How to Become a Pro Scriptwriter
Like any job or craft, becoming a pro scriptwriter is something that doesn’t happen overnight. It can take years and years to hone the craft of scriptwriting.
Once you have your craft to a place you are confident with, breaking into the industry can also take the same amount of discipline, patience and resolve.
There’s no sure way to become a Scriptwriter. You only have to look at the varying careers of famous screenwriters to learn that.
Some might write a script in their early twenties that propels them to fame and success. However, some might toil away at many screenplays for years and years before hitting on the one that catches them a break.
There’s no right or wrong way in building your career. However, there are steps that you can follow to make sure you’re on the right path.
First of all…
Obviously you can’t be a scriptwriter without writing. To some, wanting to be a scriptwriter might come from a desire for the prestige, success or intellectual label that comes with it.
But if you don’t enjoy writing, what’s the point? You wouldn’t want to become a footballer without ever having kicked a ball. The only way to find this out is to write.
You might not even start out writing scripts but short stories, outlines or plays. Whatever you write, it’s important to try and get the feel of it. In other words, build the muscle from your brain to your hand, helping translate the ideas in your head to words on the page.
Thoughts On Writing:
- If it’s your ideas that have propelled you to start writing but you feel you don’t yet have the language of scriptwriting yet, then writing an outline can be a great way of exercising your storytelling muscles.
- You will learn the beats of crafting a beginning, middle and end as well as having a good framework to work from when you do start writing your script.
- Writing plays, whilst a whole separate medium. It can also be a great way of exercising your writing muscles. Playwriting can be a good method to learn the rhythms of writing dialogue as well as learning how to layer subtext in your writing.
- ‘Actioning’ for example, a technique most commonly used in acting, can be useful of way of learning and thinking about how to convey subtext. It involves the assignment of alternative meaning behind lines of dialogue – for example, the line ‘hello’ assigned with the meaning of ‘i love you’.
Write everyday. It doesn’t have to be long. Even if it’s just ten minutes every day for a month, you will slowly start to get the feel and habit for it. This will make it easier when you start to get more serious.
Build up a (metaphorical) scrapbook of writing. These stories, outlines and plays might prove useful in some way if shared but most importantly they are practice for you as a writer.
Stories For Your Scriptwriting:
It can be helpful to think, even vaguely, about the stories you want to tell in your scriptwriting. It gets back to the core of why you want to be a writer.
- What stories do you want to tell?
- What perspective do you have?
- Do you want to write drama? Or action? Or Comedy?
You don’t necessarily have to have concrete answers to these questions at this stage.
But it can be instructive to know what kind of approach you might have as you start to learn the rules of scriptwriting. That way you can think of how you want to apply the lessons you learn practically to your scriptwriting.
Watching films & TV is a key part of discovering what stories you might want to tell.
Watch as much as possible. By doing this you will discover intuitively what stories you are drawn to.
- What kind of story speaks to you and why?
Again, these answers won’t necessarily come to you immediately.
But the more films and television you watch the more you will develop an innate sense of what stories speak to you and what stories you want to tell.
Read Scriptwriting Books:
Once you start to have an idea of why and how you want to start scriptwriting, it’s time to start learning the craft of how to write a script.
There are so many books about scriptwriting it can be hard to know where to start.
We have a great list on 31 screenwriting books you must own, which helps narrow down some key books on the different areas of scriptwriting, from craft to the business to insightful anecdotes.
Save The Cat by Blake Snyder is a classic in the genre of scriptwriting books. If you want to dip in we have a Save the Cat Series of analysis, using the techniques and tropes outlined in the book to analyse contemporary films.
Scriptwriting books are a great introduction to a number of different sides of the industry.
- Craft books will give you a baseline guide from which to start from.
- Business books will introduce you to the industry side of scriptwriting, from starting out to surviving.
- More anecdotal scriptwriting books will help illustrate what life as a scriptwriter is like, from the perspective of those who are well experienced and perhaps those you admire and aspire to be.
Scriptwriting books are by no means a shortcut to being a scriptwriter.
But they are helpful guide as to the practices you need and to the world you are getting into.
There are many different options for studying scriptwriting, from taking courses to studying degrees.
Whilst reading scriptwriting books will give you an overview of what you’re getting into, courses will help give you practical ways into scriptwriting. This might include:
- Writing exercises
- Group participation
- In depth analysis into all aspects of scriptwriting – character, narrative, dialogue, theme.
There are hundreds of scriptwriting courses and degrees out there, from MFA’s to three year bachelor degrees to short one week intensive courses.
Which path you choose is totally unique to you and your experience:
- With a previous degree (either in film or not) you might feel an MFA in screenwriting is just the top up you need.
- If you’re a relative beginner but have a grounding in some writing practice and industry knowledge then a longer three year degree might just be the serious step you need.
- If you’re a total beginner looking for a complete introduction to screenwriting then maybe a short course or online course can serve as a great tester.
Courses can be a big investment if you’re not sure what it might entail or whether it’s right for you.
Why not try our popular online screenwriting course, to help give a taste of scriptwriting courses.
Whilst watching movies and TV is key for learning scriptwriting, reading the scripts of the films and shows you watch is even more important.
Here is where you’ll learn what translates to screen and how.
You’ll get to know what often looks good on the page doesn’t always translate well to screen and what often looks not so good on the page does translate well to screen.
It’s important to read scripts that you love and scripts that you don’t. Learn from the masters but also what mistakes to avoid.
In a sense scriptwriting is a language and reading scripts is the best way to learn the patterns and rhythms of that language.
Scripts aren’t always easy to find and it can be time consuming collating a lot together. We have a suite with over 1,000 produced scripts to download, bursting with the great and good of scripts to learn from.
In addition, reading plays is also a fantastic way of learning about writing.
Whilst there are certainly technical aspects that are different in writing plays and writing scripts, plays can be invaluably instructive on basic elements like dialogue, character and story structure.
Read plays from the greats and read modern plays to get a sense of what contemporary writers are writing about and how.
Plays can often have more urgency than in TV and film, as writers are responding with a quicker turnaround to current events and the world around them.
Looking at plays is therefore a great way of seeing how writers can tackle important and relevant themes in a dramatically rewarding way as well seeing different rhythms of dialogue on the page.
Theatre gets to the heart of what drama is and has been doing so long before film even existed as a medium. If you take a popular or successful play, particularly those that have lived down the ages…
A Few Questions To Ask Yourself:
- Why is the drama so continually resonant and what makes it so?
- What are the character archetypes?
- What about the structure and pacing are successful in building and concluding the story?
Thinking about these questions can take you to the root of the stories you want to tell in your scriptwriting.
Looking at plays should also help you understand what distinguishes the medium of theatre from film and television.
Doing this will lead you to better understand what cinema and television does that theatre can’t and therefore ideally give your script purpose and definition in regard to the medium you’ve chosen for it.
Both courses and reading scripts will give you instruction on script formatting practices. These are most important when it comes to getting your script read.
There is a shorthand that experienced script readers and producers will know in terms of screenplay format and if you don’t subscribe to this it could be a hurdle in just getting your script read let alone it making an impression.
Format doesn’t need to be an element that takes up lots of time to learn. It’s a simple way of making your script conform to an expected standard and the bare minimum in your journey to being a pro scriptwriter.
Practice Makes Perfect:
You should always be writing whilst you’re learning and getting started but there definitely comes a point where you need to do little else but write.
Hone that story you’ve been wanting to write for a while and start forming it into a script.
You won’t get this right on the first try. And if you think you have…you probably haven’t.
Write a draft, go over it and re-write it. Go back to the core lessons you learnt and check if you are hitting the right marks.
You don’t have to stick the ‘rules’ of scriptwriting. The guidelines you will have learnt are just that – guidelines. They don’t have to prescriptive but instead, instructive.
However, you need to know the rules before you break them. You need to try and be aware whether you are hitting these guidelines or not.
If you’re not..
- Is it on purpose and is it for a good enough reason?
- Are you subverting expectations for the sake of the story?
- Or are you just trying to impress for the sake of it?
Accept that this might take time.
On top of that, don’t just focus all your energy on one script. Try to think of the story for your next script. But also write as much as you can in other formats.
- A short film
- A TV pilot or series outline.
- A story outline
Keep your writing muscles exercised in all sorts of ways. Don’t restrict yourself to one avenue or one idea. You never know which one might stick and where you creative energy might find it’s best vessel.
An incredibly vital part of the process.
Your writing cannot exist in isolation and you need to share it before you try and send it out, whether that be to potential producers, agents or scriptwriting contests.
Whilst friends and contacts you trust can be a great source of feedback, Industrial Scripts exists for this very purpose and we advocate the value of professional feedback. You need pro script analysis.
Our script doctor services will help you take your script to that next level, with feedback and guidance from seasoned professionals.
A script doctor is a fusion of the scriptwriter and script consultant and therefore someone who understands the creative process as well as they do development and production potential for your script.
No writer will be made great in isolation and potential for feedback from professionals is an incredible tool in the the journey of a modern scriptwriter.
Feedback will help your professional development, taking scriptwriting from an aspiration to a profession in the crafting and honing of your work.
Learn to Take Criticism:
Your script might be your baby but you cannot be afford to be overly precious or attached to it. This is hard, we know.
You’ve spent months or years working on a script only to have it taken apart and critiqued. However, seeing your script objectively is a key part of being a pro scriptwriter.
If you built a chair and were testing it’s ready, only for someone to fall through it when sitting on it, you wouldn’t argue with the results – it’s clear it doesn’t work. You need to think of your script in the same light.
Script doctors and script editors are there to make sure your script works. They are there to test the very basic elements of your script as well as looking at how to make improvements.
You have laboured to produce your script. But once it’s out of you, you need to separate yourself from your script.
See the script objectively as a product that you’re doing all you can to make the best you can, rather than taking it personally or as a reflection of your skill as a writer when someone critiques it.
Again, this is not a behaviour that necessarily comes overnight. It takes practice to see your work objectively and respond to criticism of it appropriately.
Scriptwriting is not a craft that produces instant results. It takes time to write a script, time to improve and perfect it and time to see it potentially make an impact.
Learning discipline is about sticking to what you initially intended to do in pursuing being a scriptwriter in the first place.
Remember what made you fall in love with it in the first place as there will be many a time when it feels not worth it, when it’s hard graft and when you forget what you actually like about doing it.
No one else but you is ultimately in control of your fate as a scriptwriter. Therefore, discipline is key. Make sure you are writing as if you had a boss lurking over your shoulder. Don’t slack!
However, also remember that writing doesn’t always have to involve writing.
If you are struggling to make progress or feel you have a hit a roadblock, go back to sources of inspiration…
- Watch a film or TV show with great writing.
- Go to a gallery
- Read a book.
Sometimes you just need a trigger to come through a roadblock.
A large element of being a scriptwriter is being a problem solver and thinking outside the box will help you land on solutions to problems.
Similarly, remember that the creative process takes time. Whilst you may want to write with urgency, your script needs to be a product that will outlive the moment you find yourself writing it in.
By taking time to work through ideas and elements of your script you will create something overall more durable.
A script that references a topical news event won’t be much good when your script gets made two years later and the reference is outdated. You need to think similarly about having patience with your script’s journey.
From the moment you finish your script to its potential production could take years. This might be frustrating but it also can be a good thing.
Your script will be pushed and tested in many different ways and by many different people, from development to full production.
Hold on to your confidence about your script throughout this process and make sure you’re always seeking to improve it not compromise it.
Be patient and understanding of the many different levels your script will have to go through to get made. Have faith that a brilliant, durable script will hold up throughout this process. In the meantime, starting writing another script!
Find the Right Home For Your Work:
There are many places to send your script. Whether it be agencies when looking for an agent or screenplay contests.
However, exercise patience and thought when it comes to sending your script out. Don’t spray and pray.
When it comes to an agent, target the ones that you think will best respond to your work. Have a look at who is on their books and the kind of work they represent.
In being more targeted you will increase you potential success rate.
And again, exercise patience. The industry is full of stories of scriptwriters banging on the door for years before getting in.
Often a scriptwriter will be in contact with an agent for years before they decide to take them on. Or it might take two or three attempts before winning a screenplay contest.
Find the films and TV you aspire to and follow the money. What production companies, funding bodies, independent producers are making them? That’s where to aspire to send your script yourself.
Who are your contemporary scriptwriting heroes? Take a look at their journeys and if relevant, try chasing the paths that worked for them. They might not be right for you but trying, failing and then trying another path instead is the only way to find out truly what path will be yours.
Meet Your Peers:
Being a scriptwriter can often be a lonely job.
Just you and your typewriter (well…laptop) can be a somewhat isolated working existence. Therefore, it is important to meet and connect with your peers in the scriptwriting world.
Whether it’s attending industry events or staying active and communicative on social media, it’s important to form and maintain a community of scriptwriters.
In addition, you will share experiences of the industry and find solidarity. Therefore, creativity will bounce and flow and ideas will spark off each other when shared.
Don’t ever be afraid that a writer might ‘steal’ your idea. Peer groups work in homage to each other and no one can succeed in isolation.
Scriptwriting might be a lonely working practice but it doesn’t have to mean for a lonely working life.
Nail How Best You Work:
- Are you disciplined enough working from home?
- Do you prefer working in cafes?
- Could you rent an office or co-working space?
All writers are different and all have different spaces where they feel at their most comfortable or creative.
Whether it be:
- The quiet solitude of an office
- The comfort of home
- The hustle and bustle of a cafe
- Or the buzz of a co-working space.
Finding where you find your best rhythm is can be key to being a disciplined and focused scriptwriter.
However, don’t feel you have be a slave to that rhythm. You also need to be open and ready to write when you find inspiration strike you.
You might come upon that crucial idea or twists for your script suddenly and unexpectedly whilst doing something else. Always have a notepad (or notes on your phone) ready!
Write And Write And Write And Write:
As we’ve stressed throughout this guide, there is no shortcut to becoming a pro scriptwriter. It takes focus, patience, discipline, time, feedback and most importantly…writing!
Never stop writing and you will inherently improve and learn and grow as a scriptwriter.
You might write a script that defines your career on your first go. Or you might write multiple scripts before you get that breakthrough script.
In conclusion, don’t keep your work in isolation. Always seek and always listen to the advice of those that will give it.
The journey might not be straightforward but be persistent and consistent in your growth as a scriptwriter and you will always be on the journey to becoming a pro.