How Not To Be A Screenwriter
How Not to Be a Screenwriter
Something you hear a lot in the world of screenwriting, by both amateurs and professionals, is to read screenplays and watch movies. And while this is excellent advice, I believe it is often misunderstood and/or taken out of proportion.
You can’t learn screenwriting by simply reading screenplays and watching movies. You can’t learn how to be a screenwriter. It can help you become an artist, and be inspired, but more on that later in this post.
The main thing reading screenplays can teach you is how to properly format your script. It may also help you analyze after the fact – like all the screenwriting books do… but as I’ve mentioned ad nauseam, that will never, ever make you a screenwriter.
Watching movies can help you understand what feels right and wrong (for yourself) when it comes to telling a visual story. Watching movies can teach you how a look from a character is sometimes more powerful than any piece of dialogue. That’s a great lesson.
But just like watching Formula 1 racing will never teach you how to be a Formula 1 driver, watching movies cannot teach you how to become a screenwriter.
To learn screenwriting there is one thing and one thing only that you must do…
Here’s some heavy truth – if your desire to be a screenwriter isn’t followed by actual writing, then your true desire is not to be a screenwriter. It’s something else. And you need to be self-aware enough to recognize that. Professional screenwriters cannot not write.
We will make excuses to write. If we are away from our desk, we are typing in our phone’s Notes section, or talking into a recorder, or scribbling on a cocktail napkin – and we cannot wait to get back to our desk and import the latest.
Read all the screenplays you want – the good ones and the bad ones. Watch all the movies and TV series you want – the good ones and the bad ones. But nothing will teach you how to be a screenwriter except actually writing. And writing. And writing.
I began my career like many other screenwriters – by writing really bad fan fiction of my favorite screenwriters. I wasn’t doing it intentionally. I had no idea I was doing it. But it’s how we all start out. We see movies or TV shows and think “I want to do that!” or “I can do that better!”
And the ones we love are usually written by the same screenwriters, or at least the same type of screenwriters. A lot of aspiring/emerging screenwriters over the past twenty years fell in love with Tarantino’s work, and so they started writing awful versions of Tarantinoesque stories.
And they were really awful. Because they didn’t know how to write. They just tried to emulate what they heard/saw/read from QT. They were writing fan fiction.
But don’t feel bad if you’re one of these people – the entire Hollywood industry was commissioning bad Tarantino fan fiction from 1993 to about 1999 or so.
Now, while I wasn’t into Tarantino and never have been – nothing personal, it’s just… okay, it’s completely personal; I think he’s a horrible human. Hit me up on Zoom for more deets – the screenwriter I was into back in the day was Scott Rosenberg.
For me, Scott was the intellectual & better version of Tarantino. He wrote THINGS TO DO IN DENVER WHEN YOU’RE DEAD (still one of my favorite screenplays ever), BEAUTIFUL GIRLS, CON AIR, HIGH FIDELITY, and many others. And Scott wrote original movies – not derivative versions of previous movies.
Scott has an incredible voice as a screenwriter. No one writes like Scott. Just like no one writes like Shonda Rhimes or Aaron Sorkin or Tony Gilroy (my favorite screenwriter)... Or, yes, even QT. It’s all about voice. But I digress.
My first scripts were terrible versions of Scott. But what I was doing was finding MY voice. MY style. Who I was as a screenwriter. And I could never do that by simply reading scripts and watching movies.
I only found it through writing and writing and writing. Because there is no other way to find it. Yes, I read screenplays – I devoured them; I collected them, and I watched everything – but first and foremost I was always writing.
Before I became a working screenwriter I was a stand-in for years. And folks from back then will tell you when I wasn’t standing on the actor’s mark while the crew was lighting, I was on an apple box behind video village, scribbling away in my notebooks. Writing.
And that’s what it takes to become a screenwriter, especially a good one. It’s about developing yourself as an artist. Sure, read screenplays and watch movies, but also – read novels, read poetry; go see art, listen to music, see and read plays. Fly over the Rocky Mountains. Sit alone on a beach. Eat amazing food and talk to the chef. Listen to Shirley Horne sing Here's To Life. All of that will help you just as much (if not more) as reading screenplays and watching movies.
You must become an artist before you can create art. And yes, screenplays are art before they are anything else.
But if you aren’t writing, you will never become a writer. Wait, that’s not true… you may be a writer who writes whenever you feel like it, here and there, taking months or years to finish something. Are you a writer? For me, if you finish something, then yes, you can call yourself a writer. But I would bet heavily that you are likely a bad writer.
The best (and fastest) way to become a GOOD screenwriter is to write every day. And by every day I don’t mean you have to literally put words on paper EVERY SINGLE DAY. What “write every day” truly means is to find the discipline to create a writing routine, a habit, where you are doing it as regularly as you eat or shower.
If you write every day for one year I cannot promise that you’ll have a successful screenwriting career, but I absolutely can promise you this…
You will be a better writer.
— Paul Guyot