Staying Motivated as a Screenwriter
May 2, 2023
The life of the screenwriter isn’t always an easy one.
With the exception of a select group of A-list screenwriters, there are oftentimes long periods between writing jobs. This is why it's so important to be fairly compensated when we do land one (which is why screenwriters sometimes have to go on strike). Even most working screenwriters will tell you it’s either “feast or famine.” Because of this many professional screenwriters have to work other jobs whether it’s writing articles for a screenwriting blog or something outside of the film and television industry.
And again: I’m talking about professional screenwriters.
Being an aspiring screenwriter—a writer who has never sold a spec script or landed an assignment job—can be even more trying at times. At least if you’ve sold a screenplay or have landed a few assignment jobs, you’ve been given some affirmation: industry professionals have responded to your writing and have invested in your talent. If this hasn’t happened yet, you might have little motivation to continue, especially if you’ve written multiple spec scripts and have never sold anything or gotten any kind of writing work from it.
So the big question is: how do you stay motivated?
By asking this question, you’re proving screenwriting is important to you, and if something is important to you, it’s worth staying motivated. That’s why first and foremost, you need to make this declaration to yourself: this is important to me.
Embrace Your Struggle
We all have setbacks in life and it’s how we cope with them that ultimately defines us. In the early 1970s, Sylvester Stallone was a struggling actor and homeless for several weeks. During this period, he had to sleep at the Port Authority Bus Terminal in New York City.
He eventually moved into his girlfriend’s apartment and started checking out the works of Edgar Allan Poe from a local library. Inspired by Poe’s writing, Stallone started to write as well as act. Over the next few years, Stallone kept auditioning for acting parts and landed a few nonspeaking roles in films while he kept working on his writing. He was determined to never give up even when things looked bleak and all of his dreams seemed unattainable.
When Stallone finally wrote his spec script for Rocky, he had experienced enough setbacks in life that he could embrace his struggle and inject it into the character of Rocky Balboa. By doing so, Stallone created a character and story in his script that immediately connected with readers. If he hadn’t experienced all of his setbacks, it’s unlikely he would’ve been able to write Rocky the way that he did.
Throughout history, great art has derived from people transforming adversity into creative expression; not only is it cathartic to do so, but it also adds depth and authenticity to your work. If you’re tapping into real emotions when writing, people will feel it when reading. This is why you shouldn’t be afraid to get personal with your screenplay (regardless of the genre you’re writing in).
Write What You Love
I’ve known many aspiring screenwriters who wrote in certain genres simply because they were more marketable. For example, back when raunchy, R-rated comedies were popular in the 00s, there were a slew of spec scripts written in the Farrelly Brothers and Judd Apatow vein. Many of them read as calculating as they were: they clearly weren’t coming from a genuinely creative place. In recent years, there’s been a similar wave of horror spec scripts written by people who just want to break into the business any way they can.
It’s important to be mindful of industry trends, but if the only reason you’ve decided to write a certain kind of script is to break into the industry, it’s likely to read that way. This is why it’s important to write in a genre or style that you genuinely love. In addition, to your script coming across as more authentic to readers, you’re more likely to stay inspired. Even if you're writing in a less marketable genre, a writer should always be writing the film they would most want to see. By doing so, the writing becomes its own reward. The more you treat writing as an artistic endeavor, the more rewarding the process will be.
I once attended a Q&A with Oliver Stone and an aspiring screenwriter asked him how he dealt with his various career setbacks. Stone said he always thought about the next project. That’s how he stayed motivated and kept working. Embracing the process is as important as embracing the struggle.
Staying Motivated No Matter What
Whether it was due to a pandemic, cultural unrest or financial uncertainty, these past few years have been trying for many of us. As such, it’s been harder than ever to stay motivated and wrestle with the blank page on a daily basis.
There are times when I think, "Why do I bother writing?"
Then I remember how much I love writing and how it has enriched my life. I’m a community college dropout and was washing dishes when I sold my first spec script. That sale literally changed my life and I’ve lived places and experienced things I would have never experienced otherwise. If I had given up when things appeared hopeless and bleak, I would have removed any possibility of a better life. Regardless of selling my script, writing gave me hope and hope in and of itself is something that helps you get through the tough times.
In my article "5 Tips To Staying in Screenwriting Shape”, I outlined different methods you can use to stay inspired even when you feel like throwing in the towel. Your mind is highly susceptible to a work routine and if you create one for yourself, it’ll help you to be as steadfast and productive as possible.
Keep fighting the good fight.
Written by: Edwin CannistraciEdwin Cannistraci is a professional screenwriter. His comedy specs PIERRE PIERRE and O’GUNN both sold with more than one A-list actor and director attached. In addition, he’s successfully pitched feature scripts, TV pilots and has landed various assignment jobs for Universal, Warner Bros, Paramount and Disney.