I heard three comments recently – all from writers of scripts that I had analyzed – that absolutely floored me.
One was from the author of a script that was set in a specific industry, one that I happen to be very familiar with and one that the writer clearly didn’t know at all. He got most of the details of this world wrong — not just inconsequential background items, but also primary, bedrock elements. As a result, the writer had constructed a plot that turned on events that simply could not occur in this particular industry. When I told the writer this, his reply was, “How important is accuracy, anyway?”
The next was from a writer of the second draft of a script whose first draft I had reviewed not long before. I thought the initial version had a solid and interesting premise, but that the development and execution were sorely lacking. I provided the author with approximately ten pages of fairly extensive notes on how to better develop and enhance the script to make the most of its considerable potential. To my mind, it should have taken several months of diligent work to properly address all of these items, but the writer had the script back to me in just under two weeks. From what I could gather, she had done a cursory pass to perfunctorily address some of the more glaring problems and ignored the rest. As a result, my response was pretty much the same as it was the first time around – I told her that I thought her idea had a lot of potential, but that it was going to need considerable rewriting before it would be ready to be submitted to the marketplace. At this, she made a disgusted, clicking noise and then demanded to know, “How many times are you going to make me rewrite this thing?”
The third comment came from a writer that asked me to assess his script, which he warned me probably wasn’t too good, but warned me not to give him too many notes because if I did, he wouldn’t address them because “it was too hard.”
I found these comments to be deeply perplexing. It wasn’t hard to understand these writers’ attitudes – all three of them seemed to think that screenwriting should be simple and effortless, something that could be tossed off in a few short weeks and that didn’t need to be worked at with any degree of commitment or seriousness. What I couldn’t understand is where these attitudes came from — where did these people get the idea that screenwriting should be easy?
I think it comes in part from the ever-expanding screenwriting support industry – from the gurus that promise to teach you the “secrets” of writing a smash hit script in “only” three weeks or ten days or eleven-and-a-half nanoseconds or whatever. It may also come from those screenwriting programs that ask you to input a few characters and plot ideas and then spit out a preformatted, prefab story for you, making it seem as if quality screenwriting is no more complicated than whipping up a batch of instant oatmeal (a word to the wise — every script that I have ever read that was generated by such programs has been absolutely dreadful). The idea that screenwriting is easy might also spring from the great spec boom of the 1990s, a period when a lot of high-concept but low-quality scripts sold for many millions of dollars, making it seem that all you had to do was throw together a bunch of half-baked pages around a moderately cool concept and then sit back and wait for the bucks to roll in. Finally, I suspect that it comes in part from anxiety – from that fear all writers have that we are desperately untalented and that nothing we do is ever any good. If you can talk yourself into the notion that screenwriting is easy, then you can get it over with quickly and not have to face the months and months of agonizing self-doubt that true, good writing involves.
I implore you not to fall victim to these attitudes. I know that we all have doubts about our talents and abilities (although if it’s any consolation, all of the really great writers I know struggle with the same worries. Only the terrible ones seem to be completely confident), but if you are serious about being a writer, then you must accept that fact that there are no shortcuts, no “secrets,” no easy steps, and no quick ways around. Writing is a craft and an art — it requires deep personal investment and lots and lots (and lots) of hard work. No one is interested in half-baked ideas or sloppy execution and real writers shouldn’t be either. Write because you have a story that you are passionate to tell, not just to make money (most successful scripts – even those built on highly commercial concepts – sell because their writers care deeply about them and execute them with great energy, excitement, and style). If you conceive an idea that you feel is good enough to be turned into a screenplay (and eventually a movie), then you should look forward to spending not days or weeks, but months (and maybe even years) researching it, plotting it out, and then working as intensely as you possibly can over drafts and drafts and drafts to develop and hone your script to make it the best it can possibly be.
Doing so will not guarantee you a sale (because nothing will – that is up to fate and whim and chance as much as it is to good writing), but it will assure you of having a thoroughly satisfying creative experience. That’s the only part that’s solely up to you and the one that you should revel in.