Karol Griffiths is a Development and Literary Consultant, a Script Editor and the Author of THE ART OF SCRIPT EDITING. She is also a writing coach, with many years of professional experience. For more information please visit: www.karolgriffiths.com. Follow Karol on Twitter: @KarolGriffs
I am often asked WHAT THE SECRET IS TO A SUCCESSFUL SCREENWRITING CAREER? And the answer to that is – there is no secret. It takes hard work, determination, focus and passion. Successful screenwriters are extremely disciplined people. They face the blank page daily and strive to produce a consistent quality and quantity of work. However, there are routines and attitudes that the many successful screenwriters seem to have in common – and I believe that they strongly impact their progress and productivity.
Here are some of those insights:
1. A REASON TO WRITE
Writers have their own reasons for why they write, whether it’s purely self expression, an outlet for their imagination or a desire to entertain, they typically love writing for its own sake and feel the need to write regardless of the returns. But not all writers love writing! I’ve worked with plenty of very successful writers who claim they hate it. Nevertheless, they are motivated to do great work. The key is that they are MOTIVATED. They have a REASON they want to write. It is essential that you have a reason to do the work. Whether your motivation is to tell a specific story, or the hope for fame and fortune, or the need to prove you can do it, passion is what will get you through. Most successful writers didn’t become successful without having a driving REASON to do the work and to keep on writing. Figure out what motivates you and don’t be ashamed of it – use it to keep you going!
2. UNDERSTAND THAT WRITING IS A PRACTICE
Writing is a practice in every sense of the word. It takes consistent work in order to improve; it’s a process, a pattern of action that with focus and determination will get you to a professional level. Practice means writing in the real world and under everyday conditions, as opposed to thinking about writing – or talking about writing. You must do the work. A writer must make time to write. Practice means: repetition, preparation, application, training, exercise, and habit. To be a successful writer you must develop a practice and follow-through consistently to advance in the craft and gain expertise.
3. WRITE WHAT EXCITES YOU & TRUST YOUR OWN INSTINCTS
It’s wise to be aware of the industry but don’t let trends or the current film market determine what you are going to write about. There is no way to know what the next hit will be – and frankly, if you’re writing for today’s market now – by the time your script is ready you will have missed the trend anyway. Instead, write a film that you would want to see. Write what excites and fascinates you. Passion and excitement show through in writing – and if you are not passionate about the story you are telling – no one else will be either. It’s much stronger to write about something that moves you, a story you are truly excited to tell, then to try and manufacture interest in a story that you think will sell. Remain true to the stories that are interesting to you!
That said, being successful also means writing scripts that people want to see and producers want to make. In order to do that, you must incorporate universal themes into those stories to ensure that audiences engage with your script on some level.
4. SET HIGH STANDARDS / MAINTAIN A STRONG WORK ETHIC
Your work is your reputation! In order to achieve high standards you must take the time to develop your craft, perfect your skills, and polish your writing. That means reading tons of great scripts so that you know what good writing is! We all know what bad writing is – bad writing is boring, unoriginal and NOT engaging. Good writing is the opposite. It’s exciting, unique and captivating. Good writing moves an audience through character and story, involvement, potent dialogue, emotional satisfaction and surprises – ideally through all of those at once!
Develop a strong work ethic. Meet your deadlines. Do proper research when it is necessary, and honour the story you are telling. If you are writing a true story, make sure to uphold the spirit of the truth of the story you are revealing. Know the story and your characters inside and out. Don’t be vague about anything; vagueness shows up as holes inside the fabric of the script and weakens the entire project. You can’t hide vagueness from an audience – so make sure you know your story and characters in absolute detail.
5. DON’T SEND YOUR WORK OUT BEFORE IT IS READY!
Yes, have people you trust read it during early stages as needed, but don’t submit it to anyone before it is polished. You may only get one change to make an impression – don’t blow it. Don’t be fooled by well meaning producers and agents who promise to view the material with the understanding that it’s in rough form – they do mean well, but that is seldom how it really works. Truth is, as soon as anyone dives in they will have high hopes and if it is sloppy, unfocused, poorly formatted, containing errors and typos – that will reflect poorly on you and your talent. Make sure your script is the very best that it can be BEFORE sending it out. If for some unavoidable reason, you are forced to send it out prematurely – at least make sure to do a last pass to clean up the obvious faults – otherwise, you appear lacking and unprofessional.
6. DISCUSSING YOUR SCRIPT PREMATURELY CAN HAVE A NEGATIVE EFFECT
Everyone is different and for some writers chatting about their work will help them to clarify their story, but for many, the act of talking through their story before they have allowed it to fully gel can weaken or destroy their motivation. This is less true for seasoned writers, but the simple fact is, that for some, the process of sharing an idea before it has been committed to paper (rough draft, outline or whatever suits) significantly derails their interest. It’s as if by telling it – they have used up the energy needed to write it down and the impetus for it is lost, and/or the story deflates before it has even been realised. True, it’s possible, that if after talking about an idea you go off of an idea then maybe the story wasn’t worthy of your full attention – BUT you’ll never know if you don’t allow yourself to explore it properly.
Become aware of your process and make sure that you are not losing out by discussing your work or idea too soon. It might be beneficial to savour it before you share it, and to protect yourself from being overly influenced before you have made key decisions about the story for yourself.
7. WRITE REGULARLY, CREATE SCHEDULES AND SET GOALS
As I said earlier, successful writers are extremely disciplined people and they make writing a priority. If you are not currently making writing a priority then you might want to evaluate the true magnitude of your desire! A writer – writes.
If you want to be a writer – you have to MAKE THE TIME.
Don’t wait for inspiration – remember this is a practice. Some days will be easier than others but you need to start writing. Setting goals helps. Whether it’s the amount of hours you write per day/per week, or the amount of pages you write, acquire a system that you can work with and follow through on – only then will you start to see progress.
If you cannot commit to that – then maybe you don’t really want to be a writer after all?
If you are ready to commit – then take a few minutes RIGHT NOW to draft up a writing schedule and to give yourself a long and a short-term goal.
An outline in a month? A first draft in six months? A completed script in 18 months? An hour a day? 3 pages a day? Whatever you decide – just be consistent and stick with it.
Decide where you are going to work and make sure it’s a comfortable spot that presents few distractions so that you will have quality writing time.
8. EVOKE STRONG EMOTIONS WITH YOUR SCRIPT
The power of a screenplay lies in its ability to connect emotionally with the reader and eventually with an audience. This may sound odd, but if you are writing a comedy – you should be laughing as you write it. If it’s a drama, you should literally be feeling the pain of your characters and sobbing for them. People go to the movies to be made to FEEL SOMETHING. If you are not feeling anything when you are writing, then the reader won’t feel anything either. And believe me, if the reader doesn’t feel anything then they won’t be recommending your script to anyone! This is another reason why it is so important to write about something you FEEL strongly about – something you care about.
9. FINISH YOUR FIRST DRAFT BEFORE YOU START REWRITING
Too often writers’ work and rework the first half of a script only to neglect or abandon it when they get to the end. It’s much more efficient to work through it once – getting the big pieces of the story puzzle in place before starting to fine tune anything. Everyone has their own methods, but the writers who work through their story from beginning, middle to end – getting it down on paper, have a much better chance of completing their script successfully. Also, remember a first draft is usually terrible – allow yourself that. Just get it written!
10. GET INPUT
When the time is right – get input. Again, remember that first drafts are usually terrible.
It’s wise to do a couple of passes before you show it to anyone but when you are ready, feeling clear about the story and characters (overall), having an objective assessment of your script is essential.
It’s not always easy to get an objective opinion from friends or family. So, if you don’t have anyone you can thoroughly trust to give you feedback: to tell you how the story, structure, characters, dialogue etc., are working, hire a script editor to help. It can save you a lot of time, wasted work and frustration!
11.LISTEN TO YOUR WORK
When you have a solid draft written, arrange to hear the script read out loud. Ideally, you have actors read it for you – but even just having a couple of friends read it will help you to hear the music, pace, rhythm and dialogue of the script. It’s important to hear how it SOUNDS. If you can’t recruit anyone to help, then record yourself reading it aloud – so that you can play it back and listen to it. You’ll be amazed at how much information you will gain from hearing your work.
IN CLOSING, Aspiring writers need to understand that until they sell a script, win a major contest, or gain representation by a legitimate agency, they are in a weak position. That can be very depressing BUT it is not personal and it’s not (necessarily) because you don’t have the talent! Develop a support system – whether it’s with a writers group, an editor, a coach or a friend so that you can maintain perspective and retain a positive outlook. Remember, this is a collaborative process and everyone will have an opinion about your writing. You need to be able to work well independently, as well as with others. Learn to take criticism and to get the most out of it, and also when to disregard it. Stay strong. This is a marathon – it takes endurance and you need to be invested for the long term.
The quality of your writing will be the only thing you have control of early on. It will also be what propels you forward – and sets you apart from others. There is no secret – if you write a great script – it will get noticed. But first you have to write a GREAT script! That means doing the work. So, use whatever tools serves your practice – and get on with your writing.
- Balls of Steel: The “Magic Trick” to Selling a Screenplay
- Habits of Highly Successful Screenwriters: Having a Driving Reason to Write
- Download FREE Screenwriting Resources
Get help outlining your screenplays with
Save the Cat! Software