So you want to be a screenwriter? That’s great. Screenwriting is a fantastic career. Not only is the industry constantly changing, but Hollywood has never been more hungry for fresh voices and new and exciting stories. But a successful screenwriting career is about a lot more than just mastering your craft. You need passion to really make it in Hollywood, and not just passion for the silver screen. Here’s an honest look at why you need to be passionate about every aspect of screenwriting if you want to become a professional writer, and how you can keep your passion for Hollywood alive even when the going gets tough.
4 Ways you need passion to become a screenwriter
1. You need to have passion for your story
You don’t have to tell your entire life story to write a great screenplay, but you should always pull from your life experiences to tell stories that you’re passionate about. That’s what will set your script apart from the rest.
Jamie Reidy, was the #1 Viagra salesman in the 1990s. He was so passionate about this specific chapter in his life that he decided to write a book about his experiences in the erectile dysfunction world. His passion and his approach paid off, and his book was made into a movie starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Anne Hathaway titled, Love and Other Drugs.
Use your life experiences to create compelling stories and people will respond to your passion.
2. You need to have a passion for writing… and rewriting!
Writing a script can take weeks (if you’re lucky), months (if you’re good), and even years if you’re like a lot of talented screenwriters. It’s a long-term relationship. There are going to be days when you’re completely in love with your screenplay and days when you want a divorce. But if you have a passion for the physical act of writing — and rewriting — you will be more apt to survive all of the ups-and-downs.
Shawna Kenney was tired of trying to pay for college by waitressing, so she answered an ad in the classifieds that read, “Get paid to be a bitch!” Shortly after that she became one of the most sought after dominatrices in Washington DC. She wrote a book, I Was a Teenage Dominatrix, about her experiences and it sold tens of thousands of copies. It was originally published in 1999 and the film and TV rights have been optioned every year since, thus Shawna is still working on it nearly two decades later!
3. Passion sells screenplay pitches
One of the most common mistakes new writers make is thinking that their pitch is all about the story of their script. It’s not. When you pitch, the agents, managers, and executives in that meeting are buying you just as much as they are buying your screenplay. Maybe even more so.
I’m currently in development on 18 projects. Every time I go into a pitch meeting, I try and convince the executive that I am the perfect — and only — person that can tell this story. You should always be able to answer the questions, “Why you and why now?” And passion can help answer both parts of that question.
Jenna Parker was an extremely successful professional tri-athlete (and Harvard grad) and always introduced to people as “Jenna, the athlete.” When she finally retired, she felt she had lost a big part of her identity and decided to start writing about her feelings and experiences. Her writing got the attention of Uninterrupted, Lebron James’ Production Company, and she’s currently developing a TV show revolving around athletes, identity, and mental health. Jenna was “born to tell this story.”
4. You need to have passion for the process… or at least respect it
An average of 90% of spec scripts are “passed on” by industry readers. Another 5-10% of scripts are “considered.” Honestly, only about 1% of scripts are ever “recommended.” It’s tough to get your script in the right hands. If you’re a professional screenwriter, you will deal with a lot of rejection. It’s just part of the writing process. Passion for your work, for your industry, your goals, and ultimately for the process of screenwriting itself is the only thing that will pull you through the difficult parts of this career. Embrace your passion and rejection will only make you a better writer.
What is a career as a screenwriter actually like?
Screenwriting is hard. Honestly, that’s the real reason you need so much passion if you ever want to make it as a screenwriter. The industry is fast-paced and ruthless. Competition with other screenwriters is fierce, and even when you succeed, everyone always wants to know what’s next. But that’s just part of the obstacles you’ll face if you become a working screenwriter. Here are three of the biggest reality-checks you need to face before you become a screenwriter.
1. Screenwriting isn’t glamorous
I love being a screenwriter, but to be perfectly honest, it’s really challenging existence. If you picture yourself sitting on the beach sipping a daiquiri and typing away while doing your best to cramp Papa Hemmingway’s style, think again. A screenwriter is more like a mechanic. You show up to the garage every day and get grease all over yourself as you attempt to fix something that’s constantly broken. Screenwriters answer to a blue-collar muse.
2. Screenwriting isn’t a get-rich-quick plan
You can earn a really good living as a screenwriter. It’s absolutely possible. But thinking that selling your first script will make you rich and famous overnight is like spending a week at the beach and thinking you’ll win a gold medal at the next Olympics. Malcolm Gladwell famously believes that it takes 10,000 hours to master a craft. It takes longer.
If you’re serious about becoming a professional screenwriter, you have to be willing to put in a lot of time and effort to make a living with your screenplays.
3. Screenwriting will not make you famous
I’ve taught screenwriting classes for years. And at the beginning of each semester, I ask my students, “What is something you’d like to learn in this class?”
When a student asks, “How do I become a famous screenwriter” I know that they’re in trouble. Beacuse fame is not a good reason to become a screenwriter. Some better questions are:
- How do I structure and format a script?
- How do I develop characters?
- What’s the best way to write great dialogue?
You have to want to be a writer first and foremost, even if that means you’re writing for an audience of one. Fame can happen for a small portion of screenwriters, but it should never be your primary goal.
How to find your passion for screenwriting
Screenwriting is an art form and a learnable craft that requires study, talent, training, practice, and an immense level of commitment. Combine these elements with passion and you’ll set yourself up for success.
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Justin Trevor Winters has nearly two decades of experience as a screenwriter, lecturer, producer, and development executive. He began his career working in the Literary Department at Innovative Artists Talent and Literary Agency where he worked in collaboration with established directors, screenwriters, and authors. He later joined Creative Artists Agency, and after assisting in launching numerous projects, began focusing on his own screenwriting career. His feature film debut, Killing Winston Jones, a dark-comedy, starred Richard Dreyfuss, Danny Glover, Danny Masterson, and Jon Heder. His TV debut, Sports, starred Jessimae Peluso, and was produced by Comedy Central. He is currently a screenwriting lecturer at the School of Film & Television at Loyola Marymount University. He’s also taught at Arizona State University, where he was nominated for an Outstanding Teacher Award, and at the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program. He has lectured at universities and conferences both nationally and internationally, and regularly contributes to TheScriptLab.com, ScreenCraft.org and FilmCourage.com, websites dedicated to encouraging young writers and filmmakers to study and pursue their goals and aspirations. He’s also the founder of Sixty Second Script School, an educational website that teaches the craft and business of screenwriting through sixty second daily lectures.