When your screenplay doesn't sell, make sure you got another screenplay ready to go, and then another one, and another, plus ten ideas that might interest a few industry players, just for kicks.
Here's the deal. Even when you land an agent or manager to rep your spec screenplay, and they do everything in their power to try and sell it for you, there is a 99.9% chance it's not going to sell. Once your spec doesn't sell, you need to have something else to talk about with everyone before you get lost in the up-and-coming screenwriter shuffle. And if you do get lost in the up-and-coming screenwriter shuffle (it's going to happen), then my best advice for you is to stay positive and keep a sense of humor.
Laugh away your frustration of trying to make it as a screenwriter and DON'T get pissed off and whine to everybody about how Hollywood is unfair, because Hollywood is unfair and there is almost nothing you can do about it.
Try to remember that you can't control a script sale. It's impossible, in fact. No matter how talented you are, and no matter who your agent or manager is, for your spec script to sell and get your career going it's going to take some serious luck on top of all that talent in your blood. And the best way to make your own luck is to meet a lot of folks, be cool to everyone you meet, and keep rewriting your scripts and improving your craft - the only thing you have control over.
Keep on writing and rewriting and have some fun. And if you're not having fun while you're screenwriting, it's time that you hang up your quill.
What should you write when you don't know what to write?
The answer: Everything!
Forget about outlines, high-concept ideas and the latest hot genre trend everyone is telling you to write. Just write from your gut and see what happens on those 90-120 blank pages. If you do this I promise you something amazing will happen.
You will discover good story ideas, a few cool characters and, most important, your writing voice.
If you're nodding your head in agreement and want to give this a try, here is how to get started:
1) Title your script anything you want.
2) Don't think too much, just start writing a scene about anything. Do this fast, then repeat the process until you have around 70 scenes.
3) Do your best to make sure each scene logically follows the last one.
4) Try to have a lot of bad stuff happen in every scene to at least one of your characters, because "bad stuff" is where the drama lies.
5) Do your best not to solve any problems until you're close to finishing the draft.
6) Put every emotion you feel into this draft. Try being funny, angry, sad, scary, sexy and overly dramatic.
7) Throw in all sorts of real, as well as wild, over-the-top supporting characters to see what happens.
8) Get personal as often as you can in your scenes. Reveal part of yourself in the characters you create.
9) Make sure this writing exercise is fun. Only write as much as you feel like writing each day. No more, no less.
Once you have a completed draft DON'T SHOW ANYONE. This script is for your eyes only. As you read your "write from the gut" script over (give it a week before you do) you will notice something about your writing (and yourself) that you didn't notice before. Also, you should have a better idea on the kind of screenplay/s you would like to focus on writing in the future.
Good luck with the process. Keep on writing. Don't get discouraged. You can't get better at something without practice.
#1: Having a catchy title attracts more readers.
Not all titles are created equal, so experiment until you find something that you and others really dig.
#2: Not all of your great ideas are worth writing.
No reason to work six months to a year on something that nobody wants to read or see on the big screen. Test “great” ideas out on friends, strangers, and even a few industry folks before getting to work on your screenplay.
#3: Until your story has a decent ending in place, theme doesn’t matter (and shouldn't matter).
The more you rewrite your story, and get the nuts and bolts of your piece down on the page, it should become clear to you what your script is really about.
#4: During the first rewrite, second, third... it’s important to simplify the story as much as possible.
Simple is better. There are always characters you can combine and scenes you can cut to make the script easier to read.
#5: Challenge main characters constantly and put them through hell.
Forcing your characters into action reveals who they are to the audience.
#6: After another rewrite, make sure you still like your ending.
It’s important to make sure you really have the best ending for your story. Nine times out of ten, you'll make an adjustment for the better and want to go back to the beginning of your script and do another rewrite, with the new ending (and possibly theme) in mind.
#7: Don't worry about making everything perfect.
No such thing as a perfect script. But once you have a solid story foundation (beginning, middle and end) you can focus all of your rewriting energy on making your scenes and characters better.
#8: When you get writer’s block, work on another script so you never stop writing.
This is the only practical and drug-free cure to writer’s block I know.
#9: Always make sure the story you're writing is somehow personal to you.
If you can’t identify with a trait or two in each of your characters, add something that's inherently you to them, immediately.
#10: After about six or seven drafts (maybe earlier) share it with a few “secret” readers for some feedback.
If more than one reader mentions the same problem, always take it seriously and try to fix the problem.
#11: Go through each scene and experiment with different settings, character actions and ideas until you feel like you’ve created something an audience hasn’t really seen before.
Never rely on your first, second, or even third idea that comes to mind. These are the ideas that have been done before.
#12: It’s important to ask: Is my story raising the stakes?
You've heard this before, sure, but it's a big deal and worth saying again. You always want to make sure you've given the audience a reason to root for your hero – that includes antiheroes. If your hero fails, then what will happen to him and others around him? Know the answer to this question.
#13: Never solve a character's problem with a coincidence.
That's cheating. Readers are really not nice to writers who cheat.
#14: Watch as many current movies in the genre you're writing and pay attention to tone.
It puts the right words in your head when it’s time to do that “tone” rewrite pass.
#15 Write from the gut, not the head, as much as possible.
Screenplay writing shouldn't be a paint-by-numbers formula. If your script uses one of these formulas, chances are everyone will see your script as unoriginal or just okay, which isn't good enough.
#16 Readers, producers, agents and managers all have different tastes.
Once you have a solid screenplay (and you'll know when you do) not everyone is going to love it. Cat people and dog people don't always get along. Nothing wrong with that. Knowing this fact will help you deal with rejection better. It's only business.
#17 The learning never stops.
And if it ever does, you're toast!
Keep on writing and enjoy the ride. That's the only thing you can control.
Before I write a new screenplay on spec, I like to think about the Johnny Cash biopic movie, "Walk the Line." There is a moment in this movie that is just so awesome, so powerful, I decided to post it on my site.
Here's the quick setup: JOHNNY CASH is broke, married and desperate. His dream is to play music. He gets a chance to play a song for well known producer SAM PHILLIPS. He starts playing one. But Sam stops him only a few verses in. Johnny is defensive at first, but Sam gives Johnny a reality check that will change his life forever.
SAM: We've already heard that song a hundred times. Just like that. Just like how you sing it.
JOHNNY: Well, you didn't let us bring it home.
SAM: Bring it home? All right, let's bring it home. If you was hit by a truck and you was lying out there in that gutter dying, and you had one time to sing one song. One song that people would remember before you're dirt. One song that would let God know how you felt about your time here on Earth. One song that would sum you up. You tellin' me that's the song you'd sing? That same Jimmy Davis tune we hear on the radio all day, about your peace within, and how it's real, and how you're gonna shout it? Or... would you sing somethin' different. Somethin' real. Somethin' you felt. Cause I'm telling you right now, that's the kind of song that truly saves people. It ain't got nothin' to do with believin' in God, Mr. Cash. It has to do with believin' in yourself.
JOHNNY: I got a couple of songs I wrote in the Air Force. You got anything against the Air Force?
JOHNNY: I do.
The rest is history.
In a novel a hero can lay ten girls and marry a virgin for a finish. In a movie this is not allowed. The hero, as well as the heroine, has to be a virgin. The villain can lay anybody he wants, have as much fun as he wants cheating and stealing, getting rich and whipping the servants. But you have to shoot him in the end.
Having some issues getting started with your rewrite? Don't worry. Here are a few tips - questions to ask - that should help you get going in the right direction.
1) Do you like your main character (hero/ine)? Is he/she original? Do they have a personality flaw that gets them in trouble over and over again?
2) Does your script have a solid baddie, situation or force that your hero/ine must go up against and conquer in order to fulfill his/her destiny?
3) How's your screenplay premise? Is your hero/ine's major problem big enough to hold a reader's attention for 110 pages?
4) Do you know what genre you're writing for? This is a good time to think about your brand and how you want to present yourself to the world. Make sure you pick the genre you love most and write a script that shows folks you understand that genre.
5) Does your screenplay story have a workable film structure? The main thing you want to have is a clear beginning, middle and end.**
**5.5) Now is the time to read the scripts to your favorite movies. Study the structure. Ask yourself, how did the writer make me care about his characters? At what pages in the script did something change for the hero/ine?
6) Do you know your screenplay's ending yet? In your first draft it doesn't matter if you know your ending. Now, though, I recommend you know exactly what will happen to your hero/ine at the end of the film. This will give you much more control over how you tell your story.
7) Is your hero/ine facing deeper and deeper conflict every ten to fifteen pages? Are you "raising the stakes?" The audience wants to SEE and FEEL your hero/ine suffer no matter what genre you're writing for. Trust me. You want to be downright cruel to your hero/ine so the audience (readers) will be hooked on your story.
8) Does your main subplot (some folks call this the "B-story") have a beginning, middle and an end?**
** 8.5) Subplots usually kick-in around the page 33 mark, but this is a very loose rule. Also, make sure your subplot intersects with your main storyline without taking over.
9) Supporting characters. They should help your hero/ine or baddie with their goals, and probably reinforce your story's theme in some way. Btw, too many supporting characters will make your screenplay confusing. Less is always more.
10) Theme. Your secret agenda. Do you know why you're writing your story? What lesson you hope the reader (the world) will learn and take away from your movie?
11) Dialogue. Is it good? Does it move the story forward? Does each character sound different? Is there subtext? Less is more, always!
12) Are you using your creative intuition? Do you trust your thoughts yet, even when some of the answers you come up with scare the crap out of you?**
**12.5) While rewriting, you have nothing to lose. Go for it! Don't be afraid of your own imagination. There's no such thing as too funny, too sexy, too violent, too gross, too anything. Well, almost anything. You don't want to be too boring.Cheers to a good rewrite!
“Most scenes are rarely about what the subject matter is. You soon see the power of dealing obliquely or elliptically with situations, because most people rarely confront things head-on.”
- Robert Towne, Chinatown
I write fast because it helps me tap into the subconscious part of my mind that is far more original, truthful, and emotional than my normal, usual, "let's think a lot about it" part of the mind.
If you're taking too much time to come up with the right words to fill up your blank page then you're probably thinking too much. And thinking too much (in front of the blank page) can destroy the fun and creativity of what spec screenplay writing should be all about.
You need to take risks and write where no wannabe screenwriter has gone before.
Everybody attempting to write a spec screenplay today is smart enough to figure out proper screenplay structure just by picking up a book by Syd Field or Mckee, reading a blog, or taking an online class. But 99% of these spec screenplays will lack enough original stuff inside of them. I'm talking about the cool ideas, memorable characters that actually seem real, and a fresh voice.
If you're a new screenwriter, don't forget how to have fun while writing your movie. Don't aspire to create a spec script that has been done before. You're better than that. Write something that you would want to pay $12 bucks to go watch.
Redundant, uninspired screenplays bore readers and get passes in coverage. Earn points for originality by being bold with your creativity.
Set yourself apart from the pack of wannabe writers by not following the latest trends you read about in the trades. Take risks with your characters and plot. If you've seen it before, don't write it again. Be different.
Here's a trick I use (besides writing super fast) that you might want to try in order to tap deeper into your own creative well.
Remember when you were a kid? You didn't think too much when you were a kid, did you? I know I didn't. I even ate paste some days. Anyway, because I didn't think too much, I had a lot more fun. I could create something fun to do without even having any toys around. How? Just by using my imagination.
It's all about imagination.
If you forgot how to use it, then I recommend paying attention to your kids, or other kids, playing in the park. Ask yourself: What are they doing that makes them so happy? How are they tapping into their creativity to amuse themselves?
NOW INSERT THAT BLANK SCREENPLAY PAGE
and go have some fun writing your screenplay without thinking too much. Write super fast. Make shit up and have your characters say and do some crazy ass things. Live a little. Don't worry about perfection, not yet, not while you're tapping into your creativity.
And when you have nothing else to say the words will eventually just...
I'm done writing out of my ass, for now. It's time to get cracking on another
Use your imagination. Be creative. Don't write something that we've all seen before.
-- WRITE FAST! You want that first draft completed in less than 14 days. Sound impossible? It's not. Write quickly, trusting your first instincts and you will reap the rewards of having a more original, creative, first draft screenplay.
-- Don't overthink your idea, and don't worry about story structure yet. As long as you have a major problem that needs to be solved, you will be able to write a first draft.
-- Know who your hero/ine is and what he/she wants and fears most. (This will allow you to mess with his/her life.)
-- Know who your baddie is and what he/she wants and fears most.
-- Make sure your hero/ine and baddie want the same thing, then in the end make sure your hero/ine wins.
-- Create some kind of plot twist for your hero/ine every 10 pages, and try to make each twist bigger than the last one.
-- Give all of your supporting characters unique personalities, and make sure they serve the needs of your hero/ine and baddie.
-- Have a lot of fun when you write! Don't censor yourself. Be rude, crude, funny, perverted, violent, creepy, angry, romantic, jealous or overly sensitive, if that's how you're feeling at the time your quill is moving.
-- End your screenplay with your most emotional and exciting scene possible, bringing closure to your hero/ine's problem.
-- Your screenplay should be no less than 103 pages and no more than 120 pages, with very few exceptions. And lastly...
-- Don't procrasterbate! Write now!
It's about having confidence in the way you tell your story.
Like a good salesman or lawyer who understands why they're talking, you (the screenwriter) will find yourself having more fun with the words in your screenplay when you know why you're writing your story.
Therefore, knowing your real agenda (the real reason you're writing something) is key.
You say you don't have an agenda. Nonsense.
Every good writer has an agenda - what you hope a movie audience will take away from your film.
As a matter of fact, if you don't have an agenda your screenplay will lack substance.
There will be no voice to your script.
And you want to have a voice, so... how do you find it?
Is it all about practice? Practice does help, but there is something else you need to do.
How do I speak to people?
How does the tone of my voice sound when I talk?
Am I normally dark, moody, cynical, optimistic, ironic, dramatic or funny?
If you're uncertain how you sound, discuss a topic that you really care about with your friend or spouse and pay attention to you.
Did you hear your voice?
That's the trick.
Listen to yourself talk to others in real life (opposed to the made up characters in your head for the script you want to write).
Then, once you have a sense of who you are, all you need to do is understand why you're writing your movie script.
And when that happens, I promise you, you'll find the confidence to write your story the way you want to write it.
You will discover your original, screenwriting voice and personal style.