Today, Art talks about why first-time screenwriters have to be better than established writers, the "Hollywood No", and the importance of the re-write.
Nearly 40 years as a writer has taught me some important lessons, one of which is that writers, whether they’re just starting out or well into their career, all need access to the absolute, straightforward truth about their craft and the journey they are taking as writers.
This is especially important for first-timers because there is so much information out there – much of it from dubious sources – which makes it very difficult to know whom to trust.
So, in this article, I will give you three points of absolute truth.
Established successful writers – sadly – get away with mediocrity all the time.
How often have you been disappointed with a favorite author’s most recent offering? Or the follow-up movie by a screenwriter you respect?
I know I have – and often.
It’s because they already have a threshold market – a group of people whom the producer can accurately predict will buy any screenwriter’s next effort. If that number is high enough, that company will produce that writer’s next work – essentially regardless of the quality.
For example, even if a successful novelist’s next book is not up to snuff, the publisher is likely not to reject the book and risk having the author take his or her future books elsewhere.
For them, “Good is probably good enough.” And so they move on to the next project.
However, for first-timers like many of you, “Good is never going to be good enough.”
You must be great. Your first script must be great in order to sell.
Why? Because it has two challenges that it must meet.
First, it must be better than the mass of other submissions from first-timers. Luckily, this may not be so difficult if you do a good job.
But second, your work must be strong enough to shoulder its way through the ranks of the established writers to find a place in the production budget.
Consider for a moment the conversation being held as these decision-makers are considering your work. No one is going to back your project if they’re on the fence. “I like it – it’s an interesting idea – but I don’t love it,” is not a statement that gets you a contract.
So, in the end, how do you tell if your work is great?
If the producer or agent who has just read it doesn’t want to give you a contract to purchase the piece, then your work – as it stands at that moment – simply isn’t good enough.
And this sucks. Because current sensibilities exist so that these readers will either not have the guts to tell you the truth, or are scared that they will hurt your feelings, and so instead say something like “I like the concept, but characters need a little more development, and Act II is a little thin.”
It’s called the “Hollywood No” and it borders on the unprofessional, but there it is. Something that sounds like encouragement but is really a blow-off. And unless you do what it takes to make each of your next offerings great, you better get used to it.
Also, don’t buy into any posts on social media, where someone says a professional reader read their script really liked it. This is another insult offered to writers in the 21st century. For if anyone inside the industry reads your work and doesn’t instantly contract that work for production (aka they send a check), then they don’t like it enough to produce it.
In the end, you have to wow them. Anything less leads to failure. You must understand this. Make no mistake, there is no middle ground.
For there are only two types of scripts.
A work is either
- great-and-wonderful and anyone who reads it wants to buy it, or
- it’s not good enough and it gets rejected.
But here is our final truth for today, as disheartening as it may sound…
I have built my reputation as a teacher on this one fundamental belief:
You must spend all the time, skills and talents necessary to master your re-writes.
I repeat: your success and failure as a writer lies almost entirely on your ability to rewrite your work.
You have got to have:
- a compelling, engaging Premise
- correct, professional Formatting
- great natural Dialogue
- cut-to-the-chase grabbing Description
- a wholly structured A-Story
- two or three Sub-Plots
- a superb and compelling Conflict
- fascinating Characters
- a fulfilling Resolution
And you do not ever find these in the first draft! They are only brought to life in the rewrite.
“Secure writers don’t sell first drafts. They patiently rewrite until the script is as director-ready, as actor-ready as possible. Unfinished work invites tampering, while polished, mature work seals its integrity.”Robert McKee
I have seen more than my share of scripts, and most writers are so relieved that they have finished an actual draft of the work (an accomplishment to be sure), that they give it a quick polish and hope for the best. This leads to a pass from the reader and time wasted because the writer did not have a process developed enough to create a great script.
The art of the writer, and their dedication to craft, is always revealed in the rewrite, where – if they have done their work well enough to have created a compelling premise, did the re-write well enough to have fully explored the concept, chosen the correct main character, and applied their knowledge of structure to make the work an easy read – they have made the nine points above shine.
It sounds like a near-impossible task, but time and time again I have seen new writers embrace what is necessary to succeed. So I know it is inside each one of you to make your script great.
Because by embracing these truths and truly learning your craft, you can develop a process you can use to write compelling, exciting and page-turning screenplays.
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This is a reprint or Art's column that appeared in Creative Screenwriting Magazine in May 2016