(This is the first post of an ongoing series, Emails to a Young Screenwriter. If you haven’t read the introduction to the series, you’ll find it at So You Want To Be A Screenwriter?)
A script is a dream that’s been captured on paper – by a screenwriter.
We take that dream and give it structure, inhabit it with people, give it motion, and make it into a story. We shape that story into a script. And it’s our script that captures the imagination, the talents, and the hard work of a few hundred people working together to make that dream into something real – a film.
Astrid Cruz knows all about dreams – she’s a writer, a filmmaker, a student. Each one of those roles finds its raison d’être in chasing dreams. She’s not new to the craft of stringing words together and using those words to communicate with an audience. When we traded emails over the last month, Astrid’s questions about screenwriting that she sent me weren’t early wonderings from someone new to filmmaking. They indicated a sophistication, a definite understanding of the filmmaking process and the screenwriter’s role within the hierarchy of film production.
But not everyone knows as much as Astrid.
If you’re not a film student, or you haven’t started to really think seriously about screenwriting, you have some catching up to do. Luckily, you can do it on your own time, and it won’t feel like homework at all.
You Don’t Have To Pay To Learn Screenwriting
We live in an amazing age – If you want to learn about anything, all you have to do is reach for your keyboard and do a search. That’s what I did a few days ago when I realized people were going to be reading these posts about screenwriting, and maybe they had never even seen a script before. Or read one. Or knew that the pages within one don’t exactly look like the pages of a book. We all know you can spend a lot of money buying textbooks, classes, tutorials, seminars, etc. from (sometimes) knowledgeable people and sources. But I always wonder when I go on those websites of these experts: How many screenplays have they really worked on? How many have been produced? How many story meetings have they taken within the guarded walls of a studio or a network, and how many notes have they sweated over and sweared at?
I’m a big believer in self-education – especially now, with so much knowledge within our reach. You can learn the basics of screenwriting on your own. That’s how I got started.
My first episodic television job came from a pitch I had to do for a new limited series on CBS. I loved watching 60 minute shows, but I had no idea how to write one. My pitch meeting was scheduled for a Monday, and on the Friday before that meeting my agent came by my house (agoraphobic that I was) and dropped off two seasons worth of scripts from a prestigious ABC television series. I devoured those scripts, teaching myself about the format: Act Breaks. Characterizations. Story Structure. Tension. Conflict. Resolve. Tag. Day and night I analyzed those award-winning-lessons-in-episodic television. When Monday came, I pitched three story ideas – They bought two of them for me to write, and asked me to be Story Editor for the entire series.
So if you’re wondering if you can become a professional screenwriter without a degree in film, or without the tutelage of some expert (charging you $$$ for it) , my answer would be a resounding “Yes!” If you’re a student still in college, please don’t drop out and blame it on me. College will give you life experiences and you’ll need that as a screenwriter. Stay in school: You may meet contacts, and you can network with them later.
But for those of you not in school, those who are flirting with the idea of becoming a screenwriter, this is what you should do before you dive deeply into the questions Astrid asked me about screenwriting:
1) Read screenplays (Until your eyes can’t focus anymore).
2) Watch films (Not with friends, and not sprawled on the couch, dozing. Take notes!).
3) Learn the screenwriting format.
There are two good websites where you can do those three steps listed above. At Script Frenzy you’ll find everything you need to know about script formatting. There are other pages on that website that I didn’t explore, so don’t hold me responsible for whatever is on that site that they’re marketing. If you stick to the “How to Format a Screenplay” page, you’ll learn what you need to learn, and it’ll be free. The second website, Simply Scripts is where you will find movie and television scripts, and it’s also free.
Everybody’s Got A Disclaimer – Here’s Mine
Okay, here’s my disclaimer for everything I wrote to Astrid about screenwriting (and what you’ll be reading this week):
My experiences have been with the Hollywood system – mainstream films and television. I’ve never been involved with independent filmmaking unless you count the documentary (No Girls Allowed) that I just finished. But the experience I had making that film is for another day, and another blog post. Independent films (and shorts) are completely different creatures that allow a screenwriter/filmmaker much more creative freedom and power. Hollywood is a much harder creature to tame. There is a reason why studios are enclosed by thick walls, and visitors go through a checkpoint with a guard stationed at the gate.
They want to keep us out.
The film industry is a closed private club. It’s impossible to get into, difficult to stay a member, and for very few is it a membership for life. It’s the toughest business in the world. If you want to be a dentist, you go to school, learn dentistry, and become a dentist. Careers work that way. But not in the film industry. You can’t even get your own jobs in Hollywood – you need an agent to do that for you. And maybe a manager too. Oh and don’t forget your lawyer. And there are no guarantees in Hollywood. An accountant still working after twenty years in the real world is considered experienced, and that builds up a career even bigger. But not in the film industry where the question is always asked, “What have you done recently?” If it’s the wrong answer, if it’s been awhile since you’ve made a sale or collected a development deal check, you can find yourself falling several rungs lower on that ladder of success. Hollywood is cruel. If you don’t know that going into it you most certainly will know it on your way out.
If any of this frightens you, you shouldn’t start screenwriting. It’s habit-forming, and addictive, exhilarating, and life altering. Writing scripts, and getting lost in your story is the only thing I can think of that makes Hollywood tolerable. So if you’re interested, if I haven’t scared you away, and you want to learn a little bit more about screenwriting and what it’s like to write a script, come back and read the next post, Emails To A Young Screenwriter.
In the meantime, go watch a film.