Monday, July 27, 2015

Reader questions: Is screenwriting a skill that can be learned?

Ed writes:

Many dispensing screenwriting advice say that screenwriting is a skill that can be learned and, with work, time and effort, it can be improved upon to the point of producing something market-ready.

How true is this?

Discounting scores of wannabes that lack the language skills and the real writing ability it takes to be decent…I’m curious about the gaps in talent that exist between a decent amateur writer, a writer on the verge of breaking in and an award-winning screenwriter (I’m assuming there’s no real gap in talent between ‘on-the-verge’ and ‘working / staffed’ writers).

What gaps can be overcome and what gaps will forever exist due to a unique spark of creative genius and pure talent?

I’ve received feedback on a few scripts that haven’t been overly negative (two 6’s on The Black List site for instance). I sent material to Amanda Pendolino. Her critique, while harsher than BL, rang true and her suggestions were great (and you’re right to steer people in her direction).

I’ve used those some of those suggestions to make improvements but I’m falling short in getting my material truly better. Amanda’s spot-on regarding the elements that need to be improved; I’m just not skilled enough to get it there.

My goal in this is to write a market-ready script worthy of a ‘consider.’ Right now that’s out of reach. Does a breakthrough happen if I keep writing and plugging away? Or does that happen with only a very talented few?

First, Ed hits on a lot of important questions that I wish more writers would ask themselves. I don't even know that I have good answers for all of this, but the really important part of the discussion here is the self- reflection. The worst writers are the ones who don't have an ounce of it. They go through life with the delusion that they are one of the greatest writers ever when often they don't even have enough exposure to enough real writers to really know where they stand on the spectrum.

You cannot improve as a writer if you go through life already convinced of your own brilliance. And let me tell you, just about every writer has room for improvement.

So to return to the question, can screenwriting be learned? Absolutely, yes. There is always going to be some degree of innate skill involved with any profession. You can't deny natural talent at work, but I don't think you'll find exemplary people in any field who have gotten by just on natural ability. There's a lot of discipline and routine that goes into developing that gift.

Obviously several factors can affect this. If you've always been a strong reader, you're probably going to find it easier to write than someone who's struggled through school. If you've been doing writing of any kind on an extracurricular basis for years, you'll have a leg up on someone who just decided they want to write movies and has never even written a short story.

Screenwriting is a trade that can be learned - but there are a lot of factors that can influence each person's individual learning curve and how effective that education is. I've seen people write nearly 10 scripts and still - despite any guidance or criticism - can't seem to gain significant ground, while there are others who seem to nail it on their third script.

Speaking as someone who's read a LOT of scripts, there's an absolute talent gap between those on-the-verge, the working writer, and the pure genius. (I'm ignoring a number of intermediate levels, but you guys get the point, I'm sure.) It's a distinction that some writers would really benefit from recognizing. Being good enough to get the interest of a manager or an agent doesn't mean you're on the same level as, say, Chris Terrio.

In fact, when you first make the leap to being represented, it might even be because the rep in question sees you as a diamond in the rough. To put it another way - you still have some growing to do. You don't stop trying to improve because you've "arrived." There's a whole host of obstacles still ahead of you even once you get representation.

Ask anyone who's been in this game professionally for five years or more and they'll probably look back on the work that got them noticed and still feel like they could make it a lot better today. You win the race by continuing to run - not by saying "I've made it far enough ahead, here's where I can catch a nap and walk the rest of the way."

If I handed you two scripts - one by a guy who just got signed and one by a guy who had three films produced, I almost guarantee after reading both of them, there'd be no doubt in your mind who the more experienced writer was. That's not to denigrate the newer writer. They might very well have done a fine job themselves, but you can tell when you're in the hands of a complete master of the craft.

I can't tell you where you are on the spectrum. You have the willingness to get better and the self-reflection to internalize the criticisms Amanda has given. Those factors give me hope. The people who don't grow are the ones who discount all critiques (which is not to say that sometimes you CAN get bad notes and advice. Sometimes you SHOULD ignore what you are told - just don't shut out all negative feedback merely on principle.)

One thing I do get concerned about is being part of what John Gary calls "The Hope Machine." I don't want to peddle the false hope that "Everyone - yes YOU TOO - can be a million-dollar screenwriter!" I think it's irresponsible to offer blind encouragement, but as long as people aren't bankrupting themselves and are still enjoying the process of writing, it's probably not my place to say "You should just stop because you'll never make it."

Persistence can take you a great deal of the way. Does that always mean a breakthrough will happen? Not always - true success is always some convergence of talent and opportunity. It's the lucky break that happens when that assistant you met at a party gets promoted to agent and is intrigued enough to read your stuff. It's how you're able to capitalize on attention from a Nicholl semi-final placement to get in the room with people you can submit to in the future.

Eventually, the most talented of the most-talented seem to find their way in, if for no other reason than the fact they keep trying to make new opportunities. If we're talking just about the writing aspect, though - can you eventually write a script that will make those opportunities pay off? - it's not an easy answer. It's easier for me to say that there's no "magic bullet" writing program or book that will turn ANYONE into the hottest writer in town. When it comes to assessing whether YOU personally are someone who can make it... I can't really say that.

But if Amanda's assessment is spot on - and it usually is - you're quite a bit ahead of a lot of people who are trying. That probably counts for something.

Jastin writes:

I feel that I'm in desperate need for a mentor; someone with writing experience that is willing to give me the truth about my work and make suggestions for improvement. However, finding the right people has proven to be a daunting task.

I was wondering if you had any suggestions about writers/producers that are willing to do this? Do you know any retired writers from the industry that are reputable and approachable? If you could point me in the right direction that would be most helpful.

I have been writing for almost three years. I educated myself by reading books on proper screenplay formatting and I use final draft software. So far, I have completed three full length movie screenplays and I have one pilot for a television idea. I am confident in the formatting, but I really need help with character driven plot, character development , and dialogue. Any assistance that you can provide would be fantastic.

I don't really know of anyone actively seeking to be a mentor. In my experience, it's something that happens after people have gotten to know you through networking or other experiences, read your work and decided that you're someone they're invested in helping. So with the stage you're at, it's really more about making as many connections as possible.

Most working writers are busy working, and both they and the retired writers have no shortage of people clamoring for their attention. They don't have to go far to find many, many people seeking their ear, so you've got to prove yourself beyond just wanting to be a writer.


  1. Seems like both individuals are in need of a good class (good meaning, the right level for them). I have a Masters in Acting and it always boggles my mind when people look past classes and try to become successful solely on "doing it" by reading books, instead of working to understand the craft with a teacher.

    I'm also a trained/certified voice coach and we had a great saying when in training; an actor can't see themselves on stage and an actor can't hear themselves on stage. Meaning, the actor can do whatever they want, but they need a director to tell them if what they are doing is actually working. And since all we hear of ourselves are the vibrations in the bones in ours ears, we need a voice coach sitting in the audience to let us know if the sound we're producing is healthy and strong enough to do eight shows a week for however long the show lasts.

    I've been writing pretty solidly for three years now. I started on my own, with what I picked up being in so many workshops as an actor. I wrote decent characters and mediocre scripts and even got an 8 on a pilot I put on the BL. Not until I started with "Write Your Screenplay" out in NYC did I finally begin to have an understanding of the craft and where I was lacking in it (I'd say I'm at around stage 3; knowing what I don't know). I tried different classes and finally WYSP clicked for me.

    Ultimately, writing seems like the voice, we need someone to constantly be reading our scripts and giving notes, and finding a "mentor" is like trying to win the lottery. I'm just glad a found a writing program that worked for me.

    To wrap it up, is there a writing program you recommend to others if, like me, they don't have the luxury of a BA or MFA program?

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  3. As the author of the first question, let me say that if being good at something requires an awareness of my inadequacies, then I could be on my way to mastering a great many things.

    Bitter, thanks again for addressing my questions.

    I re-read THE HOPE MACHINE again. I actually believe that if anybody thinks that piece is meant to discourage people, they’re misinterpreting it. It ends by ENCOURAGING people to write. The point on the expectations after Fade Out is clear.

    I know I could probably benefit from a class, Genius. For me at the moment, it has to be the right one, offered at the right time and at the right price. That's just my life at the moment. But I’ll keep my eyes peeled.

    As someone that works in the broadcast industry, I appreciated your analogy in regards to vocal performance. I’ve worked in that field to know myself, how I sound and can pick up on adjustments I have to make on my own. But that took time. I haven’t been writing long enough to have perspective for that yet.

  4. Hey Ed, I went through three different classes before I found once that worked for me, so I totally know where you're coming from. 3000 miles away, but still my best option. Hope you find something good!