The Screenwriter’s Ultimate Guide to Handling Rejection

By July 19, 2016Blog, Featured

Rejection — originating from the Latin word rēiectus, meaning “to throw back” — is a part of life. There’s no escaping it. It comes in many forms throughout every stage of your existence — childhood, coming of age, adulthood, and beyond.

For screenwriters, rejection is often multiplied ten fold. Tens of thousands — hundreds of thousands world-wide — share the same dream. And that dream is generally to make a living doing what you love — writing for film and television. There are many levels to that dream; to get paid for assignments, to sell your own scripts, to see your work make it to the big or small screen, etc.

Each of them offer limited windows of opportunity, even in this day and age of multiple platforms of distribution (theaters, television, internet, streaming, etc.).

So with so many screenwriters trying to do what you’re doing and with so few slots for Hollywood to fill, rejection is inevitable. In fact, it’s a strong guarantee. And for screenwriters, it’s to be expected more often than not.

We’ve decided to explore this unfortunate phenomenon further, beyond the usual words of inspiration. Why? Because sometimes rejection just sucks and sometimes words of inspiration aren’t enough to get you out of that deep pit of despair. Instead, let’s dive into it head first.

We will take information from various studies and conversations on grief and rejection, including many talking points found in this article, and apply them to the screenwriter’s perspective to get more answers centered on the neurological and anthropological reasons why rejection hurts so much and how we can best cope and get through it.

Why Does Rejection Hurt Screenwriter’s So Badly?

Make no mistake, whatever level of the Hollywood screenwriting totem pole you’re on — newbie, flash in the pan, up-and-comer, un-represented, represented, working, produced, award-winning, go-to for studios, etc. — rejection is always present and always hurts.

When you are rejected, you feel pushed backwards, away from the dream that you’re running towards. When an agent, manager, development executive, or producer passes on your script, what do you tell your family, friends, and peers?

“I was rejected.”

What you should notice in that statement — or any variation of it — is that you’re using a passive voice, which clearly indicates how you feel about that rejection. You’re viewing yourself as passive — as a victim.

That’s why it hurts so much no matter how many times you experience it. As soon as you take that passive stance, it’s bound to feel like a spear thrown straight through your heart.

The Physiological Side of Rejection

What happens to you when you get that call or email from that Hollywood contact you’ve worked hard to make, only to hear them say that they’re passing on your script?

You’re stunned. You’re disoriented. Your fantasies of them saying, “This is the best script I’ve read in a long time…” followed by their offer of representing you, optioning your script, purchasing your script, or assigning you to write one of theirs are quickly flushed down the metaphorical toilet.

You feel weak and helpless. You feel almost paralyzed, both physically and emotionally. At the risk of sounding overly dramatic — we are writers — this is what happens biologically when your body responds to rejection.

A University of Amsterdam study discovered that unexpected social rejection is highly associated with a significant response of the parasympathetic nervous system.

When the body is in action — often in fight or flight mode — the sympathetic system engages, your heart beats faster, your pupils dilate, and your energy is directed towards allowing the body to react quickly. However, the parasympathetic system handles your body at rest.

Studies have found that when you think passively upon your initial reaction to rejection, you follow that up with acting passively. This activity of the parasympathetic nervous system is almost opposite of what we feel when the aforementioned sympathetic system engages. Your heart rate actually slows down, which affects you both psychologically and physically.

During this study, not only did the subject’s heart rate slow down after receiving the rejection, it plummeted even in the anticipation of hearing someone’s opinion. Screenwriters can relate to this phenomenon because we often are left waiting for weeks — and sometimes months — before hearing from those we’ve sent the script to. And sometimes, even worse, we never hear back from them.

And the study also pointed out that it was even worse when the subject expected positive feedback, only to hear a negative response. This is all too true in the journey of a screenwriter. When you expect that your Hollywood contacts will love the script, only to hear that they don’t, there’s almost nothing more mind-numbing and heart-wrenching — at least in terms of your career.

Yes, the argument can be made that perhaps you shouldn’t be so naive to think everyone will love your work. However, especially when certain screenwriters get to the coveted stage of being more objective of their work — often after years of screenwriting and some success under their belts — what about those times when you know with all of your subjective and objective being that the script is good?

The answer lies in the fact that no script is universally embraced by all. Remember that all studios passed on Star Wars, Fight Club, E.T., and pretty much every iconic classic.

The Fear of Rejection Is in Our DNA

Human beings are hard-wired to fear rejection. We’re overtly sensitive to it. We seek social acceptance and approval because of the anthropological history of our ancestors. Back in the early days of mankind, we knew that if we were socially rejected by the tribe, we’d surely not survive. No food. No shelter. No protection. Being rejected meant that you were going to die sooner rather than later.

Thus, we’re programmed to seek out social relationships. We’re motivated to feel liked and feel like we belong.

When we experience the constant rejection from Hollywood, this survival instinct is triggered and it’s not a pretty thing to experience.

Rejection Is Like Quitting That Addictive Drug

Stony Brook University researchers discovered that the section of the brain that is most active during the pain and anguish of a relationship breakup is the same area of the brain associated with motivation, reward, and addiction cravings.

Being rejected by Hollywood is often the equivalent of experiencing a big breakup with a significant other. Screenwriters are chasing a coveted dream (love) and the Hollywood contact reading their script is a possible relationship that can lead to that dream. When they reject your script, it’s like a heartbreaking breakup. The Hollywood “relationship” — at least in the context of that script — is over.

You are basically addicted to that relationship because you’ve played out the positive possibilities over and over in your head. When that is taken away, you emotionally and physically begin to go through an immediate withdrawal.

And that withdrawal is hard to overcome. No words of inspiration — at least not initially — will make a dent. You become emotionally and physically rattled and drained.

Loss of Hope and Reluctance to Take Risks

When you are rejected, it’s only natural to feel an utter loss of hope and a reluctance to take risks. This is called learned helplessness. Psychologists Martin Seligman and Steve Maier conducted a series of experiments where dogs learned that nothing they did would have any effect on preventing shocks when placed in a new situation. Instead of taking risks and finding other solutions, they would simply lay down passively and whine.

Screenwriters can relate to this. Because there is so much content going in and out of Hollywood, the studios, production companies, agencies, and management companies are forced to do everything they can to say no instead of yes. Unless they are utterly in love with the concept and script, they’ll reject it on the spot.

This leaves screenwriters with the task of facing rejection after rejection after rejection, which then forces them to metaphorically — or literally — lay down passively and whine. Hope is lost and you’ll be less likely to take risks knowing that you’re likely going to be rejected no matter what you do.

This can often lead to ultra-cynicism, anger, resentment, etc. You can even begin to live vicariously throw the learned helplessness of others when you visit chat rooms, Reddit rants, and social media posts and comments regarding Hollywood.

Instead of taking action and working to prevent the rejection from happening again, you lay down and whimper.

A California Institute of Technology study researched brain activity in the posterior parietal cortex (PPC), the part of the brain where sensory stimuli are transformed into movement plans. During the study, subjects were asked to perform a complex task and then report how they perceived their performance. The results showed that the perceived performances did not correlate with actual performance. Some individuals rated performing well while actually performing poorly and vice versa.

This showcased that the brain activity in the PPC related directly to how individuals thought they performed rather than how they actually performed, as well as how much money they would gain or lose from the experiment. Basically, the level of effort, how hard an individual tries, depends on if the individual thinks he or she will fail or succeed.

If screenwriters think that they will succeed — maybe because of a good response to a pitch — they try harder. But after rejection, if they have lost hope and are now reluctant to take more risks, they’re more than likely to not want to try at all.

What happens is that you can start to take action in avoiding rejection, as opposed to trying harder to succeed.

During a sports psychology study, psychologist Jessica Witt at Purdue University noticed that after a series of missed field goal kicks, players began to believe that the field post was taller and narrower than before. Yet when they started to see more successful kicks, they reported the post to appear larger than before.

When you, the screenwriter, face nothing but rejection, that is all that you see. Yet when you start to see more doors opening for you, that access to Hollywood seems more plausible.

Catastrophizing

Catastrophizing is a term that applies to many screenwriters when dealing with rejection. It basically entails the screenwriter blowing things out of proportion and imagining bigger problems than there are — a direct result of the rejection at hand.

“If this person doesn’t like my script, no one will.”

“This was my one and only chance to make my dream come true.”

“I’m going to have to work in retail my whole life because I clearly don’t have what it takes.”

The Terman Life-Cycle Study found that catastrophizing often predicted mortality and accidental or violent death. If death predictions are a bit too much to swallow, simplify this by imagining a basketball player that doesn’t believe they can make the clutch free throw. When the player worries so much about their technique in making the shot, they’re likely more apt to over-compensate and miss.

The old adage of positive thoughts lead to positive results and negative thoughts lead to negative results actually has scientific backing.

While you can’t directly prevent the rejection you are bombarded with as a screenwriter — beyond honing your writing skills, learning from your mistakes, and marketing your scripts to the right people — you certainly have the power to control how you handle it. Eventually adopting a positive attitude can do wonders for you as you try to move on from that tough rejection.

The Five Stages of Screenwriting Rejection

When your script is rejected, you’re experiencing the death of a possibility to achieve your dreams. With death comes grief. Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s Five Stage Model of Grief is widely considered to be the go-to model of what stages we go through when dealing with the loss of someone, or something, close to us. 

1. Denial 

When you receive that call or email from your Hollywood contact telling you that they’re passing on your script, it will take awhile to truly let it sink in. When you’ve seen that you haven’t made the cut in that screenwriting contest or fellowship, you’ll scan the list of those that did again and again, thinking that a mistake has been made or that you’ve simply missed your name.

2. Anger

The strongest stage is the anger that you will feel once you finally realize that, yes, you’ve been rejected. You’ll naturally believe that the Hollywood contact, contest, or fellowship in question are out of their minds. You’ll feel that they know nothing about stories, characters, and screenwriting. You’ll throw insults at them — hopefully in the privacy of your own mind and home — and vent your frustrations.

3. Bargaining

Some screenwriters will unfortunately contact the contests and fellowships, asking and sometimes begging for them to reconsider. Some will reply to their Hollywood contacts that rejected the script and ask for detailed notes and feedback in hopes of “fixing” the script so they’ll reconsider or they’ll insist that perhaps they didn’t understand what the script was about and try to explain further.

4. Depression  

The darkest stage is depression. You’ll question your writing, your worth as a screenwriter, and whether or not you want to keep chasing this dream. You’ll wallow in self-pity and self-doubt. You’ll binge on terrible — but delicious — food and you’ll likely binge on the latest streaming shows as well as you sit lazily on your bed or couch.

5. Acceptance

Eventually you’ll walk out of the dark tunnel of grief that you’ve been in and accept what has happened. You’ll realize any number of solutions to getting past the rejection that you’ve faced, including:

  • “It was just the opinion of one person, let’s see what other people think.”
  • “If more than one person has passed, maybe there’s something I need to fix in another draft.”
  • “Maybe I’m not sending this script to the right people that are looking for this type of project.”
  • “Maybe I just need to move onto the next script.”
  • “I’m going to embrace any and all rejection and use it to fuel my fire to succeed.” 

You can’t avoid rejection as a screenwriter. It’s impossible. And when it happens, no words of inspiration are going to overshadow it. You need to understand why you’re feeling what you’re feeling, know that you’re not the only one going through it, and realize that it’s something you have to get through and learn from.

Read this ultimate guide to rejection every time you experience it, because no matter where you are in your screenwriting career, it will always be there. This will help guide you through those difficult times until you finally accept it, embrace it, learn from it, and use it to fuel your fire that will eventually lead you to success.

Additional References:

Bregtje Gunther Moor, Eveline A. Crone, Maurits W. van der Molen. The Heartbrake of Social Rejection: Heart Rate Deceleration in Response to Unexpected Peer Rejection. Psychological Science, 2010; DOI:10.1177/0956797610379236
H. E. Fisher, L. L. Brown, A. Aron, G. Strong, D. Mashek. Reward, Addiction and Emotion Regulation Systems Associated with Rejection in Love. Journal of Neurophysiology, 2010; DOI: 10.1152/jn.00784.2009
Schwartz, Barry (2004). Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less. New York, NY: HarperCollins.
Seligman, M.E.P. and Maier, S.F. (1967). Failure to escape traumatic shock. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 74, 1-9.
Iyer et al. (2010). Motor Preparatory Activity in Posterior Parietal Cortex is Modulated by Subjective Absolute Value. PLoS Biology, 8 (8): e1000444 DOI:10.1371/journal.pbio.1000444
Witt, J. K, & Dorsch, T. (2009). Kicking to bigger uprights: Field goal kicking performance influences perceived size. Perception 38: 1328-1340 DOI:10.1068/p6325.
Peterson C, Seligman ME, Yurko KH, Martin LR, Friedman HS. Catastrophizing and untimely death. Psychological Science. 1998; 9: 127-130.
Watson. J. & Ramey. C. Reactions to response-contingent stimulation in early infancy. Revision of paper presented at biennial meeting of the Society for Research in Child Development. Santa Monica. California, March. 1969.
Hiroto, D. S., & Seligman, M. E. P. (1975). Generality of learned helplessness in man. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 31, 311-327.