Do you know who you are as a screenwriter or are you just trying to emulate the success of others?
Reading and researching all of the great screenwriting books doesn’t make you a great screenwriter. Taking all of the courses from all of the gurus doesn’t either. Being an unofficial — or official — scholar that has analyzed the great screenplays and screenwriters from all of the different eras doesn’t mean that you will translate that quality into your own work.
While it’s great — and necessary — to feed your brain with all of that style, information, and knowledge, you still need to step away and look inward to find out who you want to be as a screenwriter. What is your journey going to be like? What types of cinematic stories do you want to write? What is going to make you the first you — as opposed to you trying to be the next [enter famous screenwriter name here]?
It goes beyond you as well. When you get those industry calls and meetings, people are going to want to know if you really know who you are as a screenwriter. It’s important to them because if you know who you are, they will know who they are getting if they acquire your script, hire you for an assignment, partner with you for a collaboration, or represent you as a writer.
Here are three simple and easy questions to answer that will help you discover who you want to be as a screenwriter.
1. What Kind of Films Do You Want to Write?
This is the most simple way to really look yourself in the mirror and determine where this screenwriting journey is going to take you. The initial purpose of this question is to shake away the obsession most novice screenwriters have with either chasing trends or writing their own version of what has already come before.
If you catch yourself in those traps, you’ll be nothing more than a wannabe, as opposed to a true writer.
It’s okay to have movies that you admire and those that inspire your work. It’s okay to appreciate a certain style of writing that has proven to draw you, and others, in. However, in order to stand apart from the rest and those that came before you, Hollywood needs to witness your ability to bring something new to the table. That is what will stand out more.
And the passion you bring to whatever you write will show in the scripts. If you’re merely chasing a trend or writing your version of a previous success, those types of scripts always come off as hollow for the general Hollywood script reader. Your scripts need to have a soul of their own and that starts with you.
Forget what the trends are. Forget the pundits — and even many of the industry insiders — telling you that you need to write true stories, scripts that have pre-established IP (Intellectual Property), or anything in any particular genre that is attractive at the box office.
Just be you. The Duffer Brothers prevailed because of their love of Steven Spielberg and movies from the 1980s (which led to Stranger Things). George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, in turn, prevailed because of their love of old serials (which led to the Indiana Jones trilogy). Charlie Kaufman prevailed because he didn’t want to emulate anyone else — he wanted to be himself.
“My first writing job was on a TV show called Get a Life. The show was mostly in the voice of its creators, Chris Elliott and Adam Resnick, who’d worked on the David Letterman Show. Adam’s scripts were the best thing about Get a Life – and we all tried to write in Adam’s voice. That was the job. I was frustrated with the results, but it occurred to me that there was no solution as long as my job was trying to imitate someone else’s voice. The obvious solution was to find a situation where I was doing me, not someone else. The major obstacle to this is your deeply seated belief that ‘you’ is not interesting,” Kaufman told The Guardian.
He went on to explain, “I wrote Being John Malkovich while I was waiting for [the next sitcom] hiring season. My idea was that I would write a script and use it to get work. I had this idea that someone finds a portal into someone’s head, and I had another idea that somebody has a story about someone having an affair with a co-worker. And neither one was going anywhere, so I just decided to combine them. It got a really positive response. I started to get a little known. People would read it and tell me how funny it was, invite me for meetings, tell me nobody would ever make the movie. I had maybe 15 meetings like that, so I wasn’t really expecting it to get made. Then it got to Spike Jonze, and he was in a position to get a movie made.”
Be you. Write what you want to write.
2. Do You Want the Independent Screenwriter Path or Studio System Screenwriter Path?
There is a difference. And as soon as you know and understand that difference and then apply it to the context of what types of films you want to write, you’ll quickly start to understand who you want to be as a screenwriter.
The Hollywood and indie industries are two very different entities — each with their own set of hurdles to overcome.
If you’re a screenwriter writing with an independent mindset, it’s not going to go over very well in Hollywood. If you have a studio system mindset as a screenwriter, it’s not going to translate into the indie platform that well.
The indie market is often comprised of auteurs — those that both write and direct. The indie path is what they take to produce the cinematic stories they want to tell, in their own way.
The trouble with that is money. It’s hard to come by. The terrible advice to most screenwriters out there is, “Just go make it yourself.” Easier said than done. It takes time, resources, and a lot of money to even make something average. And it’s difficult to get anyone to see your work.
So if this is the path you choose, know that you’re likely either going to be directing, producing or self-financing your script. Selling your scripts for others to make or getting assigned to write movies based on pre-existing concepts or intellectual property generally isn’t going to happen on this path.
The studio system is where the money is. And for screenwriters, you’re often less involved — if involved at all — beyond the writing of the screenplay itself. You either sell your script or use your script as a calling card to get assignments. Once you’ve completed it per your contract, you’re done.
But because the studio system is so money-driven, those within are looking for higher concept films that can cater to a wider audience. That’s why studios and major production companies don’t develop the smaller, character-driven pieces you usually find in the indie market. There’s less of a profit margin and far more risk dealing with those types of stories.
So once you determine what type of movies you want to write, you’ll usually discover whether the indie path or studio system path is best for you. There is certainly a gray area where you can dabble in both, but the more focus and direction you have as far as where you want to head towards and be in your screenwriting journey, the better.
3. Can You Be Alone and Do It Yourself?
There’s an excellent quote in one of the best inspirational videos for screenwriters.
“I dare you to invest time! I dare you to be alone! I dare you to spend an hour to get to know yourself!”
It’s valid to seek out those like you. It’s valid to take advantage of a writers group. It’s valid to find mentors that can help show you the way. But at some point, you’re going to have to do it by yourself. You’re going to have to rely on your own writing, your own instincts, and you’re going to have to be aware of your own strengths and weaknesses, without a peer reading your pages and giving you feedback.
You have to invest the time and go write on your own if you want to discover who you are as a screenwriter. You have to step away from any and all support systems because in the end, it’s going to be you and you alone in front of that blank screen with that blinking cursor waiting for you to get to work.
Get to know yourself. Get to know your strengths and weaknesses and then decide if you want to focus on those strengths, work on your weaknesses, or challenge yourself by tackling something new altogether.
Figure out what you want to write, decide what path (indie or studio system) those choices fit best with, and then go spend some dedicated time by yourself as a writer to look even more inward to determine what type of screenwriting journey you want to embark on.
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