10 Harsh Truths You Need To Hear About Screenwriting

It’s twenty-twenty and time for some tough-talk. You know I’m slowly building a screenwriting career and I want to send the elevator back down as much as a can. There’s a LOT of misinformation out there, more than ever right now, and I feel the need to lay down ten truths every screenwriter trying to break in needs to know before they make bad decisions, end up going in circles, or even worse, give up on their dreams far too early.

The Journey is Long — Much, Much Longer Than You Think.

Wow! Much insight! Many truths! Thanks for that bombshell, CJ! Seriously though, a realistic strategy to try and break into screenwriting should factor in AT LEAST TEN YEARS of sustained effort — yes, a decade, a freaking decade. If that terrifies you then it should. While you will most certainly see at least some progress in that time, such as getting reads, having short scripts produced, and building your network, you should not be giving up and writing your potential career off just because it’s been three or five years already and you’ve not sold a script and made a feature film.

Most Screenwriters Earn Nothing or Next to Nothing and a Few Earn a Fortune.

The biggest lie ever told is that the entertainment industry is affluent and glamorous. The reality is, for all the gold and glitter we see on the surface, it suffers the same rising inequality issues as any other industry — perhaps more so. At an indie production level, filmmaking is often a side hustle for many of the professionals who are working for free or taking what they can get. The vast majority of working screenwriters are simply clutching on and scraping by. Some cross across into the corporate studio system which pays well but proves to be incredibly cut-throat. A tiny few have a hit film that pays them a lot of backend or they partner with market savvy prodcos on their way up. Nobody ever feels safe between projects.

Cowards Are Telling You to Follow Rules When the Industry Is Really Looking for Rebels.

Timid bootlickers who can’t separate creating material with artistic merit and handing in their third-grade history homework want you to believe that using “we see”, bold slug-lines, or making a single typo in a spec script will have you tarred and feathered on Hollywood Blvd. Your job is to be as entertaining as possible not an academic. Do your absolute best to be professional, but focus on what really matters. If you want to be like your heroes you need to start acting like your heroes — spoiler alert; they didn’t get to where they are by trying to please everybody and desperately fit a mould.

You Need to Discover Your Voice Because It’s Your Greatest Asset.

As per the above on the topic of being entertaining, your voice is your USP. This is what separates you from the competition. Failing to discover your voice, nurture it, and put it on the marketplace makes you a non-starter. Refusing to embrace your voice, because you feel it isn’t commercial or respected is also a one-way ticket to low self-worth. Every voice, when turned up to eleven, is valuable. Look at the writers you admire the most and ask yourself, if they were writing your stories, would there be an unmistakable style to their interpretation? That’s where you need to be, where someone picks up your screenplay and hears your voice in their head right from the opening line to the final page.

What You Bring to the Table With a Script Is Actually a Business Plan.

Your material is either a viable business asset or it isn’t and will be judged as such. Every script you write is a business proposition and hopefully a tempting investment opportunity for someone who can raise the money and put it into production. You can’t sell a script that doesn’t have greater market appeal than it does budgetary demand unless you are dealing with someone who actively wants to lose money. Claiming you have a “potential festival darling” on your hands reeks of naivety and has all the strategic integrity of taking the money to the Vegas craps tables. You need to tell a commercially appealing concept in an entertaining way in your unique style for all the essential components to align and give a script value.

99% of Competitions and Evaluation Services Are Next to Pointless.

I’ve not pulled that number out of my ass either. There are around 1,500 different screenwriting competitions you can enter at the moment and half a dozen evaluation services that will score your material. Being incredibly generous about it, maybe five of these are worth your money and only then as a long shot comparable to buying a lottery ticket, winning, and then wisely investing the money. If your entire plan to get into the industry is via services begging for your money then you are just going to get milked for every cent and left with nothing. There’s nothing wrong with rolling the dice but only if that’s something you are doing in addition to a sound career strategy. Search out the 1% of what’s working based on the success stories of other writers in your position and add it to your strategy.

Most Screenwriting Communities Are Holding you Back and Pushing You Toward Paid Services.

While there will always be a few diamonds in the rough, screenwriting communities are plagued by bullies and bullshitters that, without any due diligence on your part, can be hard to spot — almost impossible if they are communicating anonymously. Worse still, since screenwriters tend to be obsessed with paid services, forums and groups often unwittingly become advertising boards for those services. Even if the toxicity of sociopaths doesn’t get to you, the inevitable stupidity of crowds almost certainly will as questions are answered often without context and based on Chinese whispers. Try to limit your exposure to communities of amateurs and low-quality creatives as much as possible as they will almost certainly send you backward before you can start to move forward.

The Gurus Are False Idols and Many Books Are Written by Failures.

There’s good reason that someone who claims they know how to write and sell a screenplay is trying to sell you a book, consultancy, or a seminar. You really think someone who could be earning six figures and hanging out with movie stars wants to be locked in a clammy meeting room in Scranton convincing people having a mid-life crisis to use the three-act structure? I currently know of two writers selling self-published books on how to sell a screenplay and make it in Hollywood with zero record of actually selling a screenplay and making it in Hollywood. I know of one popular consultant misrepresenting a few low-rate consultancy credits on short films as their filmmaking portfolio knowing full well few people will ever check their credentials — it’s really scary out there and these charlatans often draw crowds of cult-like supporters that give them the illusion of industry validation and venomously defend their activities.

An Obsession With Soliciting Feedback and reading countless scripts Will only get you so far.

The easiest opinions to solicit are the least valuable. If someone is pushing hard to give you feedback, something is amis and their motives questionable. Also osmosis is a very weak way to grow talent. You need advice on how to improve from someone further up the mountain and, yes, that’s not easy to get. If you’re going to read something, make it the numerous books out there on screenwriting craft, business, and artistry. Do your due diligence and look the authors up. Read some blogs by pro writers or watch some YouTube videos by said writers. Learn the craft and put in the work while avoiding advice from those who have only proven to you that they are failing.

My Sweet Summer Child, If They Can’t Pay for It, They Can’t Produce It.

The industry is packed with people who have big dreams and no money who will approach you with pseudo-offers. These are almost always variations of profit sharing schemes where they promise to distribute the millions of dollars a feature film based on your script is guaranteed to make should you collaborate. They rarely have any producing credits and may pull the exposure card on you. This is the movie world equivalent of joining an MLM scheme. Movies cost money to produce and market. If someone claiming you have a sure-fire hit on you hands cannot raise the funds with a contract to pay you fair compensation AND backend, they absolutely cannot produce a movie that will get any worthwhile exposure. Know when you‘re’ the most valuable person in the room and always be prepare to walk away.