The Secret Science of Screenwriting

In all the literature I’ve ever read on the subject of screenwriting, the advice is: write, that’s the only way you’ll finish. I’ve finished what I will largely refer to as “my first feature script,” and I’m damn proud of the fact that I finished it, put it through the paces, completely rewrote it, and finished it again.

Will it sell is a completely different subject.

So many people want to “break in,” that the system of finding new talent for writing TV and film is irrevocably deranged. Imagine you are a high-profile movie manager, and your job is to find that next great talent, that diamond in the rough, that one in a million with the perfect idea at the perfect time. Oh, and you also get a thousand query letters a week from wannabe screenwriters like myself, only 996 of the emails are written so badly, you don’t even want to read the log line.

You're in that line somewhere, so your chance has to come eventually, right?
You’re in that line somewhere, so your chance has to come eventually, right?

That’s just the first guy, and he’s already too bombarded by bad ideas to even consider your half-way decent idea. If you happen to get the manager, who will read your stuff, tell you how to fix it, and help you develop your craft, you still have to get that polished turd into the hands of someone with money to pay you for your time (and your manager’s too).

They say Hollywood is like a small town, where everyone knows everyone. Your shot at the big time is so far away, you’ll have run, climb, swim, and fly to get there. Even if you do, what if that one chance lands in the wrong hands? Not what they’re looking for right at that moment, and it turns into a waste of their time, and now you’re on a list in a computer that tells everyone else that they shouldn’t waste their time either.

We haven’t even found an agent yet, or a lawyer, neither of which will waste any of the little squares in their scheduling calendar on you until you’ve proven you can find work. Usually this means actually finding work.

So what’s the secret? There must be a science to it, because the Internet is saturated with persons and companies that swear they have the sure-fire formula for breaking into the business. If that is true, what is holding all these hundreds of thousands of Hollywood hopefuls back?

No wonder regular people can't figure out the Hollywood job formula: i sure don't have a degree in theoretical particle physics.
No wonder regular people can’t figure out the Hollywood job formula: i sure don’t have a degree in theoretical particle physics.

I think it goes back to the original conundrum: writing. If you suck, you suck, and that’s a really hard teet to ween from. Anyone can aspire to do something, and when you have websites and magazines selling the email addresses of every script buyer in the world, of course every American Idol schmuck that got too much unwarranted praise from their family is going to give it a shot.

There is also an originality debate. You need to have an original idea, but it can’t be so original that there’s no telling if people will like it. That’s just too risky for anyone to pledge a hundred million dollars to, and that makes perfect sense.

Personality is also a big part of the equation. Say you get into that meeting, and you pitch your project like the village idiot with a stray cat. Who is going to want to start a long-term business relationship with you, especially when they’ll have to introduce you to people with money, and pretend that you’re the next big thing? if I owned the agency, I’d fire myself.

Then there’s the middle of the sandwich, the PB&J: perseverance, blink luck, and just plain patience. Okay, it didn’t work out well as an acronym, but you get the picture. You’ve got to keep fighting, working on your craft, improving your skills on and off the typewriter, and then after years of submitting queries, entering contents, and going to pitch fests, you still have to be in the right place, with the right idea, at the right time.

Not that I’m telling bad writers to move aside and let those folks with a real chance to stand out more. I’m definitely not saying that, especially because I’m not sure which side of that particular fence I’d land on. Follow your dreams, but don’t just dream about following them.

There you have it, the equation of screenwriting success, as far as I fail to understand it right now. Work hard, be good, don’t give up. And maybe buy some online guy’s ultra secret list of top executive emails and blast them into space; who knows? Luck may be all you need.

If you think you’re going to fall ass-backwards into money for nothing, maybe you should keep you day job for now, just in case.

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