How to Jumpstart Your Screenwriting Career
Are you thinking about starting out as a screenwriter?
Maybe you’ve written something but are stuck on the next step.
As a produced and optioned screenwriter, I’ve had a number of people ask me how to jumpstart a screenwriting career.
It’s not the easiest thing to do, and it takes hard work and dedication, especially if you don’t come from a position of money or connections in Hollywood.
But, I believe it’s possible to jumpstart your screenwriting career without breaking the bank.
Here are answers to major questions with info I’ve used to get my work produced professionally, and ideas to help you get on your way.
1. Should I Read a Lot of Scripts?
This is something that every screenwriter could stand to do more of. Even professional writers read other people’s work! It’s a way to get inspiration and learn what works (and what doesn’t work) on the page.
Every year the Oscar Nominated scripts are released somewhere online for free, so keep an eye out for those.
If you’re not sure where to look, try setting up a Google Alert for something like “Oscar Nominated Screenplays.”
2. Should I Watch a Lot of Films or TV?
Yes! This ideally can be done in tandem with reading scripts.
If you can find a script for a movie, try watching the movie and reading along. I actually don’t think the draft matters that much, because it can be helpful to see how a draft changes from script to screen.
I will make a note, though – sometimes a script draft is changed before the .pdf file is released.
It’s more common to find a script that hasn’t been changed, but I’ve seen screenplays where I’ve read early drafts, then the film is made, then the screenplay is adjusted to match the film, then the screenplay that’s been changed is released.
It’s sort of a “working backwards” phenomenon, but it does happen, particularly during awards season, to make sure the script matches the movie that’s being awarded.
So – just be aware of that, and try to watch a lot of things while reading the scripts.
I recommend reading the official script and not just a transcript of the dialogue. Learning to write action is important.
3. What Are the Important Elements of a Script to Understand?
There are a lot!
Structure. Character. Dialogue. Voice. Format. Even basic grammar comes into play.
One of my biggest pet peeves is overuse of I when it should be me (somehow, almost no one ever bothered to learn the actual rule of when to use I instead of me – or me instead of I).
I have the same pet peeve with him/he or her/she. This subject/object confusion pops up a lot, and no one seems to actually understand the difference on the page. I see this as the biggest, frequent screenwriting grammar error throughout scripts.
YEP, that makes me a total grammar jerk, but here’s why:
There are reasons why a character might have bad grammar. There are also reasons why a character shouldn’t have bad grammar. If a character has never been taught any better, or has a specific dialect, there are justifiable story reasons why they might make frequent grammatical errors.
If they have a PhD in English, they should understand basic grammar, however, and then it’s obvious when they don’t.
This points to understanding dialogue, character, and voice. But a lot of people don’t bother learning these things.
Here’s a story.
I once had a script I wrote that was really bad.
The characters were weak, the story didn’t make sense. I’m not sure why I was even writing it.
I wrote out a draft and went to work. I polished every line to make sure it was proofread, formatted , and had perfect grammar (I can’t say the same about this blog, sorry).
Anyway, once that was perfect, I sent the script to a major screenwriting contest.
I got into the top 15%. Of thousands of entries. With a TERRIBLE draft.
Keep that in mind.
Yes, you should write well, and yes, the other stuff matters a lot. More than the grammar and proofreading.
But if you are going to enter contests or submit to strangers, make sure you’ve done your polish of format and proofreading.
It does actually make a difference!
4. What Books Should I Read or Classes Should I Take?
I like to say “take whatever works and use that.”
I wish that was more helpful.
I personally recommend The Sequence Approach, Story, The Virgin’s Promise, and The Writer’s Journey as the four most useful books that I have read on screenwriting.
But different things work for different people.
I took a great class at Screenwriting Master Class.
I love Gotham Writer’s Workshop.
I hear great things about UCLA Extension.
Here’s the thing:
You may get the same use out of a writer’s group where you’re just exchanging scripts for notes.
So, no, you don’t have to pay for any of these things. But they could be helpful.
If you’re looking to workshop a piece and don’t have good writers to do it with, taking classes or reading books can help.
5. Do I Need Script Coverage?
I write professional coverage for a living.
I still don’t think it’s a requirement for anyone starting out.
I place it under the same category as books: “Use what works for you.”
Get in a good writing group. If that doesn’t work for you, and you are someone who benefits from script coverage, go for it!
But don’t break the bank. You might benefit more from a class. Figure out what makes the most sense for you personally.
Then do that.
6. Do I Need to Enter Contests?
No… and maybe?
Here’s the thing with contests.
A lot of writers start out without anything. No experience, no awards, no prestige, no connections.
A contest – a reputable contest – can provide some of that reputation that you’re looking for.
Here are two pitches:
A. I have a script I wrote titled Riveting, that follows women working on the homefront in WWII. Please read it!
B. I have a script I wrote titled Riveting, which follows women working on the homefront in WWII. It won the Next MacGyver competition and was optioned to Ridley Scott’s company as a result. Please read it!
Which of those two scripts do you want to read?
Possibly neither of them. But – the award-winning one has more prestige. And that makes a difference.
7. If I Don’t Enter a Contest, How Do I Get Noticed?
These work! Querying managers and production companies can actually help you get connections and get projects made, get your work optioned, get yourself represented. It’s not a dead end.
If you’re hitting a query dead end, you might be struggling with how you’re pitching yourself.
If this is the case, please reach out to me. Or post something in the comments. I’m happy to proofread your query letter for free (for 1 draft) and give you tips.
Build your portfolio. Make sure you have 3-5 good scripts and even more ideas ready to go.
Rinse and repeat.
8. Do I need to get my work produced?
Most films that get made on the indie circuit are more helpful to the director and actors than any other person on the crew. That includes producers and writers.
I wish that wasn’t the case, because film is a collaborative medium. And writers are the starting point! They deserve more credit for their hard work.
But – today, a film is seen as a director’s project.
So, no matter how good the writing is, if you wrote a short film and got it made, it will reflect primarily on the director.
Writers get hired off the work they write. Unless the film wins a major award or goes to Sundance or another huge festival, the product that’s interesting is going to be the script, not the movie.
And – do note – a script in the hands of a mediocre director may hurt more than help. If you optioned your great material, it got made, and it got made poorly, and you didn’t get paid, you just optioned off a project that could have been so much better, and didn’t get anything out of it. So – keep that in mind.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get your work made. Just be careful.
9. Should I Produce and Direct My Own Work?
If you want to be a producer or a director, sure. If you want to be a writer, I’m not sure how useful that is.
The most use it provides is probably a sense of how complicated and difficult it is to be on set, and understanding that can be helpful to understanding the bigger picture of production.
The biggest thing I’ll say here, and this might be controversial, is that I believe every writer should be a production assistant at some point on a studio production.
Because most people who work in Hollywood above the line (producers, writers, and directors) don’t understand fully how difficult it is to be at the bottom of the production ladder.
It makes you a more compassionate and kinder person when you get what happens to people at the lower levels, and a better advocate for assistants when you reach higher levels yourselves.
I don’t believe office assistant work is the same thing or provides the same experience, though it can provide more connections for writers, if you’re working in a literary space.
10. If I Want Something Produced, Should I Choose My Pilot, Feature, or Short?
Shorts and features seem to be better avenues, mostly because there isn’t a market for independent TV (yet).
While there are some festivals that will screen pilots, and that’s awesome – there aren’t a whole lot that will.
Networks have their own standards and practices.
What does this mean?
They have rules about branding, and what they want to put on their screens.
So, while it’s possible they might buy a pilot that’s been produced already, it’s unlikely, because they would want creative control in the process.
They want to make script changes, pick cast and locations, choose how it’s filmed, what music is put in, etc.
They want to have that creative control for all sorts of reasons, a lot of which end in the word “money.” But ultimately, it’s not easy to sell a produced pilot as much as it is to sell a pilot script (and neither is easy to do!).
Consider if maybe a teaser 3-5 minute short might be a better choice to showcase your work, vs. producing a 30 minute to 1 hour project.
11. How Do I Network If I Don’t Live in Los Angeles or New York?
Meet people everywhere you go.
Meet people online.
Meet people at work.
Meet people at parties.
Tell the people you’re around what you want to do. Share your work. Get feedback. Offer feedback to friends and family who are also writers.
The social media world is a gamechanger. Consider places like Twitter, TikTok, YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram, among others, as opportunities for you to utilize.
Use those places to find other like-minded writers starting out. Connect with people higher up and below you in experience, and work with them.
Don’t be afraid to collaborate. Everyone starts somewhere.
Connections are key on the path to jumpstart your screenwriting career. As important as the writing, in my opinion.
12. How Do I Protect My Idea?
You can register it with the Writers Guild East or West (provides some industry protection).
You can register it with the Copyright Office (provides more legal protection, but is a more complicated process).
I’m not a lawyer. Talk to a lawyer about how best to do this.
13. What if Someone Steals My Idea?
This doesn’t often happen.
Most working writers have their own ideas.
That doesn’t mean it never happens. It certainly does!
But it’s unlikely.
I’d worry more about being the best writer you can be.
If someone steals your idea, and you registered it and have the proof, of course you can go after that person legally (again, consult a lawyer).
But it would be most useful to you, starting out, to develop a strong portfolio of material. If one piece gets taken, here’s 4 others that are ready and awesome.
14. What If Someone Else is Making a Story Just Like Mine?
You come up with an idea. 3 months later you learn that Disney is making a movie with the same concept.
Remember Armageddon and Deep Impact?
What about Capote and In Cold Blood?
White House Down and Olympus Has Fallen?
Those movies came out the same years. They seem kind of similar.
They’re not the same. The tone and style of those movies are different. The audiences and box offices weren’t identical. The casting was different.
Don’t fear the same idea.
Work on execution.
Here’s an industry secret:
Execution matters more than the idea itself.
Yes, a great idea goes a long way. Hell, I’ve won 3 pitch contests off great ideas – I know what I’m talking about!
But – how you write the final script makes a bigger difference.
I’ve read tons of great pitches, but when I open the first page and see it’s full of typos, character names change halfway through, the dialogue is flat, and nothing makes sense… well, the idea doesn’t matter then. It’s not a good enough script yet.
And what if someone writes a script about a sentient car tire?
Well… if the script is good enough… it just might get made, and become critically acclaimed!
So – don’t stress over the idea. Stress over the process. Write well. Write more. Repeat.
FAQ About How to Jumpstart Your Screenwriting Career
1. Do I Need a Lot of Money?
No. You need time to write and make connections. That’s it.
2. Do I have to Go to Film School?
No. A lot of screenwriters never went to film school.
3. Do I Need to Be a Brilliant Writer?
You can polish your writing muscle just like anything else.
Plenty of material gets made that isn’t brilliantly written. Try to be the best you can be, and then get better.
4. Do I Have to Have Connections in Hollywood?
But you will need to make some there or in your local film community.
Start joining screenwriting groups, locally and online, to begin to network with other people in the industry.
5. Do I Have to Write a Lot?
Yes. You’re going to have to write.
No one is going to be as excited about your idea as you are.
You are the best person to write your idea into a script.
Keep writing. Keep working. Keep honing the idea. Keep honing your skills.
6. Do I Have to Have Screenwriting Software?
No. But you will want to know how to use screenwriting format in order to be taken seriously in Hollywood.
There are ways to create templates in MS Word to do this (check out the April Rider script for format guidelines).
Check out my breakdown of screenwriting programs for more on that.
7. Does it Really Help to Read Bad Scripts?
I hear a lot of confusion about this.
For people who are starting out, it can be helpful to read everything, good and bad, things you love and things you hate, to get a sense of what works and what doesn’t work on the page.
After a certain point, I don’t believe reading bad material is useful any longer.
For me, there’s a point at which the material I read influences what I write. If I’m reading too much bad material, I do get concerned that the quality of bad writing will bleed into my own work.
I also stop getting any benefit, when I start to see the same mistakes or problems over and over.
8. Do I Need a Job in Hollywood?
It’s easier to make connections if you’re working within the industry.
But it’s not a requirement.
9. Do I Need to Live in Hollywood?
No. You may ultimately move here someday, but you don’t have to live here to begin with.
What other questions do you have?
Let me know in the comments, and I’ll try to answer everything I can about how to jumpstart your screenwriting career!