I know a lot of writers. Movie writers, TV writers, and web-series writers; novelists and graphic novelists; animation writers, comedy writers, drama writers, erratic writers and disciplined writers.
Each is a unique and singular artist, except for one quality that unites them all – every one of them is constantly looking for an edge.
No matter how long they’ve been writing, no matter how prolific they are, no matter how much success they’ve managed to achieve – writers are always on the prowl for that ever-elusive shortcut that will ease their burden, reclaim wasted time, ensure that the dead-end choices are fewer and the flashes of genius more predictable.
In brief – the magic shortcut to success.
Alas, I’ve never found it. Neither has anyone else I know.
But the quest has not been in vain – because along the way I’ve learned with absolute certainty how to become a screenwriter by taking counter-measures to the four ways you can fail.
Turns out failure is the one aspect of screenwriting that’s really easy to do if you aren’t vigilant!
1. Don’t Think Too Much
Want to write movies? You’re in luck. We’re living in the era of peak screenwriting education.
The digital revolution that has delivered an infinity of popular entertainment straight into our hands (literally) has also delivered the means to create that entertainment.
A film school education – completely accessible through your smart-phone of choice.
The once arcane study of screenwriting – when I started, there was exactly one book on the topic – has now exploded into a worldwide industry all its own.
Conferences, expos, retreats, blogs, online courses, software downloads, tracking boards, webinars, eBooks, contests, master classes – it’s impossible to keep up with it all.
But – boy – it is tempting to try. After all, knowledge is power, right?
Too often, though, it can also become a source of evasion.
Believe me, I understand.
Writing is hard. It’s an affront to order and predictability. It can result in frustration, confusion and failure, and that’s before you are required to invite the opinions of others – colleagues, executives, agents – into your process.
So, sure – it’s a lot more pleasurable to listen to a podcast or log into a webinar. (Or maybe you prefer to escape down that other justifiable rabbit-hole: research.)
Problem is, all that learning becomes a substitute for actual doing.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for education. I’ve taught screenwriting at UCLA for more than 20 years. But I’ve observed – over and over – that knowledge (or even talent) is not the foundation of success.
Instead, the writers who persevere have committed to deadlines, feedback and accountability – you know, the painful stuff – as the bedrock of their routines. Read more
As I navigated through studio politics and creative challenges, I came to the conclusion that there are only two types of people working in Hollywood.
People who solve problems. And people who create problems.
Guess which one writers need to be?
Now, in fairness, not all problem creators are destructive – at least, not creatively.
Some of the greatest filmmakers we most revere are (or were) notorious crazy makers. This is known, in the purest light, as “inspiration.”
For example, Francis Ford Coppola. By all accounts (and I’ve read plenty), the making of Apocalypse Now was chaos personified.
Novelist William Kennedy, who collaborated with Coppola on The Cotton Club screenplay, watched in bewilderment and dismay as Coppola reshuffled their script – moving the second-act break to become the first-act break.
But if you don’t know already, a certain, indefinable amount of chaos is not only expected, not only tolerated – it is encouraged by the powers-that-be.
Because – often – that’s where the art happens. Just as often, it’s the cause of utter disaster.
Of all the screenwriting tips, the most important is understanding that writers solve problems. Their whole purpose is to solve problems – hopefully without creating more of them.
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The genesis of this website and my book came unexpectedly.
One day I was asked to appear on a panel of screenwriters at the Writers Guild of America, West. The topic assigned to me was, “How do you increase the stakes in a second act?”
Innocent enough, right?
Yet that question needled me like a dried-up Christmas tree.
So why did I find this seemingly easy question so tough? Well, to start, it is impossible to answer in the abstract. Every script is (or better be) an utterly unique creature. So, truly, there is no way to answer that question without asking – what’s happening in your first act? Read more