How do screenwriters develop a screenwriting process that's right for them?
You may find this ironic or contradictory coming from a screenwriting blog, but the truth is that perhaps the most harmful way for screenwriters to learn the craft is by following the screenwriting process of pundits, gurus, and even successful Hollywood screenwriters.
Allow me to explain.
A Screenwriting Process Is Like a Diet
Every screenwriter has to create a writing process that involves structure and discipline — no different than what it takes for someone to implement a weight loss program and diet.
But what have we learned about diets in the last couple of decades? No single diet works for everyone. Just like we all have different body types, metabolism, budgets, discipline, needs, and wants when it comes to a weight loss plan, screenwriters all have different writing styles, preferences, writing schedules, discipline, needs, and wants when it comes to their screenwriting.
And it's difficult for screenwriters to create a disciplined and structured screenwriting process because it's like a diet. You have to:
- Be disciplined
- You have to do things you don't like to do
- You can't eat what you want to eat
It's the same thing with writing a screenplay — and your screenwriting career as a whole.
- You need to do the front-end work of concept, story, and character development.
- To get the screenplay written effectively, you need to discipline yourself with goals and deadlines.
- You need to cut scenes and characters you love from your script to create a tight and more focused draft.
Just as a single diet doesn't work for everyone, nor does a single screenwriting process — even if it's heralded by pundits, gurus, and successful Hollywood screenwriters.
In short, just because it works for them doesn't mean it's going to work for you.
With that in mind, here are three simple steps to develop your own successful screenwriting process.
1. Pick the Brains of the Pundits, Gurus, and Hollywood Insiders
You need to research your craft. And when you do so, you need to cast a wide net — as opposed to following the directives of a single person you discovered or admire.
It does you no good to pick the first writing process you find and roll with those steps and directives within.
One of the most popular screenwriting books is Save the Cat!. A generation of screenwriters used this book and its beat street as their screenwriting process. However, like any formula or beat sheet, the "proven" practices within can be just as easily disproven.
Again, no single "diet" works for everyone.
So your ongoing mission throughout your screenwriting journey should be to read and ingest as many pundit/guru/insider articles, books, and interviews as you can. There is a reason most of these people — especially successful Hollywood screenwriters — are considered authorities on the screenwriting subject.
- Some come from studio development.
- Others come from the independent market.
- The successful Hollywood screenwriters stand where you would like to one day be.
And it's not even about finding a process within that bunch that you implement 100% in your own screenwriting process. It's more about cherry-picking what resonates with you the best.
- You may like how one process handles story and character development, but the rest is for the birds.
- You may dislike most of what you read in one book, but find a single nugget of wisdom that resonates with your style.
- Read them all.
- Find what resonates with you the most.
- Create your own hybrid.
2. Do Your Future Self a Favor By Training to Write Like a Pro
As a Hollywood screenwriter, you have to learn to write under strict deadlines.
The standard contract for a feature screenwriting assignment will generally stipulate that the writer will have just ten to twelve weeks to finish the first draft.
That means you could have less than three months to write a script from beginning to end. And here's the other rub — if what you hand in isn't up to par with their expectations, you can and will be replaced quickly. That first draft has to be amazing, and you have to learn to write a great draft within three months — a draft that is the equivalent of what you would deem a final draft in your regular spec screenplay process writing by yourself under no contract deadlines.
To put this into an even more specific professional perspective, know that the general feature contract you'll be given will stipulate various stages of payment. So if you've been offered X amount, don't get too excited because that contract amount splits into draft levels.
Here's a breakdown of a contract payment, based solely on the guild minimum stipulations for WGA signatory companies (non-signatory companies do not have to comply with this).
So as you can see, there are many times within a general contract where the writer can be replaced and miss out on the dollar amount initially offered.
With deadlines, you'll have ten to twelve weeks to finish that first draft, yes. But for final drafts, rewrites, and polishes (IF you are retained for those), the deadlines generally drop to just two weeks for each.
So, needless to say, you have to learn to write under such deadlines.
The days of taking four, five, six months, or beyond to finish that script need to be over right now as you read this if you want to train yourself to be a professional screenwriter. You can't simply wait to be in that position and expect to learn by trial by fire. Once you fail under that pressure, the bridge you've worked so hard to build will be burnt, and your reputation for other potential jobs will falter.
So start creating whatever development and writing process you need to get that first draft done in no more than three months — and then just one to two additional drafts within two weeks for each.
Once you start imposing those industry-standard deadlines, you can take what screenwriting process you've created from Step #1 and apply it to the confines of the inevitable industry structures, needs, and wants to create your own evolved professional screenwriting process. And when you do this on your own, you'll be light years ahead of most novice and undiscovered screenwriters.
3. Adapt Your Screenwriting Process to Every Script You Take On
Changing your writing process with every story you write will help you avoid complacency, avoid boredom, and create a diverse understanding of the craft you need to be successful as a professional writer.
Margaret Atwood — famous author of The Handmaid's Tale and its best-selling sequel The Testaments — spoke with Entertainment Weekly about her writing process, where she revealed a surprising stance on the subject.
"Here's a deep, dark secret that I'm going to share with you: Everybody who goes on about their writing process is probably just making it up because you can't actually remember that much about how you wrote things — unless you're a much better-organized person than I am. [My process] is skiing down a hill. When you're skiing down a hill, you're trying not to fall over — and you're making a lot of unconscious decisions automatically. You're not thinking about them because if you do, you will fall over."
Here are reasons why you should change your screenwriting process every time you start a new story.
To Avoid Complacency
When you're comfortable, you're complacent. And when you're overly complacent, you're not challenging those creative muscles.
A bodybuilder doesn't perform the same few exercises each and every day. Why? Muscles conform to movements. They adapt to activities that are repeated over and over. Muscle hypertrophy occurs when the fibers within your muscles are injured or damaged. Your body repairs those damaged fibers by fusing them together. That is what increases the mass and size of your muscles.
When your body gets used to the same exercises being performed over and over, the fibers aren't being challenged — and they certainly aren't going to grow. The same can be said for your creative muscles. You're not challenging those creative muscles if you are always writing in the same location, with the same stimuli, while using the same writing process. And the same can be said for the choices that you're making. If you are complacent about the genres you write within, you're not challenging your imagination and storytelling capabilities. And when you're not challenging yourself, you're unable to grow as a writer.
Write in a new location for every story — or have multiple locations to choose from throughout your writing process. The stimuli around you will subconsciously steer you towards different creative decisions. The music you listen to when you write should be different every time as well. Complacency can kill your potential as a writer. Change your writing process with every story to build up those creative muscles.
To Avoid Boredom
Old habits die hard. The thought of changing your writing process may be intimidating, but it's necessary. What's worse than complacency for a writer? Being bored. To conceive, develop, and write a compelling and engaging story, you need energy and excitement. The energy and enthusiasm translate through the material to the reader or audience.
Any script reader or publisher can feel when a writer is — or is not — passionate about what they're writing. And if there's no passion present, no risk taken, and no energy evident in between the lines, your story isn't going to generate much interest. It's going to feel like a paint-by-numbers effort.
Changing your writing process will keep you excited about writing. It will challenge you in many different ways. If you're used to a lot of outlining, imagine the thrill of going into a story with little-to-no preparation. If you're used to a lot of research, consider taking on a bare-bones approach — or think about focusing on a more personal story that doesn't require the outside information that research provides. If you're used to going in with all of the hard questions about your stories and characters answered, picture what it would feel like to discover those answers organically while writing. And yes, if you never outline, research, or figure out your stories before you begin your writing process, maybe it's time to consider putting in that extra work to help focus your stories and characters more.
Boredom will kill your creativity. You never want to think of writing as a job where you arrive at the same assembly line, clock in, perform the same tasks you do day in and day out, and then clock out afterward, only to repeat the same pattern every writing day you have. That's not what writing is about. Change your writing process with every story, and you'll see the difference in how you feel and how the work translates to the reader or audience.
To Create a Diverse Understanding of the Craft
There are many ways to write wonderful and amazing stories. There is no single creative writing process that will bring you clarity or success. Different stories call for different tools and practices.
- If you're a novelist, deadlines will vary, and the demands of your writing process will change once publishers take notice and prepare you for that industry.
- If you're a screenwriter, writing assignments are the bread and butter of your career. You will need to be able to adjust to many different producing and directing personalities. Some will need quick rewrites on the fly. Others will want to meticulously break down every word that you write — and how you write it.
When you change your screenwriting process with every story you tackle, you build a diverse tool-set that you can bring to any situation. If a publisher or producer sees that you can adapt to any given deadline, constraint, or collaboration, your stock as a dependable writer will only go up.
Creating your own screenwriting process is a must. You can't rely on the practices of others. Why? Because they are not you. You have different likes, dislikes, habits, strengths, weaknesses, lifestyles, family situations, time constraints, free time, etc.
Find your own screenwriting process and journey.
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, the feature thriller Hunter's Creed starring Duane "Dog the Bounty Hunter" Chapman, Wesley Truman Daniel, Mickey O'Sullivan, John Victor Allen, and James Errico, as well as produced and upcoming Lifetime suspense thrillers. Follow Ken on Twitter @KenMovies