Is Screenwriting For Me?
January 18, 2021
As I sit down to write another article focusing on questions asked by new screenwriters, I truly hesitated about writing on the topic inspired by the question, "Is screenwriting for me?" It's probably one of the most difficult questions to answer.
Everyone has a story they want to tell; what better way to tell that story than by making the character's journey and the story's plot a visual one? It's quick. It's efficient. It's impactful. It's accessible. In fact, I'd hedge that when asked, 100% of people could name their "favorite film." Movies stick with us. They speak to us. Sometimes, they speak for us.
But does that mean screenwriting is "for me?"
I've been a screenwriting instructor for over a decade. I've taught hundreds of students, from day one beginners to those pursuing a graduate degree on the art form. Rather than judge who can be a screenwriter, let me tell you the kinds of students who become successful screenwriters.
First, are you willing to do the basic work?
Are you willing to study screenplay format? Do you have the tools necessary to write an industry-accepted piece of work? Will you put in the time to read previously produced screenplays, screenplays of associates or friends? Will you study the mechanics of slug lines, character descriptions, and action lines? What about parentheses? Are you willing to take the time to understand how and when they're traditionally used in screenplay format? Formatting is by far the most challenging initial step in becoming a screenwriter. Writing a properly formatted screenplay is like learning a new language, and in most cases, you have to be willing to teach yourself.
Second, let's talk about the basics of any screenplay: genre and structure. As a screenwriter, will you study genres, sub-genres and the genre conventions that prevent you from writing a muddled script? What about structure? There are a variety of structure methods employed in modern screenplays, but to truly call yourself a screenwriter, you must be aware of how to properly structure a story over 90-120 pages. Or, if you decide to toss the structure methods away, be able to lean on your structure knowledge to write a script that is clear and concise. In my opinion, structure is one of the backbones of any script. A well-structured script is a film that people want to watch. There's a predictability of the unknown that viewers rely upon when watching a film. It can be as simple as: Beginning-Middle-End. What is your story's Beginning-Middle-End? Start there.
What about plot and character? Are you dedicated enough to sit down for minutes, hours, days — maybe months! — planning out your screenplay's plot? Making sure turns in the story make sense and yet are also surprising? Are you committed to creating impactful, important and memorable characters? Are you writing outside of your perspective, and if so, are you finding someone with that lived experience to weigh in on your character development? Can you name to me the no-more-than eight characters in your script that make the story machine turn? Who are they? What's their backstory? What's their super-objective in this screenplay? (A super-objective is that goal, when reached, ends the scene or, on a larger scale, the script itself.)
Hobbyist or Screenwriter?
Once you've woven a story together, are you able to step away from your desk and meet other screenwriters or filmmaking professionals with more experience than you, who are willing to give you an industry read? More importantly, are you able to listen to their comments — positive or constructive — without wanting to throw away your script or attack the commenting party? In my experience, this is what separates a screenwriter from a hobbyist. Some may teach themselves how to be a screenwriter (I'm completely self-taught!), some may attend classes or higher education with the goal of mastering the subject, but no matter how you learn how to turn your idea into a screenplay, the ability to thoughtfully listen to a critique of your work, the understanding that you don't need to page-one-rewrite each time, and the wherewithal to leave your defensiveness at the door when asking someone to read your work, is a student who has the ability to become a professional screenwriter.
Game, set, match!
You have a completed screenplay that has gone through various drafts and it's finally at a place to send into the world. Do you have the resiliency to hear "no"? (Or, perhaps, possibly to hear nothing at all...) What about what's next? Do you have another idea? How about two or three more ideas? Are you interested in learning how to write a different format? I always tell my students, before you pitch anything, have a body of work. Show whomever you're pitching that you're serious about this profession. I always recommend two scripts in the format (TV or film) that you'd like to work within, as well as one script in the format you could write in, and a bonus piece (maybe a play, maybe a short film, maybe it's produced and maybe it isn't).
Developing a body of work makes you a stronger writer. It requires more than one idea, multiple worlds, and multiple characters. It requires time and the one thing that is true for any screenwriter is that they only become better with time. It's as much of a trade as anything, and like any trade, practice truly does make perfect.
The most difficult aspect of screenwriting comes in the "what next..." If, as a screenwriter, you have a beautifully developed body of work — what's next? Screenwriting is a waiting game. Do you have the patience to wait it out? Some people strike gold quickly, other incredibly talented writers exhaust themselves trying to get their work read and made. Will you be able to immediately jump when the chance strikes, or, continue on your path until it does?
Screenwriting is a unique, wonderful and visual expression of character and story. Like any study, it takes time, persistence, patience and creativity. It takes fortitude and balance and requires you to check your ego at the door. It demands research, learning and collaboration.
Is screenwriting for me?
Yes. Yes after all that. Yes, a thousand times, yes.
I always say, "if you want to write a screenplay, write it." The world needs more unique stories told by fresh voices. It takes a bit of study, time and effort, but it is the most rewarding thing I have ever done.
Now, stop procrastinating and go write your script.
Written by: Vanessa KingVanessa King is an NYC-based producer, screenwriter, and professor who has worked in development with top-level industry talent for nearly two decades. Her work as a writer has received numerous awards, having earned her recognition from industry bodies including AMPAS/Oscar’s Nicholl Screenwriting Fellowship (feature) and Sony Worldwide Entertainment’s Emerging Filmmaker Program (TV Series). In 2005, she co-founded the New York Screenwriters Co-Op, New York’s only free-to-the-public screenwriting workshop with over 2000 active members. Vanessa is faculty at Gotham Writer’s Workshop (NYC) and Staffordshire University (UK), where she teaches both television and screenwriting to students, beginner to post-graduate. She recently was Showrunner of the TV pilot “Two Roads”, a concept she co-created and co-wrote for Sony’s VUE Network. Vanessa is passionate about diversity and inclusion within the industry and was a consultant on Final Draft Screenwriting Software’s Diversity and Inclusion product build. She’s a board member of the Diversity List, amplifying top scripts written by female-identifying and BIPOC writers. She is a judge for the Hip Hop Film Festival, The UCLA Graduate Screenwriter’s Showcase and The 24 Hour Film Festival. She was named one of The Huffington Post’s 13 Women To Watch and for three consecutive years, has been named to Vanity Fair’s “Downtown 100”, a list that recognizing New York’s top networkers in the entertainment industry. Originally from Canada, she lives in New York City.