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The Awful Truth About Screenwriting - Get the Facts
Screenwriting Facts
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It's hard to say why anyone starts out to write. There can be a lot of reasons, and they tend to grow in our hearts like a garden, often based on the envy and admiration we have for the gardens of other, more successful writers. Most writers will read the works of others in their young years, and the writer's life we hear about can be a fond sort of dream. Wealth? Fame? Fans? Saving the world? Well, what's your poison? So, before you leap atop the great white stallion of your imagination and gallop off to fashion yourself as a screenwriter, it's truly worthwhile to ask yourself why you want to put so much work into it and what your chances are for the success you want and deserve.

Let's define our terms: a screenwriter composes scripts that are produced as material for some kind of motion picture. Yet, some people might be satisfied with writing one short film, maybe 20 minutes long, and seeing it produced. They might even do this for free, for the simple joy of it, and never write another screen story. Another person might obsessively pursue only a full-time, life-long career as a top flight screenwriter with high pay and many big budget film credits. Or you may wish to write for TV, documentaries, corporate videos, and commercial spots. Believe it or not, you might want to write a screenplay or two just for yourself.

Screenwriting is an incomparable delight. For the modern person, who may have seen thousands of screen stories, it's a mode of expression that places you in the driver's seat, visualizing something you feel strongly about in your own way and in your own words. It's a chance to strike back and become an active producer of work, rather than a passive consumer of the work and thoughts of others. Like all serious writing, it's a tedious process and a lot of work. However, the personal rewards and satisfaction are real, therapeutic, visceral, and fun.

Here are some questions you should ask yourself, before deciding that you want to be a screenwriter:

What is the real reason that I feel working as a screenwriter is something I want to spend time on?

In my own view of things, what do I feel a screenwriter really does and what does the working life of a screenwriter actually involve?

If I have the success I want as a screenwriter, what will I be doing, what rewards do I expect, and how does that success seem like it will take shape for me personally?

If I fail as a screenwriter, will my life be destroyed and will I end up living in the gutter, homeless, or bankrupt?

Am I really the type of person who would endure long hours at a computer keyboard alone with myself?

Do words, thoughts, ideas, and concepts come easily for me?

Am I fearful of a blank page or do I enjoy jumping into the abyss of the uncreated?

Do I often finish long or demanding projects that I start?

Do I work well with other creative people who may or may not fully appreciate my artistic efforts?

Your answers here can help you think realistically about the journey. Let's face it---screenwriting is a dream job, full of glory and wonder, glamour and respect, position and power. Literally millions of people attempt screenplays in this era of computers, vastly advanced media applications, and ever expanding film, TV, and video outlets. The question is not what makes you different or better than the rest; the question is if you really feel you are suited to succeed and whether or not you're willing to do the hard work required for even a reasonable chance of victory.

If those answers are yes, then congratulations----you really do want to be a screenwriter. You may even comprehend what you're getting into. Like any other business, your chances of success depend on a myriad of factors. Some of these you control; some you don't. It also depends on what you mean by success---or what success means to you.

You might calculate it this way (rather coldly). There may be 1,000 serious film productions completed in the free world in the course of a year. That's a bit generous, but let's include short films, videos, and very low budget projects. Add in TV, in its many forms, and you can get to maybe 2,000 solid, paid screenwriting jobs. Throw out pornography or any kind of harmful work. If you include vanity projects, such as individuals who want a screenplay about their life or family and are willing to pay for it, commercials, and whatever else is written for the screen on a paid basis, let's put the number at 5,000 paid screenwriting jobs each year in the Western world.

In the 'spec screenplay' market (original screenplays, usually by beginners, written entirely without any production backing, financial offering, or status as commissioned work---that is, 'on speculation'), the common knowledge is that there are at least 100,000 of these new works each year and maybe more. If that means there are 100,000 hard working and brilliant new screenwriters out there every year competing for these 5,000 jobs, your Las Vegas style odds for success are about one in twenty. Or, out of 100,000 serious new wanna be screenwriters, only one in twenty can expect to find work in a given year. Does that make sense?

No, it really doesn't, if only for the sake of the writers who won't make the cut. But remember, you can always grab a $300 mini-DV camera, some light stands, and some unemployed actors and film your own script. The cost today is lower than ever and yours may be the eye, the hand, and the mind that enlightens others.

There's a tendency in modern times, perhaps because writing screenplays is so common, to diminish the status of this art form. Various types of writing (the short story, the novel, the stage play) seem to each have their Golden Era, or a period when their popularity outshines the sun. Likewise, the screenplay, born of a technology that was new to the world about 100 years ago, has surfed the tides of public sentiment and acclaim with this unique aspect: very few people outside the film and TV industry ever read them. The same might be said for stage plays, but with the film script, these are truly written works that are never intended to be read widely. Instead, they exist as 'blueprints' for films we watch in a theater.

So, the work of the screenwriter will never be like the work of an architect relative to the carpenter. You don't marvel at the design of the house on a sheet of paper---you enjoy the home once it's built and you can sit down for dinner and gaze out the wonderful patio window at your perfect view of Santa Monica bay. But as 'architects in training,' let's review how the screenplay has taken its currently accepted professional form, how screen stories have evolved along with the screenplay, and who the outstanding screenwriters are that you may wish to review yourself.

Long before Thomas Edison (and others) developed the first 'talkies,' the dramatic stage play was well established. Thanks to William Shakespeare, the father of all modern dramatic forms, stage plays and the form they use became a standard and recognized written type of work with a long history. Understand that as you script a film, you are drawing water from this well---your writing will either acknowledge the dramatic tradition or not, but what you're doing is a dramatic presentation, just like 'Romeo and Juliet.'

But now, with films and TV, writers have something 'new' to work on. It's very instructive to study how screenplays and teleplays were approached in the 1950's and 1960's. Back then, writers working on manual typewriters (or thrilled by an electric one), created scripts in a much more demanding style and format than today. A writer like Rod Serling, for example, was expected to create a script that included every nuanced move and motion of the camera, with endless industry jargon and word coded instructions to the film director. If this was done improperly or if the camera and editing instructions were misunderstood, the screenwriter was considered a hopeless amateur and dismissed. Beyond this, poor Rod was still expected to invent a thrilling and compelling story. With millions of people watching 'The Twilight Zone' each week and a demanding production schedule, the scripts had to be 'perfect'---including highly technical written camera directions.

Your script still has to be 'perfect,' and you should strive for this level of work at all times. But filmmakers today prefer scripts that have far fewer specific camera directions. Many writers would actually prefer to include a lot of camera directions, as it feels as if they are more in control of the end product. If you overload your script with technical instructions to the filmmaker, you may find he, or others involved, are loathe to read it, much less produce it. The reason is that filmmakers like to figure this stuff out for themselves now and also because the priority is on the story, not the cinematic technique. So what you go for as a writer is a balance between the requirements of the format and the current trend towards fewer of these jargon loaded camera moves and editing instructions.

A good example of how script writing goes through trends and fashions is the use of the term 'beat' by some writers. New writers ask---what is a 'beat?' It may remain unknown who exactly came up with this usage, but as it appeared in some very successful projects by high profile writers, new writers began creating scripts with so many 'beats' they looked like a musical score for a timpani player. So, to explain---in a well made film you may enjoy, the actors are moving around, doing things, talking to each other, etc. When the writer uses the term 'beat' or 'a beat,' he means a pause or a brief moment when nothing is happening for dramatic effect.

We'll look at film formatting later. Similar to the evolution of film script formatting, film types---the way the story plays out on the screen---have also developed. An early film story like 'Birth of a Nation,' 'The Gold Rush,' or any of the hundreds of early cowboy films had a different approach to plot and story than today's scripts---if they even bothered to use screenplays at all. Part of this is 'genre'---a typical action film today has certain story elements audiences recognize and so on. Film story teachers and analysts are very popular---and they have a lot of students buying their books, trying to figure out how screen stories work or 'should' work. Not quite a stage play, not much like a novel at all, not like a half hour TV show---the successful feature film story has been dissected like a laboratory frog by dozens of well informed teachers. As students of the form, you can't neglect at least some understanding of these ideas, both new and old.
A great way to do this, which is also very enjoyable, is to find copies of scripts for successful or favorite films and study them yourself. Find a script by Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, Frank Capra, John Houston,Paddy Chayefski, Billy Wilder, William Goldman,Larry Gelbart, Stephen Cannel, and many others---and learn from the masters. For modern writers, check out shooting scripts by Shane Black, Neil Cuthbert, Ed Solomon, or Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio (who write as a team). Be the theoretical story analyst yourself. Watch the films with a pad of paper and a pen, study how it's done and how it translates to the screen, and learn more on your own than most books will ever teach you. Then maybe you too can be a part of film history, in your own way.

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