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You Need Screenwriting Basics

Someone has sent you here because, apparently, you don't know shit about screenwriting.

Why don't you get started with...

Listen to this shit:

  • Scriptnotes by John August and Craig Mazin (who really know their shit)

  • Children of Tendu by Javier Grillo-Marxuach and Jose Molina (listen to the oldest episodes first)

Did you already read some screenplays? You want books now?

Read this shit first:

Check out the Blogs page for online reading material.

Read those? Now go write some shit.

Wrote some shit? Messed around with it? Now read more screenplays.

Eventually, later, read this shit:

More than any book, if you want to be writing movies and television, you should be reading screenplays (good and bad).

Learn some shit slowly while spending way too much money:

The primary advantage of these programs is their alumni networks.

You don't need to go to film school to learn how to make movies.

If you want to learn to write movies and television, you should be reading and practicing writing. You really don't need to be in school for this. Save your money.

If you want to be a producer, go to business school and intern with entertainment companies.

Places to get your shit seen and reviewed and hopefully make some money:

  • InkTip - a hangout for low budget and indie producers

  • ISA - another hangout for low budget and indie producers

  • The Black List - a bit expensive, but if you're really good you might get lucky

  • Coverfly X - free peer-to-peer writing notes exchange

  • Roadmap Writers - online workshops

Start networking:

The Advanced Shit:

  • IMDB Pro - access contact information for agents and reps (DO NOT use this to contact producers and talent directly, you need representation first)

  • Writer's Guild of America West - they'll call you when you're ready

Expect that learning to write screenplays is a long process. Don't try to contact agents and managers five minutes after you finished the first draft of your first short.

Editing and revision are a big part of the process. Connect with other emerging screenwriters and swap scripts to give each other notes. Don't be afraid to get a second opinion if something doesn't sound right in a note.

Generally, you want to have at least two or three finished peer-reviewed screenplays before you approach anyone to seek representation. Five is better.

You do not need to win a screenwriting competition to get into the industry, but it may help.

Here are some of the few screenwriting competitions that are possibly not a complete waste of time and money:

Placing high or even winning a screenwriting competition is not going to be a golden ticket for breaking into the film industry, but may offer you an opportunity to contact agents and managers with more than your own "I think I'm good" behind you.

The vast majority of managers and producers are NOT following the screenwriting competitions. Some do, but most likely even if you win you’ll still need to reach out and tell people your script won something.

Sometimes your script may be read by the wrong readers for your material, these things are VERY subjective. A script that doesn't place at all one year might win the next season.

Contests may also provide a brief opportunity to network with judges, sponsors, and other writers. Take advantage of it, but try to be open, not needy. This is a long road.

It’s highly unlikely you’ll be just contacted out of nowhere by the perfect manager or really anyone reputable simply because you won a contest, even a big one. You’ll still have a lot of work to do to connect with the representatives who are right for you, and you need to have more than just one solid script to show when you talk to them. See Access for more info.

"Thank your readers and the critics who praise you, and then ignore them. Write for the most intelligent, wittiest, wisest audience in the universe: Write to please yourself." - Harlan Ellison

Just fucking pick one:

If you join UCLA's WP Now program, you can get discounts on certain screenwriting software.

Don't be asking everyone what to use, it's a personal preference. Seriously, just fucking pick one.

This is the most important thing:

Read Fucking Screenplays

There is no shortcut for this shit. You won't learn how to write screenplays if you haven't read any. Aim for 50 and then read more. All will be revealed.

You can learn a lot of shit from channeling YouTube:

Watch this shit:

"You are not entitled to your opinion. You are entitled to your informed opinion. No one is entitled to be ignorant." - Harlan Ellison

Did we miss some shit?

We really don't need to hear from you unless the website is broken, or we really missed something important.

Seriously, resist the urge to contact us. We put this website up so we wouldn't have to deal with shit.

"I hate being wrong, but I love it when I'm set straight." - Harlan Ellison

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Critical response:

Ziggy on Discord says, "this is the most chill screenwriting guide ever. It's like being taught by a weed dealer."
John August doesn't really object.
Bob Saenz says, "Yup."

Lawyer The Fuck Up

You're going to need one and you should use one.

For employment contracts, most entertainment lawyers charge a 5% fee, so you don't have to pay before the deal closes.

Find A Lawyer:

Be selective. Find someone you're comfortable communicating with. This is a relationship you're starting.

Here are some lists of entertainment lawyers and law firms:

see also: Entertainment Law Exposed on Clubhouse

Notes on Working With Entertainment Lawyers:

Ask Your Questions

  • Once you have a lawyer you are going to work with on a regular basis, they tend to be pretty open to the occasional quick question. Don't abuse their attention, but also don't hesitate to call them when something feels sketchy.

  • Calling to ask, "should I sign this?" takes 2 minutes on the phone and can save you millions of dollars in lost revenue.

  • If they're not open to infrequent quick consults, or they ignore you or bill you for every second of their time, you may want to find a different lawyer.

Don't Release Me

  • Most entertainment lawyers will advise you not to sign those rights-grabby submission release waiver whatever forms a lot of agents, managers, producers, and competitions often require new screenwriters to send before they'll look at an "unsolicited" script.

  • Once you're properly represented, whenever someone asks you to send them a script, you should be able to just email them the PDF and copy your lawyer (see note below) the same way you would when represented by an agent or manager. As a client of an established entertainment lawyer, you do in fact have representation.

Note: ABSOLUTELY DO NOT try to fake having an entertainment lawyer to submit materials. It will not end well. It's a small fucking town.

Key Tips

Figure out how the parts work.

  • Learn how to tell small complete stories within the bounds of the format. Learn the format by reading actual screenplays before you read any books about screenplays.

  • Big films are usually made up of lots of little films. If you figure out how the little movies work, the big ones are easier.

  • You don't have to start out by writing a whole feature. You can try writing just scenes first, then work up to a short film or ten, and eventually stitch a bunch of scenes together so you've got a whole feature.

  • Writing is a practice. You don't start out as the best you can possibly be, you get there by sitting down and writing one thing after another. Practice, practice, practice.

  • When you write something you really like, stick it in a drawer for a week and don't look at it while you write other stuff. Then go back and edit it with fresh eyes. Or try rewriting it from memory without even looking at it. Set up little exercises like that for yourself, so you're doing write, write, write, but it's an evolving cycle, not a closed loop. Maybe try writing in different environments and see how they affect the work. Becoming a strong writer does not happen overnight. Pace yourself. It's a marathon, not a sprint.

  • Scenes tend to exist to show that something important happened. If you don't know what at least one key thing is that your scene is supposed to be presenting, you may be doing it wrong.

  • Don't worry too much about formatting. William Goldman said screenplays are structure. He did not say they are format. Standardizations in screenwriting software and the popular beginners' books push you in a certain direction, but take a look at this series of Page One examples compiled by the Writers Guild Foundation Library. See how varied the styles are? Goldman himself didn't even use scene headings. You should eventually find a style that works for you. Learn the rules, and why they're rules, so you can break them with style and gusto.

"It is perfectly okay to write garbage as long as you edit brilliantly." - C. J. Cherryh

  • Editing is the work. You cannot get out of it. This is why people in the business say ideas aren't worth anything. The job of the writer is to hammer them out for everyone else. If you haven't done that part, you haven't done shit.

  • Just get it all down, then go back and fix it. And fix it. And make it better. And fix it. Go work on something else for a while. Come back, make it even better. Writing 10 to 20 drafts is not uncommon.

  • The more you write, the faster you'll probably get, and the less necessary rewriting should become, but everybody's different. If you're still outlining in detail at 150 scripts in, who cares? You do what works for you, as long as it sells. But, yes, it should get easier.

  • Don't Try To Sell Your First Draft of Your First Feature. As has been said many times, writing takes practice. Finish your first feature, then write something completely different. Then go back and look at your first feature... you won't like what you see. The more you write, the more aware you become of your own mistakes, and the more effective you become at eliminating them from new work. So, when you "finish" that first script, put that shit in a drawer.

  • Don't start calling Netflix Customer Service asking to speak to the head of development when you've just finished writing your first scene. You will be competing with people who have been writing screenplays for 40 years, so you absolutely must bring your top game. Build a network of fellow screenwriters and swap scripts to exchange notes. You don't have to take all their advice, but you also don't want to be living in an echo chamber or only get feedback from people who just want you to be happy.

You can plan and outline all you want, but your characters should ultimately drive the story.

  • If something in the outline isn't true to who the character has become as you've fleshed them out and given them words, don't force it. Don't be afraid to go offroad, ignore the outline when it hinders the truth and voices of interesting characters. Fuck the plot, follow the characters. That's the key to a great story.

  • You start with some contrivance, and you put in your characters, but if you're doing your job right they'll take on a life of their own.

  • You create these wonderful and interesting and complex characters who start to feel like real people with real feelings, and then you start throwing stuff like unexpected pregnancies, divorces, trees, bullets, machetes, werewolf bites, inlaws, and anvils at them, and really that's the whole job. Invent interesting people who have strong goals, then torture them with obstacles while a story unfolds. Then just write that shit down so it makes sense.

Thanks for helping out with all this shit!

That didn't work.

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Shouldn't you be networking?

The entertainment industry is "a small town," a tight-knit community. You need to figure out how to fit in if you want to be invited to the parties.

But, don't worry, lots of nerdy writers eventually get invited to the parties. As much as the producers hate to admit it, it is the writers who make everything possible.

Eventually, if you're not being an asshat, you'll find opportunities to move up in the business.

If you're already in Los Angeles, just start to make friends with people who are already interested in the same things you are.

Maybe go to book signings or comic book signings and talk not just to the main attraction guest, but to other fans of your favorite authors and artists. Maybe some of them are screenwriters or industry craftspeople. Maybe they have screenwriter friends who can refer you to a good writers group.

Try to find people you can connect with on a personal level without being fake. Authentic relationships have staying power.

Don't be pushy, don't be too needy, find your zen and make sure they already want to help you before you make any asks. Just about everyone wants to get in the door, and most shouldn't be, so be cool if you want to pass through the automatic riffraff shields everyone in the business tends to keep up.

Make some friends on the Internet that you can hang out with in real life later.

IMPORTANT >>> Don't ask strangers to read your scripts.

Don't shove your work in someone's face the first time you meet them.

It's the film industry equivalent of an unsolicited dick pic.

This is how you get ignored and rejected the fastest.

Wait for them to ask to read your shit.

Most entertainment professionals can't read unsolicited material for legal reasons.

Other emerging screenwriters who know what they're doing will need to get to know you before they will agree to spend several hours reading and giving you notes.

You should get to know someone before you trust them with your shit.

Don't be offended if someone doesn't ask to read your work, you don't know what they have going on that might make it impossible.

Throwing your script into a celebrity's hands is a good way to get it thrown in the trash.

The best way to get your material read by people who can actually turn a script into a movie is through referrals, so put some time and effort into building a solid reputation for yourself as a decent and intelligent human being.

Do you vouch for this... writer?

This is the main pain point you need to get past:

If I give your script to my contacts, then my reputation is on the line.

Two Burning Questions

Making movies involves long-term relationships, so what people usually want to know first is these two things:

  • "Is this stranger crazy?"

  • "Could I work with this person on the same project every day for two years or more?"

Screenwriting Discord Servers

Go to some of the in-person screenwriter mixers you hear about on Discords servers, like...

Screenwriter Twitter

There is a massive community of writers and screenwriters on Twitter.

To jump into the flow on Twitter, follow other screenwriters and join the #screenwriting and #writerscommunity conversations.

You can join Script Pipeline's #pipelinewriters chat every Friday evening (5pm PST/8pm EST, for an after-work online social check-in. They also have some separate hashtags for international communities like #pipelinwritersuk for the UK and #pipleinewritersnz New Zealand.

There are a lot of regular activities on Twitter, just poke around.

Follow interesting people, not just the big names. It's all about community.

Clubhouse

A relatively new social media platform that has been gaining popularity is Clubhouse.

Follow the Film and Horror clubs for engaging weekly discussions, and maybe dip your toe in with the Drunk Uncles if you need a dose of reality.

While there are many interesting filmmaking groups on Clubhouse, you can get a lot of bad advice from people posing as experts, and there are also a lot of scammers and hustlers.

Be wary of "consultants," try not to hire anyone to "turn your script into a professional pitch deck," and definitely watch your wallet if you're wasting time in the NFT rooms.

We have traction at home.

Studio pitch meetings are happening on Zoom calls every day. You don't have to move to Los Angeles to break into the entertainment business. In fact, that's a very risky and expensive thing to do unless you have a definite well-paying job waiting for you.

In business, we talk about "demonstrating traction," which means you have shown measurable progress toward your goal of being able to make money. For a startup company, that might mean you have your first few customers.

For a screenwriter, demonstrable traction usually means one or two jaded industry people have expressed interest in acquiring your work or having you work on their projects and then actually written checks that you can live on.

So, before you quit your job to pack up and move to Los Angeles, where the monthly rent on a complete shithole can be more than the cost of a used car, you should work on demonstrating traction from wherever you are in the world.

Two main ways to demonstrate traction in the industry (and to yourself):

  • write and sell great screenplays

  • make interesting films

The first one is harder than the second. For that info, flip over to the Access page. Both require putting serious work into interpersonal networking.

You should, before making any decision related to your filmmaking career, consider for a moment the ROI (return on investment) of what you are about to attempt.

For example, putting $50,000 on credit cards to make a feature film with an inexperienced crew and amateur actors when you don't already have distribution locked down... that's a bad idea. It's going to produce a low or negative ROI.

Filmmaking is a business, and you should treat it as such.

If you don't know anything about business, then take a class, read a book, or watch some training videos. You need to know business basics to survive in the industry. This is as fundamentally important or possibly even more important than knowing what "INT. and EXT." mean in a script.

You could be the greatest storyteller in the world, but you're almost certainly going to burn out or get scammed and swindled if you don't know the basics of what's what with numbers and contracts.

Smart artists learn to evaluate business opportunities based on things like basic budget projections and contractual pitfalls. You can't 100% rely on an agent or manager. Hollywoodland is shark-infested waters. Trust but verify. Everyone is looking out for themselves first, so you need to be able to occasionally watch your own back.

Let's talk about your calling card.

An agent, manager, or producer who receives an email with an unsolicited manuscript attached is almost certainly going to delete it. They cannot read those.

But it is a lot more likely they would open a YouTube or Vimeo link for a cool little short film. This is what's referred to as a "calling card" project. It's also referred to as "proof of concept." Does what you write work on the screen to engage viewers? That's traction.

You really don't need to make a whole feature film as a calling card. In fact, the shorter your short film is, the more likely an insider will be to actually watch the whole thing.

Don't think you can get away with making a trailer for your feature instead of a short, that pretty much never works. Professionals want to see well-executed scenes with a beginning, middle, and end. You need to prove that you can tell a cohesive and compelling story, not that you can suggest one might exist.

This tight 2-minute short film Salt is a near-perfect example of a calling card project.

This short film, shot on an iPhone, allowed a group of British filmmakers to not only show their skills and ingenuity to the industry but also helped them gather enough followers to crowdfund Host, which became the most successful horror feature of 2020. They collaborated with other filmmakers to gain skills and build a network of skilled craftspeople that made it possible to produce both the short and the feature with zero support from the larger industry. This has opened essentially every door in the entire industry for writer/producer/director Rob Savage and writer/producer Jed Shepherd. If you don't count the iPhone, they spent less than $500 of their own money to make it all happen.

Use a powerful and well-crafted short film to demonstrate traction in the form of views, followers, and comments. Producers want to see that people engage with your material.

So, put a great team together, spend as little money as possible on your production, and tell a simple story really really well. If it doesn't work, try again. Perfect it. This is your amuse-bouche. Make something really good before you send it out. Your reputation is on the line every time your name shows up next to a project, and in a small town reputation is everything.

What happens when a producer likes your calling card short?

They ask what else you've got. Now you send them your script.

All things being equal, the easiest way to break into the industry is to demonstrate traction.

Essential Game

How do you know if you're writing great screenplays?

Join a screenwriters group online and swap scripts to exchange notes. Preferably this is a group with people who can actually write and will help you elevate your style.

You want to find a group of comrades who will support you and each other in the long game.

The whole game of the entertainment business can be summed up in three topics: who you know, stampeding egos, and making money.

You don't have to be cynical about it, you don't have to stab people in the back, it's still entirely possible to be a wonderful human being under these conditions.

This is just the way it is. Accept it, keep it in mind, keep your heart as an artist, and again...

Don't be an asshat.

Blogs

Primary Recommendation:

If you only pay for one thing in your screenwriting career preparation, a Medium.com subscription to access all that Go Into The Story has to offer is where you should park your dimes.

It's mostly written and edited by one guy, Scott Myers, who really knows his shit. An amazing resource with probably over 1000 articles at this point. They're on basically everything you could possibly want to know about screenwriting.

You'll need to subscribe to Medium.com (not expensive) to read past the first few entries, but it's totally worth it.

Other Good Screenwriting Blogs:

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