Everything A Screenwriter Should Know, But Often Doesn’t


Unrepresented writers need to stand out from the crowd to have a career. They need to write in a distinctive voice, yet make their product sellable within the parameters of the industry. It’s not a contradiction in terms. You need to understand the rules of the game before you can seriously play.

Not all ideas are filmic or cinematic enough to be written into screenplays. Poetry, novels, novellas, haiku are all valid literary forms, but quite distinct from screenplays. Ask yourself the all encompassing question: IS THIS A MOVIE, not is this simply a good story? Understand that movies are a form of mass communication, so it is vital they have a target audience.

Because of the way a screenplay is read by an executive (at lightning speed), a hook needs to grab their attention early on.

Try rotating the genre. There is a current trend to turn fairy tales into modern day thrillers. Action heroes will always be a multiplex staple, so write those. If you have a “Bourne Identity-esque” spec script, agents will be delighted to read it. An action hero finds simple solutions to complex problems in an entertaining way.

If you’re into sci-fi films, limit the technological backstory and focus on ONE central idea. Consider “Minority Report” with its core theme of arresting criminals before they commit a crime. Often these films are metaphors for social issues. Similarly limit medical, military or other specialized setups so you don’t lose your reader. Concentrate on the emotional core of each scene.

In some respects, a great concept carries more Hollywood weight than a well-written script. A poorly crafted script can be rewritten, but a weak concept can’t be propped up with good writing. Given that the days of heady studio development are long gone, an under developed concept will be passed on, so nail your concept before sending your script out.

Flashbacks continue to be a bug bear for many development executives, because writers use them as a crutch for sub par writing. Flashbacks shouldn’t only carry exposition from the backstory, they should advance the plot and advance character (usually by clarifying motivation).

Teenage-themed films should be populated with characters sounding like intelligent, well-rounded adults rather than vapid teenagers.

Comedy about life, love and career works well too. However, the stakes need to be high; a matter of life and death, both figuratively and literally. Ask yourself, why does the main character continue pursuing their goal?

Adam Levenberg also gave excellent advice about what you should avoid as an emerging writer:

  • Adaptations of material to which you don’t own the underlying rights. These include self-published books
  • Biopics; A- listers have enough trouble getting these off the ground. These include your own (or close relative’s) life story
  • Struggling writer/ artist stories
  • Superheroes; both new and existing (see first point)
  • Franchisable material; studios have these tied up already
  • Product tie-ins; studios will work out the merchandising much later without you
  • Santa stories about the true meaning of Christmas (done to death)
  • Cloning of Christ
  • Parodies of the entertainment industry (done to death)
  • 9/11 and Native American spiritual stories
  • Charities or specific causes (restricted to Lifetime/ Hallmark channels)
  • Epics (swords and sandals)
  • Rape, abuse, domestic violence (restricted sales avenues)

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3 Comments Add yours

  1. Shaun E says:

    This is an AWESOME book! Glad to see others are reading it too!

  2. Robert A. Getchell says:

    I get it, It’s “h”-ollywood’s chalk and slate. As such, they can use the above no-no topics all they want as they can skew the data/demographics to support their making them. We emerging screenwriters aren’t allowed to even think in terms of the above; even read them let alone do a “done to death,” or feel good genre.

    My genre, training films for the military, were; all 30 of them, a ball to do and I felt good while doing them. Now, as an emerging entertainment writer, I must watch my step at every juncture…or else…, else I stop having fun. I want to have fun and will do Bourne type genre; I’m good at war data and lingo. So, we’ll see how I fare with the system ‘de jour.’

    I’m using your direction to navigate the correct path through the forrest of communication. I hope, along the way, I don’t become turned off and quit.

    Disney’s pulling the Lone Ranger till the script is lightened in an attempt to recover some of the millions lost in 2010. Will there be a fully developed story with ingrediants listed in your wonderful and helpful pieces? Well, I hope so.

    I’m a suker for feel good flicks and when I heard of Disney’s taking a bath last year due to that genre, well, it’s a sad report on society when the majority of viewers feel good genes are damaged. Shame on them.

    Thanks, folks for reading this,

    Robert A. Getchell, USN, retired

    getchell.robert@gmail.com
    (321) 453-3042

    1. JG Sarantinos says:

      yup. that’s the way things are right now, so use it to your advantage. However, there is a little film out there now called “The Help” which is straight out of the “what you shouldn’t write about” – drama, race relations (so last decade), period piece etc. However, it’s grossed over $40 million at the box office. Not quite the billion dollar box office of Harry Potter and Pirates of the Caribbean, but it goes to show, a good story will find an audience. It’s already a contender for next year’s Oscars. I can also tell you Hollywood agents are looking for strong original voices. The King’s Speech was written by a septagenarian. So much for ageism.

      Go easy on the sarcasm and write the best story you can. I couldn’t stand another Transformers.

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