How to Become a Screenwriter

Young hipster writing
••• Tempura/Getty Images

Becoming a big shot Hollywood screenwriter is a dream for many people, but most never take the necessary steps to become successful because they don’t see the profession as a craft. They see it as a way to get rich.

Granted, there are many screenwriters who have made millions of dollars over the courses of their careers. There are even a few “overnight successes” (if you don’t include the months or even years of toiling over their scripts before they became an “overnight success”). But for the most part, becoming a successful screenwriter is just like anything else of value—the result of hard work.

So, where does one start? We've outlined below some very basic steps to follow. Keep in mind that this is one possible path of many. The truth is, there is no one right or wrong way when seeking out a Hollywood writing career. Some things work for some people, but not for others. Some of it is luck, some of it is talent, and some of it is just never giving up. But if you're looking for information on how to get started, the following steps should help provide a bit more direction.

Educate Yourself

Screenwriting isn't just something to jump into. There are those exceptionally few writers who just seem to understand the rhythm of a movie script and have an innate gift of dialogue from the start. But for the most part, new writers need to have a basic understanding of what it is they’re trying to write, and that means research.

One place to start is with some books on the topic. These will help provide an understanding of the basic structure of a movie script as well as how to go about writing its various elements—from creating interesting characters and plot to the development of engaging dialogue and proper story structure. These three books are a good start:

  • "Story Structure" by Robert McKee is the bible of story structure and the basics of the principles of screenwriting. A must read.
  • "Screenplay" by Syd Field is another must read by the one author that most Hollywood writers would agree is the master of the screenplay.
  • "Screenwriters Problem Solver", also by Syd Field, is a follow-up to "Screenplay," and Field takes readers through common problems many screenwriters confront and exercises to help fix them.

There are hundreds of books touting their screenwriting method as the best method. The fact is that once you know the basics of how to write a screenplay, you then just need to practice doing so. Avoid books that claim to show you how to write a screenplay in 10 days or 20 days, or whatever. You need to learn about the mechanics of writing a script before worrying about how long it takes you to write one.

Read Successful Screenplays

Perhaps the most useful reference materials you can find are going to be sample scripts, especially those that are in the same genre you intend to write. For example, if you’re planning on writing a romantic comedy, get your hands on as many romantic comedy scripts as you can find. You will see that by having these scripts at the ready, you’ll soon begin to see how a film translates from a writer’s head into the finished product of a film.

Scripts can be purchased from places like Samuel French Bookstore, but you also might have luck with something as simple as Google. Search the title of just about any movie you can think of with the word "screenplay," and you more than likely will find dozens of sites that will have exactly what you're looking for.

If buying a script, be sure you get a full feature movie script rather than a “transcript.” A transcript is just a transcript of the dialogue of the film and won’t help you. You need a full feature script that you can refer to that shows dialogue, descriptions, and all action.

Start Writing

Depending on where you live, there might be a number of writing classes you can choose from, many of which specialize in screenwriting, but the most important step is to actually start writing. Too many people get caught up in the mechanics of screenwriting. They spend months, if not years, in classes and reading books on how to write a screenplay, but they never actually write anything.

So, after you get the basics down, just start writing. Don’t overthink the process. Sit down at your computer, start typing the words, and print your screenplay. It’s what every screenwriter eventually does whether they’re a novice or a skilled professional.

Keep Writing

This is where many people get hung up. Once they start writing, they get stuck at a certain point and simply stop trying.

Some excuses might include a hiccup in the storyline, dialogue that isn’t working, or characters aren't likable. All of these are valid issues, but none of them mean you should ever stop the writing process. As a screenwriter, you quickly will find that rewriting is about 80 percent of the job, if not more. The trick here is to avoid rewriting the same scene over and over without ever moving toward completion.

Too many writers fall into the trap of thinking that every page of the first draft must be absolutely perfect, but take comfort in this: First drafts of most screenplays usually are awful. The good news is that through your rewrites, they get much, much better. Forge ahead no matter how hard it is or how long it takes.

A good practice is to set page goals. For example, vow to finish at least five pages every day no matter what when working on a first draft. This can help you to finish the script without caring about the initial quality. After all, it’s sometimes easier to rewrite an existing script than to stare at a blank page.

Get Notes

“Getting notes” on a script refers to getting a little constructive criticism. Once you’ve finished with an acceptable draft of the screenplay, give it to three or four people whose opinions you trust.

Remember that what you’re looking for here is constructive criticism, not someone who simply tells you they “liked” or “disliked” your script. Usually, another writer will be the most useful for this process. Listen to the notes you get so that you can properly address them.

Network

Networking is still one of the most important skills a screenwriter can have. After all, this is more than likely how you’re going to get your script to an agent, producer, or studio executive.

In Los Angeles, there are numerous entertainment-related networking events. It’s crucial that as a screenwriter you attend as many of these as you can so you can meet like-minded individuals. Keep in mind that your script will not sell itself by sitting on a shelf in your apartment. You have to let people know you are a screenwriter and that you have a product to sell.

Through diligent networking, you may eventually come across someone who will get your screenplay into the right hands. Don’t be shy here. Be confident in your material and your abilities and be proud to label yourself as a screenwriter.

Screenwriting can be a fun, rewarding, and extremely lucrative career. But it’s a craft that must be learned and practiced before it ever can be mastered.