Screenwriting Careers: The Biggest Tragedy of All

Why are some writers able to achieve careers while most aren’t?

After three decades of research into what separates those who are able to achieve creative success from those who aren’t, Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck believes the answer is rooted in a person’s mindset.

According to Dweck, those who believe they were born with all the talent they’re ever going to have approach life with a “fixed-mind set.” Those who believe their abilities can expand over time have a “growth-mind set.”

And it’s the people with a growth-mind set who go on to success.

“Society is obsessed with the idea of talent and genius and people who are ‘naturals’ with innate ability,” says Dweck, who is known for research crossing the boundaries of personal, social and developmental psychology.  “People who believe in the power of talent tend not to fulfill their potential because they’re so concerned with looking smart and not making mistakes. But people who believe that talent can be developed are the ones who really push, stretch, confront their own mistakes and learn from them.”

The fundamental weakness with the conventional approach to teaching screenwriting is that it is generally rooted in this fixed-mind set, focusing on product.   Students bring in their work and are told what’s working and what isn’t and given suggestions.  But if a writer doesn’t yet possess the required skills, this is an exercise in futility.  These writers won’t be able to go home and write at a professional level, and no amount of class notes or suggestions will change this.  These writers are being set up to fail.

I recently did a script coaching for someone I’ll call Joe.  Joe moved his family from the East Coast to L.A. to become a professional screenwriter.  He had written 11 scripts in eight years with no success.  He wrote his 12th script and hired me to give him feedback.  I found it to have an interesting premise and some good character work, but it didn’t contain professional-level conflict and so had no real chance to succeed.

I asked Joe if I could take a quick glance at his other scripts, and he sent them to me.  They all suffered from the same problem. Which means Joe had been basically wasting his time.  None of his scripts had the professional level of conflict required to engage readers and make them want to keep reading.

Simply Wasting Your Time

I often bring Michelle Tanner in to speak to my UCLA classes.  Michelle has nine years experience reading and analyzing scripts for the studios and major production companies.  Her main advice is always, “Do whatever you can to learn how to write in professional-level compelling conflict.  Because without that, you have no shot at making it. Without writing in compelling conflict, you are simply wasting your time.”

She is not alone.  In his memoir, Rewrites, Neil Simon talks about the years he poured his heart into writing plays that weren’t very good.  They kept getting rejected, and he didn’t know why.  He finally turned for help to his older brother, Danny, a successful TV writer, who taught him the key to success was learning how to write in compelling conflict.

This is a story you often hear from professional writers who talk about the years they spent writing script after script (or play after play) that simply weren’t good enough.  Scripts that were lacking something. And usually these writers had no idea what the hell was missing until someone came along, often an experienced, successful writer, who mentored them in how to write in compelling conflict.

But most writers tragically don’t train themselves how to write like this and end up writing script after script with very little to no success.  When they finally throw in the towel and quit, they do so with the conclusion that they just didn’t have enough talent when the truth is they never learned and developed the essential skills.

If they had, who knows what they could have achieved?

And every time a writer unnecessarily quits, we are all deprived of the amazing, powerful, original stories that only he or she could tell.  How many American Beautys, Hurt Lockers and Pulp Fictions are we not getting to experience because of this?

That is the greatest tragedy of all.

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7 thoughts on “Screenwriting Careers: The Biggest Tragedy of All

  1. ScifiAliens

    Professional level conflict and high stakes require extremes of action to save the day/girl/planet. New writers may fear not being able to come up with solutions that aren’t cliche. It’s an opportunity to stand out if one only has the nerve to ‘shoot the (fictional) hostage.’

  2. Christopher Phillips

    Compelling content is anything that elicits an emotional response that drives the reader to continue. Script or novel. Some emotional responses are rather easy like scaring people with fear of the dark or fear of monsters, which is why those things are so popular. However, Fx heavy movies can’t mask poor storytelling that doesn’t compel readers to continue to the end.

    At the end of the day, the reader has to feel for the characters and their situation, which could be emotional or physical on the page. If they are about to be eaten by a shark, that will make us squirm in our seats (Jaws). If they are on a path of revenge because someone did them wrong we’ll root for them (Hamlet).

    It’s much harder to drive an emotional response for subjects that are so personal that others can’t relate. In that case, the writer’s task is to find the universal themes that will still attract people. As an example, most people can’t relate to movies about Rugby players, but if it’s about their fight for survival after crashing in the Andes mountains then you’ll get a decent audience.

  3. donag

    I understand what the article is telling us (maybe a few examples will help). I want to do that. But, explain what is “compelling” content in a story that isn’t a “shoot ’em up,” at “death’s door explosion,” or hackneyed “good v. evil in a character driven plot?” As a viewer, I’m more than a little bit “bored” with all of that! IOW, if the story doesn’t have a “grabber” hook to start with, it’s boring.

    Today there is such an overdose of fx world crisis paranormal, sci-fi horror, cops v. killers, silly romantic comedy, life/death illness/political conflict, and now so called “reality” (which isn’t) that I despair to find a story produced on screen that actually portrays a human struggle that isn’t comparable to the “comic book super hero” will get a look by a producer and/or an actor! For example, the serious writing of Mark Twain, Tennessee Williams, Hemingway, et. al. that begins without a mystery exciting incident is “dead in the water.” What is wrong with a story that says something we ALL can relate to other than high school angst?

    Just sayin’…

  4. K. Rowe

    Excellent post! I keep the mind-set that writing is a journey of learning. Making mistakes is all part of it, and learning from those mistakes is the most valuable education you can have. I currently have 2 scripts completed. My sci-fi, Space Junk, is one I hope to see on the silver screen. I’ve taken classes, read books, and got coverage on it. When I received notes back, I read through it several times and went to work fixing the “holes” that were discovered. Now I’ve sent it out again for another review, hoping that this time I’ll get that coveted “recommend” attached to it. If not, I’ll keep working on it. All part of the learning process…

  5. David Kilmer

    Your stories about young Neil Simon and other struggling writers imply that every writer needs a mentor. Are you saying that professional writers should help out amateurs, especially if a pro helped them get on the right track?

    1. Corey MandellCorey Mandell Post author

      Hi David, might be an overstatement to say every writer absolutely needs a mentor or won’t make it. But it sure helps. And almost every working writer I know had a mentor (or mentors.)

      I certainly never would have had a career it if I didn’t one. Which is one the reasons I teach. I find it important to give back. Can’t say all successful writers feel the same way, but I know many who do.

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