Screenwriting : Swim with sharks. by Stevan Šerban

Stevan Šerban

Swim with sharks.

Do aspiring screenwriters need to write much better than professionals, and why?

Stephen Floyd

Can you clarify your question? There are many ways to write better than another person. Are you asking if amateurs need to do more to stand out than professionals? The simple answer is yes. But even professionals need to stand out from their contemporaries. Screenwriting is a “What have you done for me lately?” business. Unless audiences are frothing at the mouth to see your next movie, you will need to differentiate yourself somehow.

Tasha Lewis

Yes. Based on my course work in Ultra High Speed Rewrite and Paid Assignment, the industry expects it.

Craig D Griffiths

Of course we must.

No one is going to willingly take a second option. Of the second option present better value, it is no longer the second option.

We have to be the best option available. Business is not a charity.

CJ Walley

Yes and no.

There's a basic principal that applies to any industry you want to break into; you must be as good as those exiting employment and better than those in employment.

But there's a bunch of other factors including:

Market growth stimulating demand.

Globalisation increasing supply.

Automation reducing demand.

Consumer standards reducing supply.

One the of the biggest illusions within the creative arts is that there's an oversupply but experienced industry members know that's not really the case. Yes, you can throw a rock out the door in LA and hit a dozen eager screenwriters but that doesn't mean they are good or even competent at the role. The average lifetime of a screenwriter is woefully short too meaning professionals are exiting the industry all the time and thus there's a remarkably high amount of churn (people coming and going).

There's also this naivety over what good professional writing entails. The art is entirely subjective, the craft complex, and the conduct ambiguous. One employer's concept of good can be polarised against another in context of taste and requirements.

The worst script I've read in the last year was one commissioned and produced by Lifetime. It was so poorly written that I was almost angry. The last feature film I watched felt like it had a script nearly as bad and, like the Lifetime screenplay, I know I could do a dramatically better job. However, I don't know the story behind how those projects went through development. For all I know, those writers were called up at midnight by desperate producers who needed an outline fleshing out into a draft by the end of the week. It's never as simple as it seems and the break-in community has an obsession with only looking at idealistic studio projects as a template for how screenwriters work.

Ultimately though, it's a rather pointless exercise to engage in. It sounds really schmaltzy but the answer is to just be the best writers we can be at any given time. Honestly, comparing yourself to other artists and holding yourself to the highest standards is a very dangerous thing to do, regardless of how noble and pragmatic it may seem.

Bill Costantini

Hi Stevan,

I guess you're defining "professional" as "someone who makes a living at writing." The skill level can vary greatly in professionals, too. Writers like John Logan, Shonda Rimes, Steven Zallian, .Amy Sherman-Palladino, Tyler Perry, Tina Fey, etc. write at the highest professional skill levels.

I think a writer has to write any particular piece good enough/great enough to make a specific someone want to option it/buy it, or to contract that writer to write something else, or to hire that writer for a show.

I think, from person-to-person, there might be a bias at times in reading an unsold writer's work. And if someone who is used to reading high-level work, and is seeking high-level writers, then your work should be high-level, too. If someone is used to reading, say, high-level dramas like The Coen Brothers' or Jenji Kohan's, then your work should be high-level drama, too.

Best fortunes in your creative endeavors, Stevan!

Dan Guardino

Your writing has to glow in the dark no matter what.

William Martell

That's your competition. Not new writers who haven't broken in, yet. Your competition is the best professional that they can hire - so you need to be writing at that level.

Christopher Phillips

It's a bit of both. If you are looking for assignment work without having prior connections, then the work has to stand for itself and will need to be better than other people that are usually available. If you have established a relationship with a producer or director, they might give you assignment work based on what they like about your work.

Kiril Maksimoski

Being aspiring (amateur) screenwriter for almost 20 years now, I can speak for myself and most leisurely say - no. I've read loads of professional screenplays and never had an "urge" to be same or better then them, although I do admire the ideas and concepts behind some of them. I know my possibilities and my place within this show and for the time being I don't even have intention moving into professional zone.

Stevan Šerban

I think that aspiring screenwriter has to write much better than a pro.

Why? I'll answer this by asking a question.

If you had three million dollars to pay for the script, would you hire Shane Black or some unknown screenwriter, but whose script is f..king great?

Christopher Phillips

You just to do what you do really well and be a professional about it. When it comes to writing assignments, producers keep short go-to lists. You want to be on the go-to list for the thing you are truly awesome at.

Stephen Floyd

Shane Black is an anomaly. The typical pro has to hustle just like an unknown when writing on spec, so it’s not really fair to draw a contrast between the two.

Michael L. Burris

Um! Hey Steve there is no better than professional!!! Even a guru is just a practiced professional. How to get noticed more as a professional takes networking beyond some social media site.

Contagion writing doesn't happen overnight either but that's just a professional writer knowing where to spread.

Michael L. Burris

Professionals however do get lazy from what I heard so perhaps.

Kiril Maksimoski

Stevan Šerban , I would give this guy 3-5K to buy off his script (mainly idea) and then give rest to Shane Black to Lethal Weapon-ise this story into Hollywood. I'm afraid this is how the things usually go... However, I'm not disgracing me or any other aspiring screenwriter by saying this. Myself have short script produced, and my only second feature optioned. But what I and much of other non-professionals lack in is business engine - can't think of any other appropriate word :)

Dan Guardino

The problem with screenwriting is not everyone is writing for the same purpose. A spec has to be well written because you want the person reading it to think that you know the business and how to write for it. When writing on assignment you still want to write well because a lot of people will have to read it and you want them to think you are good because it could lead to some more work.

CJ Walley

When I was an amateur hoping to break in, even though I wasn't asking for feedback, I would get strangers reaching out to me to tell me what was wrong with my writing and where I lacked what it would take to ever work in the industry.

When I started working, those messages stopped and were replaced with praise for my work; how the dialogue crackled, the prose flowed, and the structure was tight. It was now flawless.

It was exactly the same work and some of those people were the same people.

This a genuine psychological phenomena and it's why people will walk by and scoff at that housewife's paintings on her market stall selling for $25 and then the very same people will marvel at the very same work in a gallery and fantasise about being able to afford to buy it and hang it in their living room.

It's well worth checking out "The Business of Art" documentary and the book "Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction" for more on the power of validating art and the cynical methods used to turn it into valuable property.

Stop putting working writers on pedestals because boy oh boy are there plenty of professionals, mostly right at the bottom of the industry like me, who are more than happy to let you fawn over them, many of whom don't even feel confident enough in their work to share it. I see it everywhere and, even on here, there are writers who could accidentally enter their password into the comment field and there'd still be a dozen people falling out of their chairs to smash that like button.

Do not demean yourself or your value simply because one person got lucky and you didn't. Just look around in any workplace and ask yourself if those employed represent the top tier talent in their industry or even local area.

We know that nepotism is huge. We know that over 90% of screenwriters feel they owe breaking in to networking. We know objectively badly written movies are made all the time. We also sure know that one man's trash is another man's treasure. Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey are hardly high brow literature but they're some of the best selling books of all time. Neither Stephenie Meyer or E L James were trying to be the next Hemingway... or waiting to be.

And drop any nonsense about born talent. As Stephen Floyd rightly points out, people like Shane Black are anomalies who tend to be rebelling at just the right time and hang on the coattails of significant industry change. In his case, being part of the rise of CAA. This is why you gotta do your homework and study this stuff. He's a brilliant writer but has a value on his head just like anybody else and is completely disposable just like anybody else.

My biggest issue with this point of view (having to be better than the best) is that it reeks of artistic virtue signalling and survivor bias. It's paying lip service to the craft with just words in a similar way to writers boasting about their page count or saying they'll never be happy unless they win an Oscar. They're vapid and meaningless statements on their own without any proactive action to address flaws. It's arrogance masked as humility much in the way modesty can be used to stroke the ego.

I write this and I'm a little curt in my tone because so many of you are so damn close to your dreams but you just want to beat yourself up while convincing yourselves success is way out of your reach. It's not. It's there for the taking. Acting meek is doing nothing for you other than making your believe otherwise.

And those working writers you worship who are letting you think you are worth significantly less than them as artists are not your friends.

Stevan Šerban

"INT. MOTEL ROOM – AKRON, OHIO – NIGHT

A NUDE COUPLE on the bed. They look up, startled — as three

men burst through the door. The LEADER: a haggard-looking

man sporting a soup-stain on his tie, whoops, that’s the

design, sorry. MITCH HENESSEY, private investigator and con

man extraordinaire. He flashes a phony badge…"

CJ, Shane Black is just one example. I mean that if an aspiring screenwriter tries to break through the fourth wall in this or similar way, or make anyone who reads her/his screenplay laugh, he or she may be misunderstood and qualified as someone who does not know the job.

I think this is also true of all the other elements of the screenplay that the aspiring screenwriter has to pay much more attention to than the pros.

Stephen Floyd

Stevan, knowing which hero to worship is no sign of acumen or ability. Do or do not, the rest is a lie.

Whitney L

CJ-That's a very eloquent and honest post about the realities of this business. Your honesty and insight are very much appreciated. It's rare to have this type of honesty. There's definitely an entire industry built around selling dreams, but everything you said is exactly how it is. You could have the exact same concept or script being shopped by two different people and you'll get a totally different reaction depending on what your current status is in the Hollywood playing field. This is why I wonder if pitching is worthwhile because unless the person has built a relationship with you, are they going to be remotely interested? I wonder...

CJ Walley

Thanks for those kind comments, Whitney.

Pitching will always be subject to the relative status between the person pitching and the person being pitched to. The good news is, there's plenty of industry members who are more than happy to take pitches from amateur writers and are actively soliciting submissions as such. Just look at the Stage 32 pitch sessions for examples.

But please understand. I don't pitch scripts. I've never pitched scripts. Plus, I've only every queried for a month or two in 2014 and not entered a competition or used services since then either. I was discovered in 2018 as a result of blogging and having my material available to read online.

In the early stages, all artists really have to rely on is self validation and that's not to be underestimated. I feel I owe breaking in to self validation. Finding your true voice and putting that confidently on the page stands out. A lot of amateur writing is apologetic and reeks of cowardice. By trying to please everybody, writers end up showcasing material that impresses nobody. The industry loves artists with strong voices who know their craft. The stronger your voice, the more polarising it's likely to be and you have to embrace that with pride. Self validation is all about displaying complete confidence in your work and that's incredibly powerful in any networking scenario, pitching or otherwise.

A lot of amateur writers are filled with fear and those fears are often exasperated by communities and stoked up by service providers. The result is tremendous amount of pessimism, defeatism, and timidness that you have to not let get under your skin.

Stevan Šerban

There are many ways to choose to break into the industry. HAPPY CIRCUMSTANCES seem to be the most important factor in the end?

Stephen Floyd

What you see as happy circumstance is actually hard work and determination. And yes, those are the most important factors.

Adam Rolfson

Hey CJ, I think some, maybe even myself to a degree, are afraid that if our voice offends the wrong group our careers will end before they begin. There is some sensitivity needs to ensure we don’t alienate our audience or the person we’re trying to sell the treatment to.

Tasha Lewis

Depending on your communication style and the method of communication, having a professionally prepared and reviewed document by industry experts may minimize certain offenses. Focus groups are also a good source. In one of my screenwriting courses, my professor recommended hiring outside writers to cover subject matters that were not your area of expertise (arts, dance, martial arts or science, to name a few) or that maybe outside of your comfort zone.

CJ Walley

Adam Rolfson, sadly I can't help screenwriters get over the paranoia that they are always treading on eggshells with all their dreams at stake.

However, I can say this, industry members that matter see scripts like wet clay. They know there's no point getting offended because every screenplay is just one more draft away from what they need. The issue is, you can easily take a headstrong artist and get them to take the edge off a little but it's near impossible to take a docile artist and turn them into something exciting. And no, there is no perfect middle-ground because tastes and needs are complex beasts.

Hollywood wants rockstars, not piano teachers. The problem is, the amateur scene trains people into the mindset of handing in their work to be graded against a marking sheet.

The moments in my scripts that have script gurus, competition judges, and Black List readers clutching their pearls are the same moments my producers love the most.

Tasha Lewis

The course that I took is the Ultra High Speed Rewrite Class. It teaches you to rewrite from 30 days to a few hours. This will assist with getting the script where it meets the needs of the project team

Adam Rolfson

Great points CJ!

Tasha Lewis

Thank you CJ for the added insights into the industry!

Stephen Floyd

CJ, can you elaborate? By docile, are you talking about someone with a passive attitude toward their art, or simply someone with a passive personality?

CJ Walley

In this context, I mean their attitude to their art but these things tend to stem from personality. That's the crux of the issue at hand and I'm glad you've interrogated that a little bit. The issue is, when you cold read a screenplay, and you've got nothing else to go on, you can only realistically judge an artist by the material. If the work is mediocre then the natural assumption is that the artist is mediocre and there's a chance that's unfair. The writer may be going through a period of being broken, have become directionless, are writing something well out of their comfort zone, have moved on dramatically since the draft was written, or a whole host of other issues. Thing is, it's highly unlikely an industry member is going to spare a second thought due to limited time, plenty of better options, or having had their fingers burnt in the past.

What I tend to see are screenwriters who begin with exciting scripts that lack craft discipline but show a strong voice. There's a lot of excitement there and they write the kind of movie they want to go see. However, after some time within amateur screenwriting communities and being exposed to a lot of services surrounding them, they start to buy into the fear that's pushed onto to them while also developing their craft. Because they are objectively becoming better technical writers, and the topics of voice and artistry are rarely covered, they start to dull their edge and write only what they think they should be writing. A few years later, you've got timid writers who are furious that they're going nowhere despite following all these rules they think exist while simultaneously feeling successful working writers showing vibrate voices live in different world without rules and are thus able to freely express themselves.

And I've been there. For about three years or so, I was that writer who'd lobotomised the true artist within themselves.

Something I also want to point out is that, when I talk about having a strong voice, this doesn't mean writing material that's pulpy, violent, sexual, vulgar, or anything like that and it doesn't mean breaking rules for the sake of it or to deliberately be obnoxious. It simply means taking ownership of our voice and embracing it unapologetically, be it dark technical thrillers, cutesy children's animation, extreme slasher horror, or heavy dialogue dramas.

Phil Clarke

If you harbour any ambitions to be a successful screenwriter, I sincerely urge you to read, then re-read CJ Walley 's post, above. Almost every line is a slice of screenwriting gold. Truth in text form. It clearly communicates some of the key issues with developing one's craft.

Finished the second read? Great, print it out and read it frequently. It will help keep you on the REAL right track.

Vital Butinar

Don't know about aspiring. But my ambition has always been to write well enough to be able to write down my idea and then let someone who is more qualified to rewrite it in the right way.

Stevan Šerban

CJ First of all, thank you very much for the comments!

You have raised many new and interesting questions related to the topic we are talking about.

Yes, there are times when a great writer, for various reasons, simply writes a very weak story. The question is WHO says this is a "bad story"?

My father always said to me, "Son, don't worry about WHAT someone tells you, but pay attention WHO told you!"

So this begs the new question, is it and how important it is for movie makers to know the screenwriter personally? I think that when you meet someone in person, it's much easier to understand what that person can really do, even when everyone else says that her/his new story is much worse than expected.

For example,

"This is the worst thing ever written!" - That's what someone significant in a serious film company said when he read the script for "Pulp Fiction." It was a bit lacking that the movie would never be made. But to our luck someone was on the same frequency as Tarantino!

Almost exactly the same thing happened in 1960 with Hitchcock's movie "Psycho." Imagine that movie was not made? But Alfred believed in his project and gave up fees and agreed to 60% of gross income!

Christopher Phillips

Stevan Šerban You can't really compare a script a director has written to one written on spec. The spec one has to find a home. The director just has to convince people it's the next project.

Michael L. Burris

Ah f^&.guys....

If eggshells weren't broke how in the hell could they hatch?

And if you're walking on already broken ones maybe something could render.

Offense or offense can either be protagonist's or antagonist's pov.

So we understand chickens sit on cushion and say whoopee! or sit on the terlet and s%& something out anyway.

Offense and even offense drives but adjusting to according tone and wantingess is the key.

Respect yourself, find your fit.

The most wholesome creation treats pro thought this way too in my opinion and seriously.

Kind of gets back to that thick skin thing that doesn't need debate on how thick or droopy ear stretchy it needs to be or can be.

Just know limitations.

Then again this could be advice from a dummy nobody.

Dan Guardino

Successful people in this business want to deal with professionals so if you aren't one at least act like you are and write screenplays that will convince them you belong.

Stevan Šerban

Dan, Of course, but you have to be Djokovic in every segment (the best tennis player in the world of all time !!!!)!

Stevan Šerban

To write a new Hamlet, you must be twice as good as Shakespeare!

Stevan Šerban

To write a new Faust, you have to be better than Goethe!

Stevan Šerban

How good writer do you have to be to write a screenplay better than "Fifth Element" to interest some producers or agents?

Doug Nelson

'Better' is a very subjective word, open to many interpretations especially when comparing present day works to the works of long dead artists. Let's just say that in today's market - you just need to be damn good.

Stevan Šerban

Damn good, to compete with already damn good screenwriters!

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