The Secret to Standing Out as a Screenwriter
There's one single secret way that a screenwriter can stand out among the tens of thousands of other screenwriters trying to make it in Hollywood and beyond.
Let's put everything into context before we tackle that secret.
The Writers Guild of America has around 22,600 active members, consisting of those that are making a living as a screenwriter now and those that have made money from screenwriting in the past. Beyond Guild membership — which has become very difficult to attain compared to decades ago — there are tens of thousands of novice and unknown screenwriters worldwide chasing that screenwriting dream.
So how can you possibly stand out among all of those people to get into those Hollywood walls and sell a script or be hired to write one on assignment?
It's Not Just About Great Concepts
Yes, in Hollywood, concept is everything. It's what raises eyebrows and often gets you and your script in the door. Back in the screenwriting boom of the 1990s, and the various booms before then, screenwriters and producers could often sell pitches, based solely on compelling and engaging concepts alone. That just doesn't happen these days, unless you're well established. However, a great concept that is applied to an actual script can mean the difference between rejection and getting your script read.
But a great concept can only take you so far. If the delivery within the script itself isn't there, the momentum you made by having an amazing concept will come to a screeching halt. The writing has to be great as well.
It's Not Just About Great Writing
Great screenwriting is a must. You have to hone your skills and master the general guidelines and expectations of the film industry. You have to create a process that enables you to write engaging and well-paced stories, structured in a way that keeps those initial script readers turning those pages with interest and personal investment in the story you have presented — and the way you have presented it.
Read ScreenCraft's 10 Screenplay Structures That Screenwriters Can Use!
But that's not enough. There are so many great writers out there that can and have crafted amazing screenplays — screenplays that have not, and likely will never, see the light of day.
It's the nature of the business because the film and television industry is so saturated with those knocking on their doors with hopes and dreams of becoming the next success story. There just isn't enough room for everyone — despite the fact that Hollywood and its development, indie, and distribution branches are making more films and series than the collective film and television industries ever have.
So many great writers will go and have gone unnoticed, despite an undeniable talent for writing well-written scripts. That's why it's so important to do everything you can to build a network and get your scripts out there.
It's Not Just About Great Networking
Networking is key to getting more notice for sure. The film and television industry will never know you and your stories exist if you don't do everything you possibly can to get your scripts out there, be it through contests, fellowships, cold queries, or your own creative networking and marketing plan.
Read ScreenCraft's Maps Screenwriters Can Use to Build Their Industry Network!
But networking isn't the end-all-be-all answer to getting noticed within this industry. You can have a great concept, with great writing and characters, and get it out there through contest and fellowship wins or high placements, through successful cold query emails, and through excellent networking and marketing, and still fail to attract the attention you need to be signed to a management company or agency that can better represent and pitch your work to those decision-makers.
It's Not Just About Having a Great Manager or Great Agent
Representation is often — but not always — a must in breaking through and getting those meetings with studios and production companies. The desire for that great manager or agent is a worthy, true, and certainly high priority. That should always be a central goal for screenwriters — well before just garnering a contest or fellowship win for the prize money.
A great manager or great agent can be a career-changing momentum swing.
Read ScreenCraft's Everything Screenwriters Need to Know About Agents and Managers!
But too many screenwriters attain those coveted managers and agents only to realize that they are not the final step to nabbing that first sale or big assignment. The grind of pitching you as a screenwriter and your scripts as a must-buy or perfect sample for that assignment does fall more on them using their contacts to get you into that room, which is nice, but then you have to deliver when you're in that room as well. And if what you're selling — be it your scripts or your writing skills — doesn't stand out among the rest that they've met and have considered, then there's nothing more than you can do than just wait to be at the right time at the right place with the right person looking for someone like you and something like your script.
So what's the big secret to truly standing out?
While having a great concept, being a great writer, and implementing a great networking and marketing plan can certainly be a path to a successful opportunity that leads to more — and hopefully a career — there's one X-factor element that can truly make you stand out more among the tens of thousands of your peers and competitors.
The Secret? Writing Stories That Can Only Be Told By You
If you were expecting a secret password or some industry hack, nothing like that exists. But this is even better.
First and foremost, you do need scripts that marry a great concept with great writing. You do need to do all that you can to get those scripts out there. You do have to stack your deck with those types of scripts. And yes, sometimes screenwriters find themselves at the right time, at the right place, with the right person. That type of luck — or fate if you call it that — is a key factor in the success of so many in Hollywood. But you can also make your own luck.
Read ScreenCraft's How to Make Your Own Luck in Hollywood!
Writing stories that can only be told by you is the best way to stand out these days.
Hollywood has plenty of general drama, action, comedy, horror, and science fiction scripts to choose from. Bringing something unique to those tables is great, but so many other screenwriters are trying that same thing. You have to think outside of the box.
And sometimes thinking outside of the box is often looking in the mirror and looking within. Looking at your life and the stories around you.
Your Own Life Stories
Hollywood loves real-life stories. And they don't always have to be based on memoirs or books — although you could always write your stories in the literary medium and then adapt them for the screen to offer that impressive one-two punch.
Look at your own life and see if there are stories to tell. Have you struggled through and then conquered a conflict in your life? Have you overcome something against all the odds? Have you been involved in a more significant event that audiences would know?
Your Relative's Stories
It doesn't have to be just about you directly either. Maybe you have a grandfather that fought in a war? Maybe a relative of yours was involved or witness to a historical event? Maybe someone close to you has an engaging and intriguing story?
Your Environment Stories
It doesn't have to be about you and who you know either. It could very well be about where and when you've lived. Maybe you've traveled to an exotic place and have a story to tell? Maybe you were raised poor and can share a perspective of what that type of life is like? Maybe you were raised in an extremely privileged environment and can share how it's not the perfect life some would think?
Your Experience Stories
And it doesn't always have to be a truly personal story or you telling the personal story of a relative or friend. Maybe you were in the military, and you have a story in that world — fiction or non-fiction — that you can better tell because of your military background, as opposed to someone who has never served.
Maybe you excelled in a sport and have a story in that world to tell.
Maybe you've worked in a particular profession and have a story to tell in that world.
It's All About Legitimizing the Script
It's one thing for development executives and producers to read a military-driven script, an inspiring tale of overcoming something against all the odds, a unique historical event piece that maybe most don't know about, or a look into a particular world or profession.
And it's a whole other experience reading those types of scripts from someone that has a first-hand connection to the material — whether it be a soldier telling a fictional story inspired by their experiences or them telling a real story that happened to them or something that they witnessed.
The personal connection to whatever you choose to write is key to not only further legitimize the script but also to legitimize you as the only person who can write it — at least in their eyes right then and there.
It's a selling point that stands out from the rest when you send those queries, get those industry calls and meetings, and especially for when your representation takes those projects out.
"My client has a script about the first invasion of Iraq..."
"That's great, but we actually have some military scripts in development already..."
"... and he was there to witness it first hand as a Marine."
That personal connection makes you stand out, even if it's not directly related to your own life story.
John Grisham wrote some of the best lawyer fiction — often brilliantly adapted to the screen as well. He practiced criminal law for a decade before writing.
Ron Shelton was nominated for a Best Original Screenplay Academy Award for Bull Durham — a story set within the minor league baseball circuit. He was a former minor league baseball infielder.
Emily V. Gordon & Kumail Nanjiani wrote a script on spec about a Pakistan-born comedian and grad student that fall in love but struggle with culture clash until she contracts a mysterious illness, forcing him to face her feisty parents, his family’s expectations, and his true feelings.
The script — The Big Sick — was based on their own true story and was nominated for a 2018 Academy Award. If the script had been entirely fictional, chances are it would have never been made into a film. The selling point was the legitimization of the story being true and written by the very people who lived it.
Finding stories that only you can tell is the true secret of standing out. It's a selling point that can further peak the interest of the powers that be and tip the scales in your favor.
Having a script like that can increase the still-tough odds of a potential acquisition. It can also get you noticed for potential assignments within that world or subject matter. If anything, it at least allows you better odds for the script to be considered and read if you — or your representation — have done a great job of bringing it to the right people.
Don't worry. Not every script you write has to be a personal story. You can still stretch the limits of your make-believe and explore characters, scenarios, and worlds that you have no experience or connection with beyond the story you've conjured. But within that stack of great scripts that have great concepts and great writing applied, it's always nice to showcase at least one that only you could write.
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