7 Ways Screenwriters Can Survive and Conquer the Writing Assignment
Collaboration is often tricky for screenwriters. Unless you're part of a writing team, it has usually been just you, your computer, and whatever cinematic magic you conjure.
But when you're working on assignment, the experience is a whole different ball game. You're no longer writing your own original stories and characters. You're taking preconceived concepts, characters, plot points, and arcs conjured by producers, development executives, foreign distributors, directors, previous screenplay drafts, or intellectual properties (novels, comics, short stories, newspaper articles, video games, etc.), and you are writing screenplays within those confined spaces and answering to those that have hired you.
The experience of the script assignment can be a slippery slope at times. On the one hand, it can be rewarding and prosperous, but on the other hand, it can be damn frustrating and hopeless.
Yet there's no escaping it. If you have your hopes and dreams set on becoming a working screenwriter, you need to know that upwards of 99% of the job entails writing on assignment. In a perfect world, your spec scripts would just keep selling and selling, but the reality is that most screenwriters — even the top tier ones — are almost always writing someone else's ideas and concepts.
So, how do you, the screenwriter, learn to collaborate with the many hands in the cookie jar? How do you avoid the many pitfalls to retain your jobs through your contracts and get hired for others? And finally, how do you make the development and writing of other people's ideas beneficial to you and your writing soul?
I've been fortunate enough to have been hired for a few paid writing assignments in my time, one of which, the miniseries Blackout, was produced with a name cast including Anne Heche, James Brolin, Sean Patrick Flanery, Bruce Boxleitner, Eric La Salle, etc.
Below are some secrets that I picked up during my experiences — as well as through discussions with major studio writers — which screenwriters can use to navigate the experience of script assignments for the better of all.
1. Be Sure That You're Passionate About the Concept
If you've been asked to write a screenplay about a football team that defies the odds to make it to the big game, and you hate football, that's not a good start. It may be a bad idea from the get-go if that's the case.
You have to have a passion for what you are writing about. That passion that you have when you're writing your own scripts has to carry over to writing someone else's.
Chances are the producer has already detected your lack of passion once they pitch you the concept and gauge your reactions. You won't get hired for it if the passion isn't ever-present. But, especially when you're first starting to get some big breaks, you'd be a fool to reject the notion of a paid writing gig, which for screenwriters at the lower tiers are few and far between.
So in those cases, what you need to do is find your passion within the concept and subject. Listen to their pitches, read the loglines and materials they present to you, and find your passions within them.
Using the football concept as an example, if you don't particularly like football, then find elements that you love that could be incorporated into such stories. Focus on the underdog themes that you may enjoy. Focus on the brotherhood concepts that you may have a passion for. Tell those stories that you love to tell using whatever concepts or settings they have as the platform. That's what professional writers do. They find themselves and their passions within the assignments.
Showcasing a passion for the material will not just get you the job; it'll make the collaboration with the producer and others that much more comfortable. And when you've proven to be an excellent collaborator, you've established your worth as a screenwriter to consider for additional assignments.
2. Know What They Want and Need
Screenwriting assignments don't just entail your employers giving you a logline and you going out and writing your own version of it. That's one of the biggest misconceptions that novice screenwriters have when imagining working on assignment.
There will be multiple reasons why they've chosen this concept and why they've gotten to the point where they are looking for a writer to attach.
They've done the research and have had multiple meetings. They know why they want to make it. They know who they want to make it for. They know how to market it. They know what their distributors want and need.
When you first sit down with the producer or development executive that you'll be answering to, you need to ask multiple questions. You need to learn what they want and what they need. You need to know what you can write and what you shouldn't write.
"Is this PG, PG-13, or R?"
"What type of tone and atmosphere are you looking for?"
"How diverse do you need or want the script to be?"
"What's the general budget you're looking at?"
"Are you going for a grand scale or something more contained?"
These are just a few of the many questions you should be asking them before you write one single word. In fact, before you even start to plant the storytelling seeds in your head.
These questions, and more, will dictate the language you use, the sexuality you showcase or don't showcase, the violence that is or isn't present, the type of look and feel of the film, the casting, the number of locations you use, and the amount of spectacle you do or do not have.
Furthermore, they may have specific locations already planned. They may have particular sets at their disposal. They may have actors that they usually work with in mind for certain roles.
Know what they want and what they need. It will save you so much time and trouble once you hand that first draft in.
3. Leave Enough Room to Work Your Magic
Knowing what they want and need is vital to the process, but can be taken too far. Screenwriters want and need a little breathing room when they sit down to write. It's a necessity for creativity.
The good thing is, most producers and development executives know this. They don't want to give you all of the answers. You've been hired for a reason, likely because you've showcased some great storytelling abilities and style in your own spec scripts or previous assignments. They want you to bring your own elements and perspectives to the script as well.
That said, screenwriters can make the mistake of asking too many questions and seeking out too many answers. Two things can happen when you do this.
The first is that it presents some proof to your employer that you're not capable of handling the assignment. This is usually sniffed out when you're pitching your take on what they present to you, but even after you've signed on, there are so many clauses in the contracts that allow for them to fire you whenever they'd like.
Secondly, when you ask too many questions, they may be inclined to give you as many answers. Many will jump on that train and essentially attempt to write the script for you without even realizing it. And as a result, the screenwriter has basically asked themselves into a corner. When you are given that many directives to follow, there is no breathing room to expand.
So the trick for the screenwriter is to only ask for the broad strokes. The moment you begin to ask for specifics will be the moment where you relinquish any and all moments of inspiration that you could have offered.
4. Write the S*** Out of It
A natural habit of falling into while writing someone else's concept is complacency. The reason you need to leave room to expand on their concepts, characters, and stories is so that you can go in and inject it with your own flair, style, and brilliance. So you can give them what they may not have known that they wanted and needed.
You have to write the s*** out of whatever you take on. If it's yet another "come from behind against all the odds" football movie, you have to write the s*** out of that, offering the best possible version of that story that no one has ever seen. If you're tasked to write an otherwise by-the-numbers action thriller that has been pre-sold in foreign territories for the specific reason that their audiences like such fare, you have to write the best possible version of that type of flick that you can to make it stand apart.
5. It's All in the Subtle Details
The producers and other powers that be will offer you the broad strokes of what they need. You'll write the best possible versions of those broad strokes, but to truly write the s*** out of it, you'll need to focus on the subtle details. Those unanswered or non-directed elements that you hopefully were wise enough to keep to yourself, or keep open for interpretation.
- Character Tics and Traits
- B Stories
- Flipping Stereotypes and Cliches
- Twists and Turns
- Character Ailments, Conflicts, Inner Demons
- Inventive Suspense Sequences
These are just a few of the details that you can focus on to make your script stand out. This is how you marry what they want with what you want, creating the perfect hybrid that both they and you can love and be proud of in the end.
6. Choose Your Battles Wisely
Either during the development discussions before you begin to write or after that first draft you've written and handed in, you must remember to choose your battles wisely.
Professional writers are expected to have an opinion. The notion that screenwriters are robots that do what they are told and could easily be replaced by algorithms is utterly false. Film and television is a collaborative medium, and that collaboration has to happen on all ends for greatness to present itself. Producers need to produce. Directors need to direct. Actors need to act. And screenwriters need to write. So rest assured that you can and should fight for what you believe in, whether if it's for story choices, character choices, or what have you.
However, always remember to choose your battles wisely. In the end, it's the producer's call. There's no escaping that. But when the writer in you is struggling to stand up for the choices that your producer is questioning, you have to choose when to act or not act on those impulses.
As mentioned before, the producer may need specific locations, certain sequences, and certain types of characters. They may not like the subtle details you've added, or the people above them may not like them for whatever reason. It's up to you, the screenwriter, to decide which battles you truly want to embark on.
There's no real answer to what you should and shouldn't fight for because every script and situation is different. Just remember that the assignment process is often give and take, with a little more give on your end because you're the hired gun.
Good collaboration is often more about the ability to compromise. Sometimes whether you like it or not. And when being able to compromise makes you a better collaborator, your screenwriting career will only get better as your reputation proceeds you. But what makes that reputation even better is also showcasing the ability to fight the good fight at the same time. In the end, it just showcases your passion for the project you were hired to take on.
7. Hope for the Best, But Prepare for the Worst
Because movies and television are collaborative mediums, things will change and evolve — for better or worse. And usually, the first element to change is the script.
When you're writing on assignment, you can almost surely expect to either be replaced or rewritten at some point. During my time on Blackout, I was fortunate enough to be retained through my whole contract, which had four drafts with options to replace the writer after each. Thankfully, I was never replaced.
However, come production time, things changed. The casting was shifted. I had written a part specifically for the great James Earl Jones which featured a diverse storyline with his character and the character's inner city grandchildren on the run in the looting-infested city of Los Angeles during a terrorist-instigated blackout. By production start, Jones was no longer available so a production writer was brought in to rewrite that storyline which would later star James Brolin and two Caucasian actors. While Brolin is always great, the storyline suffered.
Beyond that, the production rewrite changed parts of the other storylines as well. While perhaps 80% of my final draft elements were present, the 20% that was altered affected the end product drastically.
A studio writer friend of mine wrote two big-budget, high-profile studio films. By the time both projects were produced, after numerous production rewrites, the end product of each was vastly different from the final draft he worked so hard to complete.
Such is the nature of the industry. When your assignments finally make it to the big or small screen, you hope for the best and prepare for the worst because it's a collaborative medium, and by the time the projects hit the screen, hundreds of people have had their hands on it.
You, the working screenwriter, are simply tasked to accept that and move on, appreciating the fact that you are in the position that most screenwriters would kill to be in. You've been assigned to write a script, and you've been paid to do so. You're living the dream that most don't get to live.
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