7 Screenwriting Takeaways from Denzel Washington Commencement Speeches

by Ken Miyamoto on November 4, 2020

Screenwriting wisdom can be found in all walks of life and in all kinds of places. Below are some fantastic quotes from Denzel Washington's college graduation commencement speeches over the years. Here are seven things screenwriters can learn from the wise and inspiring words of Denzel Washington.

1. "The world needs your talents."

It's easy to think of screenwriting as "a silly hobby with no likelihood of success." Throughout your screenwriting journey, you will likely come across this sentiment from others looking down upon you — or from your own self-consciousness and insecurities. But according to Denzel (and many others), the world needs your screenwriting talents. Screenwriters and filmmakers have a power like no other. They create portals into the psyches of every living person that comes across their visuals and words. They entertain, inspire, and inform.

You can write works of escapism that take audiences out of the regular hustle and bustle of their lives and place them in the cinematics seats of laugh-fests, rollercoaster action rides, and thrilling nailbiters. A great screenplay — later produced as a great feature film and television episode — can also inject inspiration into the mind of someone that needs it most.

And finally, a screenwriter can inform and educate the world about true stories that need to be told. Yes, the world needs your talents.

2. "Fail big. Today is the beginning of the rest of your life, and it can be very frightening. It's a new world out there, and it's a mean world out there, and you only live once. So do what you feel passionate about. Take chances professionally. Don’t be afraid to fail."

Normally in life, failure is looked upon as a negative that that should be avoided. Well, you can't avoid it. And the truth is that failure is necessary for anyone to succeed — especially screenwriters. During your screenwriting career, you will be rejected by Hollywood, representation, and screenwriting competitions. You will finish a first draft and realize that it just didn’t pan out the way you envisioned. And you will have to listen to all of the glaring issues professionals have with your script.

Failure is necessary. It sucks at first, yes, but it is the best education and information that you will ever receive to become a great screenwriter. Embrace your failures. Learn from them. Let them make you not just a better writer — but one of the best because you didn't fear the lessons that had to be learned.

Read ScreenCraft's 9 Easy Ways Screenwriters Can Learn From Failure!

3. "There’s an old IQ test with nine dots, and you had to draw five lines with a pencil within these nine dots without lifting the pencil, and the only way to do it was to go outside the box. So don’t be afraid to go outside the box. Don’t be afraid to think outside the box."

You will quickly learn that, as a screenwriter, thinking outside the box is a must. You need to do so to stand apart from the rest. Why? Because the industry employs various filtration systems meant to weed out as many people as possible. With so many screenwriters trying to break through — and 99% of them not being ready — filtration systems are a must.

It is the job of the screenwriter to think outside the dictated perimeters — within reason.

The first objective is always to write a great script. Hollywood development's current favorite phrase is — the cream will rise. Once great scripts are in the spec market, the cream will rise, and the powers that be will take notice. But many great scripts still slip through the cracks. Sometimes it’s because of poor marketing on the screenwriter’s end. Sometimes it’s bad luck. Thinking outside the box is necessary to increase your odds of getting noticed.

Read ScreenCraft's 5 Ways Screenwriters Can Think Outside the Box!

4. "Dream big — but remember dreams without goals are just dreams, and they ultimately fuel disappointment."

Dreams are something you think about and aspire to one day. Goals are something you are acting on. Everyone has a dream to do one thing or another in their lives. Dreams alone are nothing more than your aspirations. Not everyone sets the goals and deadlines to accomplish those dreams.

Life is easy when you're just a dreamer. There are no repercussions. Goals are what really cost you time, money, blood, sweat, and tears to try and accomplish. They are the actions you take that lead you to dreams you dream. You can dream the dream of becoming a paid screenwriter well into your 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, and beyond, but unless you set some goals and deadlines, you’ll never see any results. That’s why the screenwriters that can finish a great script in three months are more likely to succeed than those that take a year and beyond to finish an average one.

The interesting element is that dreams and goals need to coexist. Dreams are the inspiration that gets you up in the morning to write. Goals are the dedication that can finally pull you closer and closer to seeing that dream come true.

And finally, dreams stretch your imagination. Goals stretch you. They enhance your skills, abilities, and qualifications — and they mold you into not just who and what you want to be, but who and what you will become.

5. "Every day, you have to plan — every day. You’ve heard the saying that 'we don’t plan to fail, we fail to plan.' Hard work works. Working really hard is what successful people do."

It's not enough to meander and find time to write when you have the time. You'll never get anywhere with that mentality. You have to make the time. So you can only write two times a day — a little in the morning and little at night? That's still a plan. The same is true if you can only write two hours a day, or two hours a week. As long as you set aside time to write — that's a plan.

When you have a structured schedule, you can use all of your off-time to prepare for those writing sessions to fit into your busy schedule. On lunch breaks, you can go through your notes, outlines, and thoughts. On car rides home from school or work, you can visualize the scene you're about to write as you listen to some instrumental music to set the mood.

Read ScreenCraft's How to Use Music to Write Better Screenplays!

Do the work and set a schedule. Plan out what you're going to be writing each writing session. Successful screenwriters always have a plan. You can modify that plan anytime you'd like, but you need to start somewhere.

6. "Don’t confuse movement with progress. My mom told me, 'you can run in place all the time and never get anywhere.' Continue to strive, continue to have goals, continue to progress." 

Many screenwriters get caught in the trap of working on multiple projects at once. They're researching this while they are writing that. Or maybe they're working on a pilot at the same time that they are working on that new feature script. Multitasking is great, but if you're not making any forward progress, you're not getting anywhere.

When you're under assignment as a professional screenwriter, you're getting paid to work on that project and that project alone. So you should be emulating that professional scenario, even as a non-professional screenwriter working on spec. That's how you train yourself to be a professional screenwriter — working like you're under contract for that one project.

7.  "I found that nothing in life is worthwhile — unless you take risks. Nothing."

It's tempting to follow the trends and chase what is comfortable and familiar. Even Hollywood development makes the mistake of trying to emulate recent successes and hits.

Read ScreenCraft's How Screenwriters Can Fix the Broken Hollywood System!

You, the screenwriter, can make a difference. But you have to be willing to take risks. You have to be daring enough to go against the grain. You have to take those shots in the dark. Just writing another wacky comedy, conventional action flick, space opera, slasher gorefest, or just another franchise clone under a different name that we’ve seen before isn’t enough.

It may look and feel like you’re playing the Hollywood game. Like you are emulating managers, agents, development executives, and producers. But what you’re really doing is making the problem worse.

Yes, it’s perfectly fine to have those types of scripts in your back pocket as writing samples, but you need to start thinking about how you’re going to separate yourself from the rest of the flock. How are you going to change the game? If you don’t believe you can, then you should find something else to pursue right now.

Hollywood needs you. Give them what they didn’t know they wanted.

"Anything you want, you can have. So claim it. Work hard to get it. When you get it, reach back — pull someone else up. Each one, teach one. Don’t just aspire to make a living, aspire to make a difference." — Denzel Washington

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, and 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. Follow Ken on Twitter @KenMovies

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