Stories Without Borders: Why You Should Reconsider Screenwriting

Script consultant Julie Gray is a veteran story analyst of some of the biggest production companies in Hollywood. The author of Just Effing Entertain Me: A Screenwriter’s Atlas, Julie has taught story at Warner Bros. Studios, The Great American PitchFest and Oxford University. Contact Julie here.

fenceScreenwriting is one of the most challenging, fun, difficult and wonderful forms of writing. To write cinematically and kinetically and to imagine your story on the big screen is intoxicating.

But screenwriting can also limit your creative expression and fence your stories in.

I have worked with screenwriters for over a decade now and there is a pervasive belief that trying another form of writing is, in a way, a kind of defeat. I would like to combat this way of thinking because it’s not only misguided, it deprives the world of so many more stories that are waiting in the wings. Now more than ever, we need stories. 

There is a culture among aspiring screenwriters that their pursuit is a kind of one way ticket and that if they get off the ride, they have failed. And with that sense of failure comes an erosion of confidence and eventually any sense of joy or fun. How many competitions can you quarter final in before you begin to feel as if you are in a conga line from hell? When did screenwriting change from a new, exciting thing, to an obligation to brave it out against almost impossible odds?

Some aspiring screenwriters are even addicted to the pursuit, like a gambler who has been belly up to the craps table for hours, fingers grimy from reaching for more coins, too invested to walk away. Not yet. Maybe this agent. Maybe this script.

Here’s a few painful truth bombs:

  • Screenwriting has an exceedingly high barrier to entry.
  • Screenwriting has a very low level of validation and personal reward.
  • Screenwriting exercises a very highly developed, specific but narrow set of writing skills that can in fact atrophy your other writing muscles.

The chances that your story will ever actually appear on a big screen are in fact disappearingly small. I know you do not want to hear this. But it is, I am afraid, the truth.

Films are hugely costly to make and the ratio of available scripts to credible, experienced buyers is disproportionate on a level that is rather dismaying. In other words there are exponentially more aspiring screenwriters trying to “break in” to the business than there are dollars to actually reward them.

Welcome to the great sifting mechanism: agents, managers and who you know. The reality is that “breaking in” is on many levels, a minor miracle and moreover, no guarantee of any future success whatsoever.

As the writer of Universal’s highest grossing comedy once told me “Being a screenwriter in Hollywood is like being on an episode of Survivor – you can get voted off the island at any time.”  In Hollywood, you are only as good as your last failure.You read that right.

I am not saying you should give up your screenwriting dreams. I am suggesting that you expand your dreams and in doing so give the world what it so desperately wants – more stories!

In coming weeks, I will be traveling to a refugee camp in the Israeli desert to read a YA book aloud to Sudanese refugees on behalf of Amnesty International. The refugees have nothing. No hope, nothing to look forward to. Nothing to fill their days. They cannot go home to Sudan. They cannot easily become citizens in Israel. To hear a story – to be transported to another world – will be an indescribably wonderful experience for them.

When Amnesty came to me, I had to decide what book to bring with me. What would light these refugees up? What book would they look forward to hearing the next chapter next week? What would take them away from their terrible conditions if only for a couple of hours?

I decided to read Jim Morgan and the King of Thieves by former screenwriter James Raney. I story edited the book – and the two follow-up books as well, and I cannot describe how highly entertaining the books are. Pirates, sea monsters, magic, adventures – the Jim Morgan series is wildly entertaining.

These books would not be in existence, if James had not made the decision to move away from screenwriting and toward writing prose. It was not an easy decision for him. James wrote script after script but this story kept circling in his head, and it just didn’t want to be written in script form.

If Jim Morgan were written as a script, the chances of it being out in the world as a film would be close to nil and James knew it. The Pirates of the Caribbean juggernaut effectively put a damper on anything pirate related and Jim Morgan would be prohibitively expensive to produce. So James took a different route. And I, along with thousands of other readers, am so glad he did. And soon, some hopeless refugees in a desert will be taking a journey beyond the fences that enclose them as they are regaled with the incredible tales of Jim Morgan.

None of this would be possible if James had not ventured away from screenwriting. He found that he enjoys writing prose much more, that he gained more satisfaction because his stories are selling very well – so well that James just quit his day job to write full-time.

Do you have stories or poems or essays or a great travel book hiding behind your screenwriting dreams? Do you have stories to tell that are more easily and quickly told to eager readers than to movie goers?

You don’t have to quit screenwriting to try another form of writing. But I hope this article causes you to give some thought to what stories lie within you and what the best, most rewarding, satisfying and realistic way is to get them out into the world. Somewhere out there, somebody is waiting to hear what you have to say.

Maybe you can add blogging to your screenwriting. Perhaps you have a novel within you. What about short stories? Or poetry? Have you ever tried writing flash fiction? Here is a link to some stunning flash fiction written at the Tel Aviv Writer’s Salon.

There is a whole world of writing out there and there is so much pleasure you can take in trying out some of the other rides at the amusement park and in doing so, give so many readers a thrilling, entertaining experience.  It’s something to think about.

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One thought on “Stories Without Borders: Why You Should Reconsider Screenwriting

  1. kenray

    Seriously? You want to open a restaurant? Over 90% fail. Have you set out to become a ballet dancer — unbelievable odds. A screen writer — this may be the hardest of all the preforming arts. But writing pros or anything else is also a huge risk of your time and energy. I’ve written two novels and a children’s book and three screenplays. The latter is (for me) by far the most challenging and therefore the most rewarding. Writing is the easy part. Breaking in is where the work begins for the arts or any kind of industry.
    I submit that it is not the success that drives most of us who set out on these courses, but it’s the challenge. Of course, one has to be practical and do whatever it takes to pay the bills, but not everyone on this planet is cut out to be a worker bee. Follow your passion and do not follow a one dimensional blog post.

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