How can screenwriters make the transition from average to extraordinary? We turn to iconic Breaking Bad actor Bryan Cranston who discusses Process vs. Outcome in his biography. We elaborate on how screenwriters can apply his inspiring lesson to enjoy their screenwriting process.
Cranston wrote in his autobiography A Life in Parts:
“Early in my career, I was always hustling. Doing commercials, guest-starring, auditioning like crazy. I was making a decent living…but I felt I was stuck in junior varsity. I wondered if I had plateaued. Then, Breck Costin [his mentor] suggested I focus on process rather than outcome.
I wasn’t going to the audition to get anything: a job or money or validation. I wasn’t going to compete.
I was going to give something.
I wasn’t there to get a job. I was there to do a job. I was there to give a performance. If I attached to the outcome, I was setting myself up to expect, and thus to fail. My job was to be compelling. Take some chances. Enjoy the process.”
Once Cranston made this change in his approach and focused on enjoying the process, he felt more relaxed and free.
“Once I made the switch, I had power in any room I walked into,” he wrote. “Which meant I could relax. I was free.”
Cranston had struggled for years in Hollywood with bit parts, forgettable commercials, and missed opportunities. But when he made this shift and began to appreciate the actual process, he soon managed to nail a key role in the celebrated Malcolm in the Middle series where he earned three Emmy nominations. He would later go on to star in the acclaimed series Breaking Bad, winning him four Emmys, and also garnered a Best Actor Oscar nomination for Trumbo.
Screenwriters Need to Enjoy the Process
Screenwriters are too often focused on the outcome of their screenplays.
Who is going to represent their scripts?
Who is going to option or buy their projects?
Who is going to star in them?
Who is going to come to the theaters to watch their cinematic stories unfold?
Who is going to hire them for those desirable Hollywood writing assignments?
The truth is, you have no control over any of these outcomes. The pressure that you put yourself under is false. It’s conjured by nothing more than your own desires, hopes, and expectations.
You want to make a living doing something you love. You want to work with the best in Hollywood. You want your stories to be experienced by millions.
All of these desires, hopes, and expectations are natural. There’s nothing wrong with wanting these things. But, in the end, they can hurt you because you become fixed on the outcome of your process rather than the process itself. And it’s the process that matters most to your eventual success in the end.
The process will dictate how successful your screenplay is. It will dictate the quality of concept, story, and character — and it will dictate how well you deliver on those aspects of your cinematic story.
Worrying about how those elements are going to affect anyone is pointless. You have no control over that outcome. So the best thing that you can do is deliver a fantastic screenwriting “performance” by telling the most engaging, compelling, and entertaining story that you can.
And you accomplish this by ignoring the pundits and supposed “rules” of screenwriting. You push away the Save the Cat notions of beat sheets and false formulas to success. You ignore the doctrines of mythological storytelling. And you just free yourself to tell the story the way you want.
Yes, there are guidelines and expectations to follow — and maybe some formatting rules as well.
Read ScreenCraft’s The Differences Between Screenwriting Rules, Guidelines, and Expectations!
But when you’re trying to tell a story a certain way because someone has dictated that the outcome will be affected, yes, you’re once again focusing on the outcome rather than enjoying the process of being a storyteller.
The Fun the Screenwriting Process Presents
“But what’s so fun about this difficult process?”
It’s only difficult when you put that pressure on yourself. You’ve read the books, you’ve watched the interviews, and you’ve listened to countless panels. You’ve ingested all of the doctrines and “educated” advice. So you pressure yourself to live up to those very high expectations.
The truth is that books are written to sell. Interviews are conducted to get read or viewed. Panels are put together to sell tickets. The people leading these discussions have to create content.
But remember the wise words from the late William Goldman — “Nobody knows anything.”
Instead, use all of that information and adapt it to how you can best tell your story during the screenwriting process. It’s great to feed the brain and, yes, you should study the art and craft of those that have succeeded. But remember that the fun of what you are doing is engaging an audience through your creative storytelling.
At first, that audience is you. And this is the key to finding the fun in the process of writing. You write for yourself because you are your first audience.
What excites you?
What engages you?
What entertains you?
What makes you laugh?
What makes you cry?
What makes you scream in horror?
What thrills you?
You have to ask yourself, “If I was in that theater with popcorn in hand, what would be the answer to all of those above questions and more?”
That’s how you enjoy the process. Whether the audience is you, your friends, script readers, Hollywood insiders, or the eventual audience, you can enjoy the process of telling the most engaging story with the most compelling characters.
Remember, Cranston said, “My job was to be compelling. Take some chances.”
As a writer, if that opportunity day in and day out doesn’t excite you, then perhaps this isn’t the career you should be pursuing anyway. The writers that fail are those that are obsessed with the outcome and don’t enjoy the actual process of storytelling.
Focus on the Things You Can Control
You can’t control who is going to like your scripts. You can’t control who is going to read your work. You can’t control what managers or agents are going to sign you. You can’t control who is going to option or buy your screenplays. You can’t control who is going to greenlight those scripts. And you can’t control how those movies will be made, who will or won’t star in them, and who will or won’t go to see them.
So why focus on those uncontrollable outcomes?
Instead, focus on the concepts you conjure, the characters you create, and the stories you craft. Enjoy the thrill of expanding an idea into a full story. Take joy in populating that story with fun, exciting, or compelling characters.
Write the best possible screenplay that you can write.
And to accomplish that, you can enjoy the process of studying and researching your craft. You can go to the producers, filmmakers, and screenwriters that engage you and you can learn from their process and be inspired by their works. And you have full freedom to take or leave what you study and research.
Head over to The Script Lab’s TSL360 for the best library of industry inspiration and advice!
In the end, it’s up to you. And “you” is the only element you can control in this whole process.
The outcome will come as it should. But the only control of that outcome that you have is writing the best possible script you can — for you.
And It Works for Pitching and Industry Meetings Too
So now you’ve written a great script because you’ve enjoyed the process and that fact is evident through your work. And now you’re getting some industry calls. Managers and agents are circling you and your writing. Or maybe you’ve attained representation, which has led to some general meetings with Hollywood producers and development executives.
Before you start thinking about the possible outcomes of those meetings — namely success or failure — enjoy the process of preparing for them and being in those coveted situations.
These meetings don’t have to be stressful. They don’t have to cause anxiety.
They are very similar to the auditions that Cranston was writing about. And remember his wise words on how to handle them.
“I wasn’t going to the audition to get anything: a job or money or validation. I wasn’t going to compete. I was going to give something. I wasn’t there to get a job. I was there to do a job. I was there to give a performance. If I attached to the outcome, I was setting myself up to expect, and thus to fail. My job was to be compelling. Take some chances. Enjoy the process.”
His audition is your industry meeting. His performance is your pitch and the way you present yourself.
You have no control over the outcome of the meeting, so just be yourself, know your story, and enjoy the fact that you’re in a position that tens of thousands of budding screenwriters would love to be in.
Ken Miyamoto has worked in the film industry for nearly two decades, most notably as a studio liaison for Sony Studios and then as a script reader and story analyst for Sony Pictures. Make sure to read his growing archive of posts at ScreenCraft for more inspiration.
He has many studio meetings under his belt as a produced screenwriter, meeting with the likes of Sony, Dreamworks, Universal, Disney, Warner Brothers, as well as many production and management companies. He has had a previous development deal with Lionsgate, as well as multiple writing assignments, including the produced miniseries Blackout, starring Anne Heche, Sean Patrick Flanery, Billy Zane, James Brolin, Haylie Duff, Brian Bloom, Eric La Salle, and Bruce Boxleitner. Follow Ken on Twitter @KenMovies