is this about one person, or slavery? Actually both. But the title conveys the essence of the plot/drama, which is about Django, and the unchained bit also hints at the slavery aspect. But it’s a protagonist-driven film. If yours is the same, you might lose people with the title. So I’m late to the party, in 2016, hope it wasn’t wasted time writing this.

        2. Unknown ScreenwriterUnkScreenwriter

          LOL. Round two at tweaking the logline? Cool. Let’s DO THIS.

          “Two score?” You’re going to lose a lot of interest right off that bat using that phrase. Recently widowed black farmer is a little better than simply “black farmer” but again, it doesn’t give us MUCH about the CHARACTER and EMOTION of the MAN in this story. Jon Davis was lied to by the system. He thought he was FREE. Sure, his wife dies but that’s not really his wound… His fatal flaw. He sees now that the system is a fraud yet it’s the very same system he’s got to work with in order to not only free himself but keep slavery by another name from happening to free black people all over the south. “Recently widowed black farmer” doesn’t get that done in my humble opinion.

          Additionally… The script is adapted from the Pulitzer Prize winning book of the same name. With a script like this, you want as much traction as you can GET because a period piece can be a hard sell no matter where it comes from. So, of course, you do NOT want to change the title… You want to KEEP the title so that people in the industry realize where this material originates from. Knowing that it’s adapted from a Pulitzer Prize winning book, HELPS elevate the material just a bit more to help secure reads and attention from those in the industry.

          “Chained again?” Meh.

          Unk

    2. Unknown ScreenwriterUnkScreenwriter

      First of all, the character was not the first U.S. Deputy Marshal of color but that’s okay… Persistent Poet doesn’t know that. No offense, but I don’t think “black farmer” gives us ENOUGH about this character when it comes to the logline… Hence, the reason Jeanne described Jon Davis as a disillusioned black man. On top of that, the plantation owner isn’t his MASTER as were his father and grandfather before him when slavery was technically legal.

      The entire POINT of this story is the fact that slavery has now been made to be illegal but the southern states at that time weren’t willing to do the work themselves and needed a way to put the black man back to work at no cost to them hence, slavery by another name.

      I think the logline works…

      But aside from all that? This article wasn’t about SBAN’s logline… It’s about CONCEPT and concept being the secret ingredient of what it takes to sell a screenplay.

      I think it presumptuous at best to tweak someone’s logline when they haven’t even read the script.

      But that’s just me.

      Unk

      1. Persistent Poet

        Some good jabs UnkScreenwriter. And I will take that whiner comment if I can have a little Oka to go with it. Maybe my points were not on the nose enough. (Looks like I am still on track to be 12 Years a Hack.)
        I didn’t used to think that Hollywood was about the script but rather paying your dues on the screenwriter’s sofa. But I learned to face it and not f—
        What?
        Slow down!
        You know I can’t understand you when you rattle off like that.
        Okay. You’re right Marshawn.
        It’s time to grab some Skittles and square out.

        1. Unknown ScreenwriterUnkScreenwriter

          Have as much Oka as you need… But yes, your points were completely on-the-nose enough.

          It’s good to set goals however… i.e., “still on track to be 12 Years a Hack.”

          Screenwriter’s sofa? I have absolutely NO EXPERIENCE in that area. Maybe that’s something you should blog about.

          12 Years a Hack sounds like an OUTSTANDING title for a blog. According to GoDaddy?

          12yearsahack.com YESSSSS! YOUR DOMAIN IS AVAILABLE. BUY IT BEFORE SOMEONE ELSE DOES.

          Marshawn? LOL.

          Let me know when you LAUNCH.

          Unk

          1. Persistent Poet

            I heard that typing in capital letters is like screaming. It’s a good thing that I learned about anger at an early age from a screenwriter.
            https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nfgFF1js_Z4&index=10&list=PL48EB727B362000EA
            I’m afraid that I will be disappointing you Unk. No blog here. Rather, I will just keep plugging away at my script. But, I tell you what. Perhaps, I will get that bad boy done one day and send it in to a consultant. And maybe, because I hit the honor roll back at Hick High, I will freak when I just get a pass. Wait. Pass is fail in Hollywood. Well anyway, if I start spouting off on social media about how I deserve a better grade and attacking the consultant, you call me on that. Because I don’t think people want to listen to that and I don’t want to become that person. Besides, who wants to end up on a blacklist? Oh duh, that’s kind of a good thing in Hollywood.
            But anyway, I need to start making some crabby snacks for the big game. Hmmm. I bet Uncle Fran is cheering for the Seahawks.

  5. AmyWW

    Excellent as always. I really appreciate your sharing your learning process for us. I spent too long on a script that I was never able to clearly articulate conceptually (it’s about…a girl… who wants a car?) But I wrote. And I learned. And I created a couple of characters that I really like that may show up somewhere else.

    I also realized, months into, that I was writing a movie I probably wouldn’t pay to see. Hmm.

    Would you, one day, write about being a white girl and writing a ‘black’ movie? I am struggling with that issue, too. I would love to write more POC characters but it seems the older I get, the more non-white friends I have, the more I learn, the *less* qualified I feel to write from that POV. I know I will be missing important nuances of life if I do. What is the answer, then, for a white writer who would love to see more diversity (oh please) in films?

    1. Jeanne Veillette BowermanJeanne Veillette Bowerman Post author

      Amy, I think we all start out by spending too much time on a script. Learning from our writing process is what takes us to the next level, so don’t beat yourself up about it. Just keep growing and striving for better. That’s how I stay in the game without going insane.

      As for writing an article about being a white girl writing a black film, I’ll definitely do that. You make an excellent, and important, point about how white writers need to step outside our comfort zones to help bring more diversity to the screen. That’s part of why writing SBAN was so important to me. I did enlist a few of my African American friends who are screenwriters to give me feedback. Respecting their perspective was and is very important to me. If we all work together, I’m confident we can find a way to rise above the challenges and succeed at writing more than just the same-old-same-old white films. I know that’s what I’d like to achieve in my career, and certainly what I’d like to see in the theaters.

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