Meet the Reader: What Makes a Good Screenwriter?

I was talking with a writer friend lately about what qualities a person needed to have in order to be a good screenwriter and this is what we came up with:

1. You have to love movies: You’d think that would be a given, but it never fails to amaze me how many people that aspire to write screenplays are quite comfortable saying that they never go to the movies or that they only like old movies or that they won’t watch anything made before 1950 or 1960 or 1970 or that they hate studio movies and will only watch foreign films or that they hate reading subtitles and that they only want to see the latest mainstream special-effects extravaganzas. Likewise, I’m always stunned when I meet budding screenwriters that don’t know the history of the movies or have never seen the great classics of yesteryear and of today. Quite simply, I don’t see how — if you’re not in love with cinema and its amazingly plastic ability to tell every type of story in every type of genre in every type of way and aren’t tickled pink by the notion that the same medium that can give you Citizen Kane, The Rules of the Game, and The Red Shoes can also give you Animal House, Pirates of the Caribbean, and I Spit on Your Grave; if you don’t understand the history of the medium and the industry and the craft; if you don’t know and appreciate its masterworks — you can ever write for it effectively. It would be like saying that you want to be a painter, but you don’t understand color, you hate Picasso, and you don’t like getting your hands dirty.

2. You need to have a nose for a good (movie) story: As mentioned above, the cool thing about cinema is that it can be used to tackle just about any type of subject matter, but to work as a movie, a tale must be interesting enough to hold an audience’s attention for two or three hours, contain a suitable amount of action (and by that I mean behavior and incident and visceral conflict, not just car chases — although car chases are cool too) and be able to be told in ways that are kinetic and visual. People that can recognize tales that have these qualities (and maybe, just as importantly, also recognize those that don’t) have a good chance of succeeding as screenwriters. Those that don’t should probably stick to writing novels or plays or e-mails.

3. You have to know how to write: By that I mean you have to know the basic rules and concepts of dramatic writing — things such as acts and conflict and inciting incidents and plot twists and reversals and climaxes and resolutions. You need to understand the purpose of each of these things, why they have been codified in the way they have, and know how you can bend or twist or even break these codes without compromising the dramatic integrity of your piece. In other words, all you rebels and iconoclasts and innovators out there — you’ve gotta know the rules, especially if you want to break ‘em.

4. You have to understand that you are writing for a mass audience: Movies are meant to be shown to large numbers of people all at the same time in a collective viewing experience — even the most obscure art film is meant to be screened for an auditorium full of people. This means that when you write, you have to do so in such a way that your material is understandable to the people that you want to come to see your film. This does not mean you have to talk down to your audience or dumb down the material or anything like that — you simply have to remember that when you are writing a movie, you are not writing just for yourself or for your immediate circle, but for large numbers of people that are eager to experience your ideas. It’s up to you to make sure that those ideas are clearly communicated and, if the film fails to connect, to never take refuge in “they just didn’t get it.” As a screenwriter, it’s your job to make sure they get it.

5. You have to be willing to rewrite, rewrite, rewrite: It is always said that “writing is rewriting” and this really is true. In most cases (Mozart may have been the exception), the first draft of anything is really only good for getting your ideas down on paper and because of this most first drafts are sloppy and unfocused and unwieldy. It’s simply the nature of the beast. If you want your material to work, you need to shape it and edit it and refine it until it is razor sharp and communicating everything you want in exactly the way you want exactly when you want it to. Despite this, there are many, many aspiring writers out there that are unwilling to make any sort of serious revision to their work and, as a result, there are an awful lot of scripts floating around that contain some excellent ideas that are buried under tons of excess and dross. If you want to be a serious writer, you need to be ruthless with your work — to hone the rough edges and throw out things that aren’t working, no matter how much you love them. You need to seek out constructive criticism, listen seriously to it, and then figure out what to do about it. You need to be willing to do whatever it takes to make your material the best that it can be. If you’re not, then why even bother in the first place?

And finally …

6. You have to love movies: In the end, it really all comes back to that, now, doesn’t it?

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