Inner reflection and dialogue is not just a key component to outstanding cinematic characters — screenwriters themselves can benefit from the practice of looking inward and asking themselves the hard questions that need to be answered through the many stages of their screenwriting career.
So as we share some of these pivotal questions, turn towards the figurative — or literal — mirror and search inward to find the answers that will set the course for your screenwriting aspirations through the many different stages of the screenwriter’s journey.
“Do I really NEED to do this?”
This is the key question that needs to be answered by every screenwriter before they truly set off on their writing quest.
Hollywood is hard. The development system that works as the industry’s filtration process of what does and does not make it to the screen has never been more difficult to navigate.
Check Out ScreenCraft’s How Screenwriters Can Fix the Broken Hollywood System for more on that!
There are endless Catch 22’s. In order to get your script read, you need representation — to get representation, you need them to read your script. Creative networking and mapping out your life to find those Hollywood contacts is key.
Beyond that, Hollywood is very risk averse. They take few chances on original screenplays written by unknown writers that have no IP (Intellectual Property) attached.
And even if you get management, it’s no guarantee that you’ll sell something. Even if you sell something, there is no guarantee that it will be produced. And even if you get something produced, there’s no guarantee that you’ll ever sell or be hired for anything again.
Now, having read all of that tough love information, you must once again ask yourself, “Do I really NEED to do this?” If you want to do it, that’s great. But you’ll soon discover that you truly have to feel that you need to do this in order to survive through the many lulls.
Is it worth the constant rejection and dead ends that you will surely be forced to live through? If so, read on.
“What movies do I want to see in the theater?”
When you are trying to decide what you want to write, this is the first thing that you should ask yourself.
Too many screenwriters try to chase trends — or worse yet, they try to write their own variations of the movies they love. These are the worst ways to choose projects. Hollywood has been bombarded by different variations of Fast and Furious, Mission Impossible, Zombie movies, Vampire movies, Superhero movies, Heist movies, and Raunchy “Night on the Town” comedies. Those are all just a few examples of the types of scripts that screenwriters are trying to break through with — clones.
Sure, you may want to see your own variations of what you love, but instead, focus on finding stories that Hollywood isn’t giving you. The ones you’d like to see. Point being, you need to have a passion for whatever it is that you’re working on. And that passion has to either bring a new and intriguing angle on a genre that hasn’t been done — instead of just your own version of what has — or you have to offer something truly original.
That is how you break through.
“What is the story I’m trying to tell?”
It’s not enough to just create a concept or scenario, throw some characters into the mix, and play it out. There has to be a viable story to tell within that concept. There have to be evident themes that you are exploring within that story as well.
Dinosaurs brought to life and wreaking havoc on a park isn’t enough (Jurassic Park). During a preview tour, a theme park suffers a major power breakdown that allows its cloned dinosaur exhibits to run amok — that’s the core story behind that concept. As you delve further, the characters placed into that story add to the depth of it as they each bring their own traits, strengths, weaknesses, and overall arcs. The themes explored within Jurassic Park are key to the story as well. Should Man Play God? Should Man Interfere with Nature? What Are the Dangers of Technology?
If you can’t answer what the story and themes of your script are beyond the general concept, chances are the script itself will showcase that disjointed and unfocused outlook.
“Is there enough conflict?”
Conflict is everything. Conflict is what keeps butts in the seat. Conflict is what defines the characters you create. Every script in every genre thrives best with the amount of conflict that the characters are forced to overcome.
The worst spec scripts are those that lack such conflict. The scripts that meander. The scripts that are overly invested in “clever” dialogue or “exciting” action sequences or “shocking” melodrama.
Throughout your scripts, every ten pages or so, there needs to be more and more conflict presented — ongoing, new, or evolved conflict that builds and builds until the ending. So be sure to go through your script and check for conflict every ten pages or so. Because again, conflict is everything.
“Am I truly ready?”
Let’s say you’ve finished that script after choosing the concept and story wisely. The first temptation is to get that script out there. Before you do that, you need to look into the mirror and ask yourself this question, “Am I truly ready?”
The immediate answer is no. If you’ve only written one script, you’re not ready. You haven’t fully tested your abilities and you haven’t allowed yourself to grow. There are exceptions and anomalies to be sure, but nine times out of ten, you’re not ready for the show. If you’ve only written two scripts, you’re on the right track, but likely still not ready.
Generally speaking, you need to get some great scripts under your belt before you’re ready to take anything out. And there’s more to it than just honing your craft. Let’s say you’ve beaten the odds and have gotten yourself some meetings after getting a script to some quality industry names. The first question they’ll ask after some chit-chat is, “What else do you have?”
If you don’t have a handful of solid spec scripts to talk about, you’ll likely get a comfortable nod and a “thanks but not now” handshake. Most successful screenwriters write an average of eight to ten scripts before they get their first paid gig.
There’s nothing wrong with being patient. It’ll pay off in the end.
“Is my script truly ready?”
You, the screenwriter, being “done with it” after working for multiple months and multiple drafts does not mean the script is ready. You not being able to add anything more to it does not mean that it is ready. And certainly, you being burnt out on writing it does not mean it is ready.
Feedback from peers and mentors aside, what you need to do is step away from the script for a couple of weeks to a month. No more writing. It’s vacation time. This is perhaps the most under-utilized practice for most screenwriters. All writers need that decompression period and all writers need to step away and separate themselves from their work.
After that time has gone by, read the script from cover-to-cover. It is a guarantee that you will see flaws and areas of improvement that you could have never singled out in the heat of your writing process, having lived with the script for months in various drafts.
Beyond that, you need to make sure it’s ready to share with the industry because any time you send a script out, you have only one single first impression to make. It always has to be your best foot forward — your best possible work. You never want to exhaust an industry contact with a script that is overwritten, underwritten, ill-conceived, unprepared, not proof read to an exhausting degree, or all of the above.
Work-in-progress is not a term that anyone in the film industry wants to hear when it comes to a script. You’re not sending your script to a vital industry contact to get feedback on how to make it better. You’re sending it to them to sell it. And in order for them to even consider buying it, it has to be a step or more above anything and everything else that they have read.
“Can this ‘industry contact’ really help me?”
Most screenwriters are an excitable bunch when it comes to meeting someone that works within the industry — and understandably so. As mentioned above, Hollywood is difficult to break into amongst so many Catch 22’s and walls that they need to break through. So whenever you meet or are connected with someone that is working at a studio, network, production company, agency, management company, or any other place connected to the film and television industry, it’s only natural that your eyes will widen in anticipation.
But wait, “Can this industry contact really help me?”
First off, just because they are connected to a known entity in Hollywood doesn’t mean that they are in a place to get your script read. What position do they hold? If they are below-the-line support — barista, IT tech, mail room clerk, etc. — it’s more than likely that they won’t be able to do much for you. If they are an assistant, office clerk, or production assistant, they usually won’t be in a position to go to their superiors with any and all scripts that their friends or acquaintances share with them.
But it doesn’t hurt to try. Creative marketing and networking is essential. Taking a shot in the dark is always recommended because sometimes you’ll have good fortune and hit the target — and if you don’t, the worse they can do is say no or not reply.
The major concern with this vital question is whether or not the person is truly a legitimate contact. Remember that anyone can call themselves a manager, agent, producer, or development executive. Anyone can create a company name, company website, and even create content to showcase. Anyone can write and produce short films, and even micro-budget features, and get their names onto IMDB.
So it’s up to you to do your research and make sure that you’re giving your script to someone that can really help you. Never waste your time, efforts, and certainly your hopes with those that really can’t help you in the long run. It’s better to focus on those that are the true movers and shakers in the industry.
You must always be moving forward in your writing. Too many screenwriters bank everything on one script. They’ll spend too much time writing and rewriting it. Then they submit it to various contests and fellowships and wait for the results.
You have to move on. You need to get to a level where you can finish a script in just a few months, take a break, and then move forward to the next project. You can certainly submit to contests, fellowships, and industry contacts, but you need to be constantly developing and writing new scripts to stack your deck.
Challenge yourself. Don’t write more of the same. Pick the one concept that has been lingering in the back of your head, whispering to you — the one that has scared you the most.
“What can I do better?”
As we all know, Hollywood is a grind — especially for screenwriters. The average wait for success for those that do break through is often a decade. The “overnight” successes you read about are really multiple year struggles until the stars align and the writer has found themselves in the right place, at the right time, with the right script and with the right person that can make their dream come true.
This final question is a necessity and applies to all stages of a screenwriter’s journey.
What can you do to better your writing? What can you do to make that “final draft” even better? What can you do to better network and market your script?
Another variation of this question is, “What am I doing wrong?”
If nobody is responding to your queries, maybe you’re not writing very good approach emails. Maybe you’re not marketing it to the right people.
If nobody is showing any interest in your script after they do read it, maybe you’re not ready to be sending stuff out yet. Maybe you need to get a few more scripts under your belt to hone your craft? And if you feel the script is great, maybe you just need to keep on keeping on. If it truly is a worthy script, it’ll find a champion in the industry ready and willing to take a chance on it.
Looking inward and self-reflecting is a must for screenwriters. Too many point fingers at the industry, putting the blame for their lack of success squarely on Hollywood.
By asking yourself these nine questions throughout your journey — and looking into that mirror to find the true answers — you’ll be taking a proactive approach instead of stewing in your own self-pity and becoming one of the many pessimists that blame everyone else but themselves.
Take the time right now to ask yourself these questions. You just might find the answers that catapult you to eventual success — and a dream come true.
Ken Miyamoto has worked in the film industry for nearly two decades, most notably as a studio liaison for Sony Studios and then as a script reader and story analyst for Sony Pictures.
He has many studio meetings under his belt as a produced screenwriter, meeting with the likes of Sony, Dreamworks, Universal, Disney, Warner Brothers, as well as many production and management companies. He has had a previous development deal with Lionsgate, as well as multiple writing assignments, including the produced miniseries Blackout, starring Anne Heche, Sean Patrick Flanery, Billy Zane, James Brolin, Haylie Duff, Brian Bloom, Eric La Salle, and Bruce Boxleitner. Follow Ken on Twitter @KenMovies