Breaking In: Are Screenwriters “Born This Way”?

I’ve evaluated thousands of scripts for writers, film producers, and contests over the years.  Occasionally, after reading a screenplay, I say to myself, “Now, there’s a born screenwriter.”  The writer may be a little “green.” He might make some rookie mistakes, such as not knowing how to show the passage of time. He might make some minor errors of format. But he “gets it,” and I know if he continues to work on and improve his script, and market it intelligently, the screenplay is going to get him attention in the industry. More important, the writer is going to succeed — whether it’s with this script, or with others.

Are good screenwriters “made” — the result of reading successful scripts, taking writing classes, and devouring screenwriting “how to” books or articles?  Or, as Lady Gaga might say, are they “born this way”?

The answer is: both. Some writers have to struggle to learn how to write for film, they are not “naturals” at this, but they make it on sheer determination and hard work. Others start with a distinct advantage.  They have an instinctive understanding of visual dramatic storytelling. They have an uncanny instinct for the terse, visual, and punchy style of writing needed in any script. They are born understanding dramatic conflict and structure and how to give characters depth and nuance to create roles stars will want to play.

Make no mistake: hard work is the secret of becoming a great writer, and successful gifted people work at least as hard as anyone else — probably much harder. In fact, I have come to believe the definition of “talent” is:  an unusually high capacity for learning, focus, and hard work, and being able to envision perfection, strive for it, and know you will never achieve it — but being willing to die trying. By way of example, the great dancer Fred Astaire — who was certainly naturally gifted — worked harder at rehearsing than anybody, even when he was long past his physical prime.

But the fact that anyone who wants to make it in any field of the arts has to study and work very hard, doesn’t mean that people who have inherent gifts don’t start out with a “leg up” on others if — and only if — they put in the time and effort. A non-gifted writer may, with hard work, have a viable career. But he might also have a “ceiling” to how good his work can ultimately become. For a gifted writer who works just as hard, the sky’s the limit. It is not difficult for someone who does what I do for a living to spot this kind of talent, even, sometimes, in a first draft of a first script. When I see it, I make sure the writer knows this and give him (or her) every possible encouragement.

When it comes to being a screenwriter, you can’t change whether you were “born this way” or not. If you weren’t, this doesn’t mean you can’t learn how to write and are doomed to failure. I can tell you the characteristics I’ve observed in screenwriters who are “born this way,” and you can learn from them, even if you weren’t.

TEN QUALITIES OF SCREENWRITERS WHO ARE “BORN THIS WAY”:

1)   They have tremendous focus and self-discipline and absorb information like a sponge. They have a great capacity for learning from what others do, say, or write, and assimilating that information so that they can apply it to their own work in a unique way.

2)   Their only goal is to make their work better. They are not completely “crushed” by rejections and criticism, but instead learn from them and rewrite. They have insecurities, but are not destroyed by them. They are total perfectionists, but not to the point of emotional paralysis. They do a great job rewriting their scripts based on “notes” and suggestions they get from others, and know good (and bad) advice when they hear it. Their scripts come out pretty much “pared to the bone” —  even on the first draft — because they planned them so well before beginning to write.  Their storytelling is efficient.

3)   Their action lines have a crisp, succinct, pithy, and vivid, visually evocative quality to themThere’s a very clear, distinctive, and efficient style or “voice” in the way they write. It is their natural voice; it is not faked. It’s neither too “cute” nor too “dry.” If they are not funny, they don’t try to be funny. The script is “a great read.”

4)   It’s clear they did their research, but they didn’t get bogged-down in it or stick slavishly to historical fact. 

5)   Every aspect of what they write shows their diligence. Nothing about their work is lazy or sloppy. They have bothered to learn the correct way to do things. A writer who has taken the time to do research, plan his story before writing it, make sure his script is in the correct format, has the right number of brads, and has very few, if any, typos, is more likely to have applied the same diligence to learning his craft as a screenwriter.

6)   They love movies and know the history of movies. They have studied them and learned their lessons. They know their genre.

7)   They know what a conflict is, and they know what a story is. The basic concept for their story works, and it is very, very simple.

8)   Their style is unique. Their characters are unique. They don’t try to write “unique plots” (which don’t exist anyway) but rather are unique in the way they execute their stories and characters.

9)    Their primary goal is to write the story they are passionate about because it would make a good movie, rather than just because it is their personal “issue” or “message,” or because they were thinking, “How can I make a million dollars in a hurry?”  They write from the heart, with insight into human nature, and an honest vision of what they know about life. 

10)   They know how real people tend to react and behave in real situations and apply this to their characters. They know what’s credible and realistic when creating their plot and what audiences will believe. They anticipate the questions the audience will be asking, and answer them in the story. They know how audiences will feel and respond emotionally to what they’re seeing at any given moment in the movie and which characters they will be rooting for, and they are in command of creating, manipulating, and controlling that reaction in ways that don’t seem contrived.

Keep in mind I know some very gifted screenwriters who don’t make it because they lack the other qualities successful writers need:  persistence, a collaborative attitude (charm and being open to suggestions certainly helps) but not being wishy-washy, a reasonable degree of emotional stability, a willingness to learn how to market their work, a combination of core self-confidence and manageable insecurities, and a strong work ethic with the ability to follow through on and meet responsibilities and deadlines.

Keep pitching.  See you next month.

7 thoughts on “Breaking In: Are Screenwriters “Born This Way”?

  1. saidu.

    Great article.I think I’m in such cartigory…just kidding.But I’m working harder any way.
    By the way this is for Alex Wangechi from Kenya.How long have you been writing?I’m an african like you from Sierra Leone but live in Paris.I’ve writen assignment for producers and one of my script about the Rwanda genocide is currently on read by a french director.I want to know a bit about you.

  2. Brandon Hawes

    I really appreciate your articles. You consistently provide hope that success can be achieved, balanced with a good dose of just how much work it will take to make it happen. Thank you.

  3. Alex Wangechi

    Thank you a whole lot for your article.You may not know it,but you definitely are helping a lot of people still trying to break into the screenplay industry.Greetings from KENYA,the land of sour milk,soulful sunsets and of course the maasai people.

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