5 Things I Wish I’d Known When I Started Writing Screenplays

The problem with writing is that nearly everyone can do it. Add this to the fact that most people have seen a lot of movies, and it is easy to think that because of these two things you can easily write a better screenplay than most of the rubbish that comes out.

But you can’t. Why? Because it is actually hard work. Just because you can make a noise with your mouth does not mean you can sing like an angel, and just because you can write does not mean you can create great works of art on a whim.

It takes a lot of hard work and dedication to become a great writer, and with so many people wanting to write for a living these days, you have to be that much better. But everyone has to start somewhere, and this is what this article is all about.

You won’t learn anything about improving dialogue, or three-act structure or any of that stuff, but what you will hopefully pick up is a better way for approaching writing screenplays as a first-time writer.

Now, I don’t claim everyone will benefit from all (or even some) of this, but I think I would have if I’d read this when I started. Now, if it isn’t of any value to you, then congratulations, seriously. If you’ve got it down already, then more power to you. I most certainly did not, which held me back a bit. So the logic of this piece is that if it could have been of use to me, then it might be of use to someone else.

So, without further ado, here are five things I’d wish I’d known before I started writing screenplays.

1. Your first screenplay will suck
Sorry, but it will. You don’t expect to pick up the guitar for the first time and play like Jimi Hendrix, so why would you expect to type FADE IN: for the first time and write like Quentin Tarantino?

It takes an awful lot of practice and hard to work to become good (let alone great) at something, and screenwriting is no different. You need to write. A lot.

Don’t expect to write one script and make a fortune. Even if they heyday of high-selling spec scripts wasn’t over (which it very much is), then your first script isn’t going to fall into that category, no matter how hard you work on it. Why? Because it is your first script and you are still learning the tricks of the trade.

“But”, I hear your cry “it’s a great idea!” It might very well might be (though it probably isn’t as good as you think it is), but that doesn’t matter. If it really is that good you can always return to it when you have written more, and developed the skills and do the idea justice.

But what if you don’t have any more ideas? Don’t worry, because…

2. You will always have more ideas
In many ways this is the easiest part. You can be having a shower, or riding the bus, or going to sleep and suddenly boom, there’s an idea. All of a sudden it arrives and you build it up in your mind and you can see the whole picture. Simple. Even written an entire script in the shower? Didn’t think so.

Sure, sometimes it doesn’t come that easy, so you have to actually try and think of ideas. How you do this is up to you, some people like to sit and think, others like to go for walks, others like to do things to distract their brain and think “in the background”.

But however you do it, you will have other ideas. Lots of them. Eventually, more than you can ever possibly hope to put into screenplay format. But what if you don’t? What if that one idea is all you have?

Well, you should probably look for another career. One screenplay isn’t going to set you up for life, even if it is great. You’ll need to write another and then another and then another. And if you can’t do that, then, sorry, but screenwriting probably isn’t for you.

Imagine someone saying the want to be a plumber, but then insisting they can only ever fix one leaky pipe. Even if they fix that pipe better than any pipe has ever been fixed before, they’re not going to make it as a plumber, because stopping one leak does not a plumber make.

3. Write for fun
The top two points tend to hold a lot of people back. They get consumed by a mixture of fear and desperation, forgetting that writing can actually be a joy. If you’re not enjoying it, why are you doing it? You may as well go and find something you do enjoy and do that.

There’s an old saying that if you don’t absolutely need to write, then you shouldn’t do it.

But what if you absolutely have to write? Then write. But remember it should be fun, particularly when you’re starting out. You might have big ambitions, but they are way in the future. If you going into it expecting your first script to be perfect and make you rich and famous, then you’re setting yourself up for a big disappointment. It just isn’t going to happen.

Starting out, you’re probably better looking at it from the other way.

“This script is probably going to suck, but I’m damn sure going to have fun writing it.”

Sure, it isn’t likely to end up on one of those motivational posters, but I’ll be damned if it doesn’t work for me. Since adopting this stance, I’ve never written more. Sure, not everything is gold, but then it wasn’t before either. At least now, I’m practising my craft and getting far better cranking out script after script, than focusing fastidiously on each sentence, word, and comma, trying to perfect a script when I don’t have the skills. And I’m having more fun experimenting with styles and genres, rather than telling the same story over and over..

The other thing I’ve learnt since adopting this mentality is…

4. The more you write, the easier it gets
It seems obvious, but people forget. Writing is a skill and the more you practice, the better you get. The same goes focusing your imagination. The more stories you create, the easier it becomes to think of different ones.

But also, writing a lot of scripts removes a number of fears. Of course, these never completely go away (particularly at the start of a new project), but finishing a few scripts should give you a confidence boost. It proves that you can write (and more importantly) finish a screenplay, because you already have, a number of times.
Once you get over this hurdle, you can focus more on developing as a writer, doing better than the last one, or trying something different.

Now, not every script will be better than the last, but that’s ok. Time spent writing is never time wasted. At the very least you will hone your skills, and possibly try new things. As I said before, the more you write, the better you should get (at least up to a point). The more you put in, the more you get out. This brings us to probably the most important point here about growing and developing as a writer, namely, other people.

5. Get feedback
Once you’ve ditched your illusions of earning millions off one script, or creating a masterpiece, you are in a position to actually start getting better and therefore, getting closer to your goals.

You’ve ditched the baggage, embraced the fun, and written a script. You like it, so you’ve been through it, fixed the typos, grammatical mistakes and plot holes. You think you’ve done something that doesn’t suck. Good job. Now comes the real scary part:

Showing it to the world.

Brace yourself. This can be the most deflating part of the process. Why? Because no-one will love your script as much as you do. Just like every parent thinks their child is the most beautiful baby in the whole wide world, most writers think their script is a beautiful snowflake, perfect in every way. The only real difference is that writers are likely to be even more defensive if told their script-baby is ugly.

Indeed, it is not at all uncommon for some writers to be told the same thing from multiple people (such as “I didn’t laugh at your comedy script”) and proceed to tell everyone how they’re wrong and the script is actually hilarious! Now, the writer may actually be right, but odds are if you’ve got a bunch of people giving you the same note, then that part of the script needs work.

Of course, you can easily reject all criticism and live in a little bubble where you’re a genius unappreciated in their own time,. But then you’ll never learn, so you’ll never get better, so those “genius” scripts you keep writing will likely never get made.

Don’t reject criticism, embrace it. Sure, it will sting at first, but it too becomes easier with time, particularly if you see it as a learning opportunity. Take the criticism (and the occasional praise) and try and learn from it, even if you don’t agree with it, or even act upon it. At the very least, have the courtesy to be polite. People have taken given their time to read your work (probably for free), so be grateful for that at least.

Of course, not all criticism is equally valid and different people might love or hate the exact same part. And the worst part is, they might both be right!

You have to learn which advice to take, and which to ignore. It might be that the part you absolutely adore has to be cut to make the script better. It might be that line you weren’t crazy on is the funniest one. But agree or disagree, you should try to remember that no-one is actively trying to harm your script, mostly they are just trying to help you and your script get better.

Yes, sometimes that can hurt, but as long as you are open to constructive(!) criticism, then you can make your script better, learn the areas on which you need to work, and start to develop as a writer.

As I said at the start, these are things I wish I had known when I had started out. If I had, I would likely have gotten a lot better far more quickly than was actually the case. There wouldn’t have been so much wasted time trying to perfect a script without the necessary skills to do so, or being fixated no a single idea, or worrying that if this script wasn’t “the one”, then it would all be over.

With hindsight, it seems so silly, but it didn’t at the time, and these things really held me back. So now, hopefully, these points can help other aspiring screenwriters avoid the same mistakes I did and learn their craft more quickly.

Sure, they’re not going to turn you into the next Tarantino, Sorkin, or Whedon, but they might turn you into a better writer, and hopefully make the process more enjoyable.

Good luck, and keep writing!

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  • SB

    Really condescending and obvious advice.