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How to Become a Screenwriter

Writing for Film is Exciting and can be Extremely Lucrative!

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Becoming a big shot Hollywood screenwriter is the dream of hundreds of thousands of people. Most will never take the necessary steps to become successful at it simply 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 course of their careers. There are even a few “overnight successes” (if you don’t include the months and months 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 – hard work.

So, where does one start? I’ve outlined below a very basic step by step of how to become a screenwriter. Keep in mind that this is one possible path of an infinite number of possible paths. 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 for those of you who are looking for information on how to get started, the following steps should help provide a bit more direction.

Step 1 – Educate Yourself

Too many newbie writers think that screenwriting is just something they can jump into. Now, I’ll admit that there are those exceptionally few writers who just seem to understand the rhythm of a movie script and have that innate gift of dialogue from the get go. But for the most part, all new writers need to have a basic understanding of what it is they’re trying to write. That means research.

The following books are perfect for the budding screenwriter’s library. These will help you to understand the basic structure of a movie script as well as how to go about writing the various elements -- from creating interesting characters and plot to the development of engaging dialogue and proper story structure. Here are three books you need to add to your library as soon as possible:

  • Story Structure by Robert McKee - This is the bible of story structure and the basics of the principles of screenwriting. A must read.

  • Screenplay by Syd Field - Another must read by the one author that most Hollywood writers would agree is the master of the screenplay.

  • Screenwriters Problem Solver by Syd Field - A follow up to the above-referenced book, Syd Field takes you through common problems that many screenwriters run into during the course of writing and problem solving exercises to help fix them.
You will quickly see that there are literally 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.

Books that show you how to write a screenplay in ten days or twenty, or whatever, miss the point of writing, so I tend not to recommend them to new writers. Down the line, you might find that books like these are quite helpful in getting you to keep forging ahead. But initially, you need to learn about the mechanics of writing a script before worrying about how long it takes you to write one.

Start a Collection of 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 begin to soon see how a film translates from a writer’s head into the finished product of a film.

Scripts can be purchased at a variety of places online. Some of my favorites are:

  • Samuel French Bookstore: For scripts and plays, Samuel French is one of the best – the Samuel French bookstore.

  • Ebay: Yes, eBay usually has a ton of screenplays available online. Usually from film crewmembers who are selling their personal copies of screenplays of films they worked on.

  • Google: This surprised me, but if you type in the title of just about any movie you can think of with the word "screenplay" after it into Google, you will more than likely find dozens of sites that will have exactly what you're looking for.
Note: When you’re buying a script, be sure that 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.

Consider Attending a Writing Class

If you live in a major metropolitan city, there are probably a number of writing classes that you can choose from, many of which specialize in screenwriting.

The Learning Annex often has a number of classes that are given over the course of a few weeks to a couple of months that will teach you the basics of how to write a screenplay.

Step 2: Start Writing It may sound a lot easier than it actually is, but one of the tricks to becoming a successful screenwriter 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, and never actually write anything!

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

Step 3: Keep Writing

This is where many people get hung up. Once they start writing, they can rarely get themselves past a certain point and they simply stop trying.

Some of the excuses might be: there’s a hiccup in the storyline; the dialogue isn’t working; this character isn’t likeable. All of these are valid issues, but none of them mean you should ever stop the writing process.

You might be familiar with the phrase: “Writing is rewriting.” As a screenwriter, you will quickly find that this is about 80% of the job, if not more. The trick here is to avoid rewriting the same scene over and over without ever moving toward completion.

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