How To's | Screenwriting

What I REALLY Want to Do Is Write

1 Aug , 1999  

Written by Alia-Anor Akaeze | Posted by:

Before picking up your pen, take a look at these seven rules to help you make it as a screenwriter.

"You know, I’ve got a great idea for a movie…"

I stopped trying to keep track of the many times that phrase has been hurled in my fleeing direction years ago. Whether proffered by a well-meaning family member or an erstwhile friend, chances are that if you’re involved in filmmaking in almost any capacity, you’ve heard it too. Maybe it was your sister who’s just discovered Truffaut and has a great idea for a claymation version of "Jules et Jim." Or perhaps it was your brother-in-law, the body builder: he wants to collaborate with you on a project he describes as "’Rocky’ in cyberspace."

But it was with some pleasure and a welcome wave of nostalgia that I recently sat in on the Career Screenwriting Seminar at the BFVF, in a room full of aspiring types of various ages and genders who wanted to know what it was like to be a "professional" screenwriter and how they could get started in the biz.

The problem is this: there is no paradigm for professional screenwriting. Every "working" screenwriter’s experience is unique to his or her own ability, opportunity, and experience. In fact, the only thing professional screenwriters seem to have in common is stubborn perseverance and a whole lot of luck.

Okay, you say, so how about the getting-started part? Surely there are some concrete steps one can follow down the yellow brick road of cinema verité.

Not only are there steps you can take, but here, for their consideration and yours, are my nominations for the seven most important things you can do to help you on your journey toward the glory of a life as a screenwriter:

  1. Enroll in a class. Pick a school that’s got a screenwriting course. Degree or certificate, full-time or continuing ed, there’s a level for everyone. What will you learn? The basics: screenplay formatting, the three-act structure. If you happen on a particularly inspired instructor, you may even gain some insight into the art of mythic storytelling. Perhaps most importantly, you’ll get regular feedback about your project. What won’t you learn? How to write a blockbuster. No one can teach you this.
  2. If you just can’t get next to the structure inherent in academics, you can invest in a book about the craft of screenwriting. Again, many titles–as many approaches. ( is a good place to start browsing.) Do you learn easiest by doing? There are books written using a workbook format, giving you assignments to complete at the end of each chapter. Do you need inspiration? Look for a book about screenwriting by screenwriters. Want to take a look at an Oscar-winning script? What is mythic storytelling and how does it work in film? You get the picture–pun intended. [ has some books featured in our Screenwriting Section].
  3. Finish your screenplay. No brainer, you say. Remember all those free ideas I’m always dodging? Well, believe it or not, and as obvious as this suggestion may seem, there are an awful lot of "aspiring" writers out there who have great ideas but who have yet to commit them to paper. A lot of us can easily crank out those first 30 pages of pure inspiration, but it isn’t a script until you finish it. And trust me, all you’ll ever hear about those initial pages will be, "I love it. I can see the potential. Why don’t you get back to me when it’s finished?"
  4. Write a second screenplay. This is really important if you want to be a professional and maybe even go the Hollywood route. You’ll need an agent to help you navigate the shark-infested waters of studio-land. Most agents will want to see that you’ve got more than one project in you. If your writing shows promise but you’ve only got one script completed, you’ll hear, "Looks good. Do you have anything else?" Agents don’t get excited by writers with one script because they’re in this for the long haul. More scripts, more commissions. More ways to sell your writing talents (as a script doctor, doing television and commercials).
  5. Protect your completed work. Here’s another no-brainer (remember Art Buchwald and "Coming to America"?). Peace of mind costs a mere $25 from the Writer’s Guild, where your screenplay will be duly registered for all eternity. Of course, for the cost of postage you can send a copy to yourself and never open it–sometimes called "the poor man’s copyright"– but if you’re like me, you’ve got enough paper cluttering up your digs. The Writer’s Guild is a great resource. You should also register with the US Copyright Office which has all its forms online. (A tip: the form you need is Form PA – for published or unpublished works of the Performing Arts).
  6. Contacts are everything. Make sure you get the names spelled correctly, the snail and e-mail addresses, and every phone number you can cajole out of everybody you meet who qualifies as a legitimate contact. Remember your screenwriting instructor? If he or she was a working professional, contact number one. Keep in touch. Let them know what projects you’re working on and ask them if you can send it along at some point. Who knows? Maybe they’ll pass it along to their agent. It happens.
  7. Finally, WRITE ALL THE TIME. As with anything worth doing, screenwriting is definitely something worth doing well. The more scripts you write, the better at it you’ll get, the more contacts you’ll make, etc., etc., etc.

Oh, and good luck! You’re going to need it.