Screenwriting Is Tough But So Are You.
Advice for the newbie screenwriter navigating strange times.
And your girlfriend or boyfriend just cheated on you, so you decide to write a screenplay about it.
You’re 24. Maybe you’re 30. You went to film school or possibly you didn’t. Save the Cat and Story overlook your how-to shrine like holy bibles.
Soon, you hit the bricks and tell your friends your idea. You watch the movie in your sleep. You pitch the logline to professors and parents and strangers at Starbucks. They don’t get it, but that’s okay.
You work a day job, so you only write at night. 5, maybe 10 pages. Big things start small. William Faulkner did it, so why can’t you?
It’s hard. You almost quit — twice — and restart your draft 4 or 5 times. You agonize over wants and needs and subtext. You read it out loud. You splatter your wall with color-coded index cards.
Eventually, you figure it out and those fingers fly. While friends flirt with cheaters and one-night stands at nightclubs, you empty your soul into every beat, scene, and sequence that explodes to that emotional climax you envision…
Until six months pass.
And the pandemic hits. You kick back and give yourself a break. Two, maybe three months. What else can you do? Everyone’s inside and nobody’s out hustling anymore, right?
Four months of loafing ignite a fire under your ass.
It’s not perfect. It’s not popcorn, but it’s not a Martini either. It’s a Drama, it’s your first feature, and it’s yours!
You puncture all 110 pages with brass brads and feel the screenplay. It smells like something you wrote. It sounds like a memory you’ve lived, and now it’s going to be a movie!
You show it to Mom. You offer it to friends. You submit it to ScreenCraft’s Drama Competition. After all, you finished just in time! Why not submit it?
Your stomach flurries with hope as you imagine the thumbnail to your movie alongside other Netflix titles. Or on Amazon. If nothing else, you know The Black List is an admirable end goal.
Suddenly you freeze, and that hot coffee goes cold in your hand as you stare at the screen.
You don’t even make the quarter-finalists.
Didn’t they see your break into two? How couldn’t that intimate betrayal move them? Was it cliché? Too personal? Too literary?
You doubt your talents and fall into despair. Soon, movies aren’t even fun to watch anymore, and with theaters shuttered, you don’t even bother to look.
That BFA Film degree? Well, good thing the world needs janitors! You stop reading. You stop writing.
Everything loses meaning.
You don’t know what to do.
Congratulations, you’ve completed a screenplay! You’ve also experienced what every single other struggling screenwriter has and likely still experiences routinely.
Welcome to show business.
You poured your heart out, and the judges rejected it. Maybe they didn’t even read to page 10. Hell, maybe they chucked it across the room after seeing the title. Something in it didn’t click.
But here’s the brass tacks: your screenplay sucked, but you don’t suck.
That’s worth repeating.
Your screenplay sucked, but you don’t suck.
As silly as it sounds, if you tell yourself that after every rejection, it’ll minimize the misery. Nobody will highlight the okay parts of your sucky script if it isn’t doing its job. They’re going to be straight with you, so you should be straight too.
You’re a writer. Be honest with yourself and your work, but don’t confuse self-evaluation for self-hatred.
F. Scott Fitzgerald saved every rejection from every publication he ever submitted. Whether or not this is true doesn’t matter. What matters is that you learn from your mistakes and keep moving.
If you can get professional feedback, get it. If it’s not worth your heartache to tear apart your baby, move on. The industry runs fast and while you fuss and fart over those “Yes, but” complaints, hundreds of other screenplays are being written, sold, and packaged into movies.
Wake up. It’s your first screenplay! The fact that you managed to get it out the gate is an accomplishment in and of itself.
So nobody bought it. Managing to finish the thing beyond a couple of sloppy drafts puts you that much farther than those who only ever talk about their brilliant ideas but never act on them.
You had a personal experience. You translated it into a story. And you finished.
Wasn’t the process of releasing that emotion worth more than validation by a competition?
I’m not suggesting you shun competitions. I’m saying you should value the time and effort and reasons you had for writing the screenplay in the first place.
Remember the burning desire. Recall the pain, the tears, and the sweat it took to exorcise those personal demons from your soul.
And after you’ve cleansed it, wake up and move on to another one.
But We’re In a Pandemic
Yes, I know. We’re also on the brink of financial collapse and drowning in political unrest and systemic racism.
Don’t get me wrong. There’s plenty of reasons not to get back to that keyboard. You don’t even know when your local AMC will reopen its doors. But how long will An American Pickle and The Lovebirds keep audiences enthralled?
If you’ve always struggled to get to work and a pandemic has made things worse, nothing will motivate you anymore.
And with an invisible virus encroaching on your lifestyle, your loved ones, and your entire way of life, death is undoubtedly closer than it ever has been…
Have you nothing to say about that? Are you going to let that destroy your aspirations?
Is this shake-up supposed to be the end of you as an aspiring screenwriter?
Last year it was a bad breakup. This year it’s a plague.
How could those fingers not fly when you’ve got so much crap on your mind?
An easy defense mechanism would be to slow down and let things happen to you. Put your head under a rock and wish for the world you want instead of what’s outside your door.
This is the time to move and adjust. And if you want to write screenplays, the pandemic is not the world’s universal excuse for putting off passion.
It’s the excuse for amplifying that passion.
It’s 2020. Get Back To It.
This doesn’t have to be brutal. Spend time with your loved ones and always be careful. Do whatever you must to support yourself. Find peace, then get back to the keyboard.
It worked before, even if it didn’t sell. Remember, you’re not out for immediate gratification. You’re a screenwriter and you’re in this for the long haul: to tell stories that touch people.
It’ll be your second screenplay, but that doesn’t mean you have to adopt a newbie’s mindset.
Instead of treating this like the second screenplay you’re going to write, treat it as if it’s the last one you’ll ever write.
Say everything you want to say. You could get sick tomorrow. Imagine if that happened. What would your work say about your life?
Or, write whatever’s fun!
Write something you know you’d want to watch. The problem with personal screenplays is that they’re often too literary and don’t feel cinematic.
Entertain. What great experience would you love to feel again right now? What’s going to cheer people up? What can you give us that’ll dig us out of this trench?
Screenwriting has always been tough — and during the pandemic — it’s getting tougher.
You should be too.