How can you take what you learn from any personal screenwriting failure in your life and turn them into lessons that will further hone and evolve your writing into something that Hollywood will be banging on your door for?
Failure is often looked upon as a negative that all should avoid — but the truth is that failure is necessary for any screenwriter to succeed.
Whether you've been rejected by Hollywood, representation, or screenwriting competitions...whether you've finished that first draft and realized that it just didn't pan out the way you envisioned...whether you've handed it over to someone to read and review for feedback, only to be shocked to hear all of the glaring issues they have with it...failure is necessary.
Failure sucks at first, but it is the best education and information that you will ever receive to become a great screenwriter.
In researching ways to best learn from failure, we turn to the one other industry that arguably experiences it as much, if not more, than up-and-coming screenwriters — the science industry. Articles from ISEH and Wired offer some outstanding steps to take to learn from failure.
Scientists face disappointment and failure on a daily basis — a failed experiment, a rejected paper, a rejected research grant. But they must carry on and push themselves with clarity, conviction, and true originality — just like screenwriters — in order to accomplish their goals and prove their theories.
In the ISEH article, Dr. Peter van Galen states, “It is pretty rare for an experiment to confirm your hypothesis, so you have to savor the times that it happens. The percentage of experiments that yield 'publication quality' data is probably less than 10%, and it’s these rare events that have to keep you going for months of disappointments."
Screenwriters can surely relate to this.
Here are nine simple and easy steps — featured in those articles — that both scientists and screenwriters can take to turn failure into paths that lead to success.
1. Wallow in Self-Pity for a Couple of Days
This first step is necessary. First, you have to identify the time period you're going to give yourself to mourn and feel sorry for yourself. We're human and this is a necessary emotion that has to be processed in order for you to step through that pity wall and into a new bright and shiny day.
Don't wallow for a week or month when you've been rejected by Hollywood, managers, agents, or screenwriting competitions — that's counterproductive.
All that you need is a day or two to eat ice cream, partake in some junk food, have a drink, lay in bed or on the couch, and just ponder what could have been. Get those emotions out. It's science. If you don't process those emotions, your body and mind will shut down, protecting itself from more failure.
But the key is to have a deadline for your self-pity. A short one. Either 24 hours or a single weekend. Then tell yourself that after that time period, you're going to reassess.
2. Don't Take It Personally
Even the most successful screenwriters have been rejected and have failed. They've written box office failures or they've been fired and replaced due to "creative differences." So remember that you're in good company every time you experience any form of failure.
Don't blame it on the contest. Don't blame it on the readers. Don't blame it on the Hollywood system. Understand that it's a professional viewpoint and there may be something to learn from it. Ask yourself, "Why didn't they like it?" Ponder that question. If they've given you notes, review them. If they haven't, read through the script again. Give it some deep thought and make the changes you feel you need to make.
3. Don't Overanalyze the Feedback and Notes
If you can address the issues with your screenplays that were shared — if any — then do so. If you can't because you disagree with their opinions, then move on and submit the work to someone else.
Cinema is subjective. One producer will hate your script while another will be head-over-heels for it.
Take what you think you can apply for the better of the script and leave the rest behind. Don't overanalyze your script or become obsessed with a single pair of notes — to the point where you feel that that single opinion should dictate a multitude of changes. Consider it, but don't overanalyze each and every thing they try to point out.
Read ScreenCraft's 3 Ways Screenwriters Can Avoid the Paralysis of Analysis!
4. Success in Screenwriting Is a Marathon, Not a Sprint
Many screenwriters try to sprint to success — expecting to succeed as quickly as possible.
Continuing to move forward in the face of little setbacks will win the race in the end. Most screenwriters will struggle to break through those Hollywood walls for a decade before things finally fall into place. You can certainly accelerate that timeline by learning quickly from your failures and being at the right place, at the right time, with the right script, but a successful screenwriting career takes time.
5. Make Sure That There Are Other Great Things in Your Life
Life and work balance is important. How you handle failure can often fall onto other aspects of your life. Build great relationships with others. Be a great family member, friend, spouse, significant other, peer, or co-worker.
Choose wisely when choosing the friends and acquaintances that you spend time with. In the end, life is good and screenwriting is secondary to the more important things.
6. Check Your Assumptions at the Door
After failure occurs and you've realized these first five steps to learning from failure, it's time to get to work. The first step in that direction is looking at your screenplay and the end result — the draft — and why it failed to accomplish what you had hoped.
Maybe it's a simple element like a slow opening or weak climax. Maybe the dialogue needs to be trimmed or touched up. Maybe overwritten scene description shut down the pacing of the read. Maybe a character is too unlikeable — or too likable.
Check your own assumptions of what you've written and look at things from an outside perspective.
7. Seek Out the Ignorant
Talk to people who are unfamiliar with your script, whether they are in the business or not. Pitch them your story and consider their reactions. Explaining your story in simple fashion can help you see it in a new light.
8. Encourage Diversity
If you're sharing the screenplay with people that have read and loved it from the beginning, then it's likely that everyone will have the same set of assumptions. Take that action script to someone that normally hates action scripts. Share that dramatic screenplay with a horror writer. Forward that screenplay to a novelist. Outside perspectives can often give you more diverse opinions and notes.
Another aspect that you can explore with diversity in mind is taking the script to additional companies that weren't on the top of your list. So many screenwriters focus on hitting the big dogs while others may be the proper fit for it — whether it's because they have fewer projects in development or because there is easier access to them.
9. Beware of Failure-Blindness
Many screenwriters succumb to the habit of filtering out information that contradicts our preconceptions. The only way you can avoid that personal bias is to be aware of it.
This is perhaps one of the most common missteps that screenwriters make on a regular daily basis. They filter out anything that goes against their preconceived notions about how they want their stories to be told or how they want to go about pursuing their screenwriting careers.
If someone tells them that their story would be better if they toned down the epic scope of their script and focused on just one story element or one character, they reject that notion.
If someone tells them that the dialogue is too expositional and takes away from the discovery of the story through action and reaction, they reject that notion.
The single most difficult hurdle we screenwriters have to overcome is ourselves. When we wallow in self-pity for months, when we take rejection personally, when we overanalyze the feedback, when we want it all now and not later, when we mix with the wrong crowd, when we treat others poorly, when we assume too much, when we surround ourselves with "yes" people, when we fear diverse opinions, and when we are blind to our own failures, we are blocking our own paths to success.
Failure is the best education you will ever receive as a screenwriter. Embrace it. Learn from it. Let it make you not just a better writer — but one of the best.
Read ScreenCraft's The Screenwriter’s Ultimate Guide to Handling Rejection!
Here's a message from Will Smith on Failing Early, Failing Often, and Failing Forward...
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