How To Become a Screenwriter
What Does A Screenwriter Do?
A Writer is responsible for writing a motion picture’s screenplay. Much of it is getting ideas and organizing time. Joseph Varkle, a Screenwriter who recently had a film go into production advises, “Start every day charging. Create character ideas. Outline the script to a point where it writes itself. You must start with an idea, a twenty-page treatment, then let a first draft come together. After that is revision after revision after revision. Take out what can be removed and add layers.”
The Writer’s function in a film is to think of the framework and plan the backbone of the story. They create the core of the story that the audio/visual will build from. Often a Director will think, ‘Wow, I’m a genius’ when it all comes together but that’s the hard work of a Screenwriter. Like a Translator, or like a Software Coder, the Screenwriter is a tradesperson who writes in a format that filmmaking professionals on set can understand. There are several degrees of separation from the Writer to the film viewer, so it’s important for the Writer to craft a solid story that won’t get distorted. The more they know different departments, the more they’ll be able to plan for them ahead of time so things aren’t lost in translation.
One thing that’s important to think about is the changing industry. Script reading jobs used to be the bread and butter of aspiring Writers but now they have dried up. People could sell script coverage before selling their own project and learn at the same time. Meanwhile, they would be looking to get their project optioned. However, now getting an Agent is not as important as it used to be. Varkle advises, “It’s crucial to get projects made, to push your career forward. Build a relationship with someone who is a Director and/or Producer.”
Another avenue to consider is TV. It can be hard to break in by writing spec pilots, however, it’s great financially. But if a Writer is in love with cinema and wants a shot at collaborating on studio films, they must do independent projects and develop relationships with those who can make them happen.
Education & Training
The first thing a Writer needs to do is to learn how to read screenplays. Before they can even start writing one, first a person must know structure and formatting. Even if they’ve seen a movie multiple times, that won’t mean they know what it looks like on the page. Varkle says, “Acquiring a Master of Fine Arts can be a good way of gaining experience but it’s not required. There are many books and scripts online to learn from. However, if someone does make the investment in getting an MFA, then they can teach with it to support themselves.” The best approach to learning the mathematical structure of screenwriting will be different for every person, contingent on their taste and aptitude but time must be spent learning the structure of how to tell a story regardless.
Experience & Skills
The first thing needed to become a Screenwriter is a strong grasp of English. Varkle says, “It’s not necessarily grammar but the best way to write effortlessly with athletic language. Words should punch and leave an impact. A tight sense of prose allows the reader to move faster and stay engaged. That doesn’t mean a Writer can skimp; they must still convey a sense of space and description but do it faster than a Novelist.” Another skill a Writer needs to develop is the ability to be able to take criticism. Every Writer loves their work and it hurts to watch it get torn apart. However, that’s ninety percent of the career. Everyone has notes to give, whether they make sense or not.
“A Writer must have two sides: one that is introverted and the other that can network. You must enjoy being alone in your room with a computer. That’s where the work is done and it can get very lonely. So you need to be okay with that. Once a script has been written, you must be able to flip your personality and go out to take meetings or take on a writing partner who can,” explains Varkle.
Putting on a big face and selling a project can be almost as difficult as writing the piece itself. There is a lot of competition. Convincing someone to take an hour out of their day requires confidence. If a person isn’t writing ten pages a day, then they need to be able to set up and take two meetings a week, so to speak, to contribute to the writing process. It’s those meetings where feedback will be acquired and the ball can be moved forward toward production.
Many Writers will work a variety of jobs to support their career. Some will teach during the day, take client meetings and have their evenings to themselves. That leaves room to write at night. Others will wake up early and write first thing before heading off to work. The process and life requirements are different for everybody so the schedule is, too. However, the constant is that a person needs to be self-motivated. Varkle explains, “It’s up to the Writer to face the blank page and make something happen. Usually, if intellectual property is bought, the Writer will have already put in a lot of work and done it on their own time. If Producers hire a Writer, then it is often with a schedule of due dates. They’re not dictating when, or how long to write, just what needs to get done.” Much of a Writer’s schedule is controlled by them, which can be a blessing and a curse.
Typically, a Screenwriter will work with a Director or Producer. They give notes and shape a script for production. However, there are occasionally other influences, such as a Line Producer regarding the cost of a specific scene and how it will impact the budget, an Actorwho is interested in modifying their character, or an investor who wants to say something as well. The Writer must deal with all of these factors and make their screenplay like a prism where people see what they want in it.
There is a lot of competition to be a Writer, especially in Los Angeles. Varkle recommends, “The first thing you should do is get an internship. They’re usually grunt jobs in development or mail rooms that turn into Assistant work. However, they will pay the bills. If you can live in Los Angeles or New York, then you’ll be able to network, which is a big step in your career.”
Another angle could be to develop a transferable skill to survive for several years. Meanwhile, it’s all about writing. Put in time to get better and send out work to contests for recognition. Build a core group of people who will rise to make projects happen. However, it can’t be stressed enough that screenwriting takes time and so getting a side job, even if it’s not writing, will help push a Screenwriter’s career forward.
Writing for movies is typically independent contract work where a deadline is set and a flat rate negotiated per rewrite. Therefore, it is crucial for a Writer to do small gigs to establish themselves and meet the right people who can hire them in the future. Varkle explains, “Most of the time, Writers aren’t hired for their ideas but to work on someone else’s project. That can be developing treatments, writing the screenplay or doing rewrites. Learning to fulfill someone else’s needs will make you more likely to get hired. Also, it’s good to note that most of the time a Writer will either get credit for working on a project or paid — usually not both until they’ve really established themselves.” Once a Writer does become established and joins the union, then they are typically paid about $70,000 for a script under $5 million dollars and over $100,000 \if the project cost more than $5 million.
Unions, Groups & Associations
The Writer’s Guild of America is a fantastic resource. The website is not just for union members; they also post blogs and have a service to register screenplays. This registration process protects the Writer’s intellectual property. Many screenplay competitions now require it.
Varkle says, “Other great resources are writing contests like the Nichols Fellowship or BlueCat Screenplay Competition. It can also be good to download scripts from movies to read as references. Drew’s Script-o-Rama has a ton of them. When reading screenplays, it’s good for you to remember that there is an industry standard, and many successful Writers don’t follow it, so make sure that their bad habits aren’t inadvertently acquired. Finally, check out non-profit film groups like Film Independent for additional support.” Writing is a solitary activity but there are organizations out there that can help.
- Buy Final Draft screenwriting software. It gives a legit format to scripts.
- Consider the first draft of a project as garbage. Rewrite it. Get eyes on it. Send it to people who know how to give feedback.
- Take a screenwriting class at a community college.
- Write three scripts. Revise three drafts of each and then try knocking on doors.
- Not everyone has good ideas. If someone is great at writing but is conceptually weak, get a writing partner to develop them. No one wants to make a bland story about life.
What is the single biggest suggestion you would give to someone wanting to get into this career?
“The biggest suggestion I can give is to get an alternative skill. You’re not going to be able to walk into Hollywood and start working. A side job is a necessary evil and it must be a high dollar per hour gig that leaves time to write. Maximize those hours. Some suggestions are to teach at a community college or tutor people. Maybe do copywriting or editing. Joining the gig economy to put a roof over your head will allow you to write and reach your dream faster. If someone says, ‘I’ll live under a bridge to make this dream happen,’ then they’ll end up living under a bridge.”
What’s the #1 mistake people make when trying to get into this career?
“The biggest mistake people make is how they deal with critical feedback. People who are very defensive or who don’t follow basic rules because of their ego don’t get far. Some will pursue this career anyway and defend [what they do by saying] that they want to become successful. Remember that if you think you’re doing it for yourself, the end goal is to get someone to spend millions of dollars to make your film, and then distribute it to audiences.
So, it is a collaborative effort. If a person is too stubborn about what they think is good, then they’ll be pushed out, or never sell a script. Reframe and grow as a collaborator. There’s no question writing can be a very lonely exercise and when a Writer is alone in their head, they can think ideas are gold, but that isn’t always the case. That’s why many people take on a writing partner. It’s a good method for bouncing ideas back and forth before putting work into the industry.”
What is the question people should ask about this career but rarely do?
“What element of writing drives your screenplays?
It’s important to talk to Writers or read about their creative method as a way of developing your own approach to working. Personally, I focus on character. Getting into the mind of one or two people drives me to come up with scenes and moments in their life to tell a story. This foundation in psychology informs the film’s theme, as well as how everything will come to an end. Other Writers may focus on a plot and then make characters to support that. Or they’ll be passionate about a message and build a character or plotline to support it. There are many different approaches to writing and it can be good to look at others’ methods when crafting your own.”
What is one thing I should have asked which I didn’t?
“What is frustrating about being a Writer?
A lot of people focus on the best case scenario and don’t consider what else can happen in their career. There is a lot of uncertainty in achieving success as a Screenwriter and only a few people can do it. One of the main reasons it’s so hard is because there are a lot of people out there looking to exploit Writers. They’ll push for a lot of work and then not pay or create an eighteen-page contract that takes all the rights to the work so it can’t be shopped around town.
It can be very difficult as a Writer because until someone actively wants to buy their work, no one gives them the time of day. So, when an opportunity arises many Writers will jump at it without reading the fine print and considering any negative ramifications that could result from the deal. Especially when first starting out, people will be actively working to exploit them. Be aware and avoid that.”
If you could describe in one word what makes you successful, what would it be?
“Adaptable. When I get an idea in my head, I might change it ten to forty times before hitting the sweet spot.”
Joe Varkle was born and raised in metro Detroit. He attended the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, double-majoring in Creative Writing and Film Studies. After moving to Los Angeles in 2008, he earned an MFA in Screenwriting and optioned his first feature screenplay in 2011. He assisted development at production companies with both Universal and Paramount Studios, fostering projects with a grassroots, independent style. Joe later began collaborating with Director friend Rob Lambert of Rimrock Pictures, with whom he has written four feature screenplays. His and Lambert’s most recent co-written feature, Cuck, is currently in post-production. Joe also teaches college-level writing and film studies courses. In his spare time, he enjoys horseback riding, nature walks, and pulling weeds at his Ann Arbor homestead.