Story analyst and script editor Patrick O’Driscoll lays out his 5 tips for aspiring screenwriters.
The industry is a severely competitive environment in which to survive, let alone succeed. Over half of the material I receive in my work as a script reader and story consultant for funding bodies, production companies and independents is written by amateur screenwriters. These are not necessarily tips you ought to follow to the letter but rather advice you should be made aware of as you begin your journey.
GET YOUR HEAD IN THE GAME
New writers will typically take a crash course in screenwriting, tear through a book by Chris Vogler or Syd Field and bang out their first feature as fast as humanly possible. There is absolutely nothing improper about that – it’s a great way to start – so long as the writer is prepared for another five years of it.
Like any other profession, screenwriting requires time and experience to become skilful or, at the very least, competent. It’s disconcerting but, truthfully, it takes years: years of reading books, studying screenplays, attending seminars, writing, writing and more writing. The beginning of a screenwriter’s journey consists of learning the craft and discovering one’s voice. This will not take place over the writing of one feature script, but several. Some experts affirm that five years of writing or about five feature scripts are necessary to achieve a level of competency that will simply put you in the running with the thousands of others. Now, it may take less time than that, but once you are in the running – you are in the running.
A significant asset to the mind-set of an aspiring writer is the ability to understand that attaining competency will take time and perseverance. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. If you possess the determination and the passion to pursue a career in screenwriting my advice is to put your head down and Do Not Stop.
A screenplay is a blueprint for a film. A practice worth developing early on is writing a blueprint for the blueprint. A writer’s first few scripts will almost certainly be written with such raw enthusiasm and excitement that he/she can’t help but bypass the use of any kind of outline. The more a writer writes, however, the more the use of outlining a script beforehand will become apparent, usually in two ways: 1) It is of huge creative benefit to the script, and 2) It is commonly required by producers during development.
There is an extensive variety of sizes, lengths and functions for all kinds of preparatory works but I think it’s best to concentrate on these three: The Logline (a one sentence description of your story), The 1-Pager (a one page synopsis of your story) and The Short Treatment (a ten/twelve page prose outline of your story). Each of these works is like an art form in its own right. However, regardless of what’s required by producers or development execs, beating out or planning your narrative in a treatment allows you to address key story issues before going to script. It’s far easier to refine your story in a ten-page treatment than it is in a 120-page script. As such, working your story out prior to beginning your screenplay saves an unfathomable amount of time overall.
HAVE A POINT
Believe it or not, the most common major fault I come across in scripts by both professional and non-professional writers is a lack of meaning. A script can have a beautifully-crafted premise, interesting themes and engaging characters on fascinating journeys but the stories that resonate most are the ones which convey a meaning or controlling idea. There are varying names for this thematic expression but what it amounts to is the stance a story takes on its own themes – what it has to say.
This lesson, message or moral truth, which is expressed or revealed by the sum of the story’s parts at the climax, is the answer to the main thematic question which the story is exploring. While not crucial, understanding your story’s controlling idea at the outset will help keep your script focussed on its themes and, more importantly, will not let you lose sight of your story’s meaning.
It doesn’t matter whether you aspire to be the most unconventional art-house scribe or Hollywood’s golden goose, receiving feedback is not only part of the development process it is creatively beneficial. Simply put, the world does not see your story as you do. Feedback will help you to discern your script’s shortcomings in order to address them.
To subject one’s work to the analysis of others is daunting, especially for first-time writers, but don’t let that stop you. It gets easier. The sooner you become accustomed to receiving feedback the sooner you’ll be able to appreciate the difference between what’s useful and what’s not and, ultimately, the better you’ll be at forming your own literary opinions.
It doesn’t matter who you get to read your material. They needn’t be industry people. You can accept feedback from friends and family – so long as you can rely on them to give you no-nonsense opinions on what works and what doesn’t. If your family and friends are so inept that you’d rather eat your script than give it to them I would advise joining a writers’ group if you can. Writers’ groups are fantastic environments for aspiring writers, not least because they’re the most suitable place to hone your craft through the processes of giving and receiving feedback but because being part of such a group acquaints you with fellow writers.
GIVE ONLY YOUR BEST
Routinely, I read scripts and treatments that could’ve done with a lot more time in the oven. Screenwriters have a tendency to come down hard on themselves, writing like crazy to meet self-set deadlines, subsequently submitting unpolished scripts rife with errors and sloppy dramatic choices. To be this hasty is like shooting yourself in the foot with a cannon – twice.
When it comes to presentation, correct spelling and grammar are vital. Contrary to popular belief, a reader will not bin a script due to its poor spelling and grammar. They will read it and write a report on it. However, they’ll most likely have a ‘non recommend’ in mind throughout. Don’t rely on spell-check. Proof-read your work with a fine-tooth comb and make sure your spelling and grammar are correct.
The more important point here is not to submit your script until your story is as good as you can possibly get it. Take your time. Feedback and breaks from the project can work wonders for helping to improve it. Before you hand it over be satisfied that it’s showing off the very best of your current abilities. Once it’s submitted give yourself a firm pat on the back, treat yourself to a well-deserved reward – then turn around and get back in your chair. Don’t waste time hoping and praying that what you just submitted will lead to your big break. Even if it does, it will likely be an extensively drawn-out process. It’s best to get your creative cap back on and begin conceiving your next project.
Since graduating the Irish National Film School in 2003 Patrick has worked as a professional screenwriter and script consultant in the Irish and UK film industries. He currently provides analysis for Irish production companies, funding bodies including Northern Ireland Screen, and independent producers and screenwriters from around the world.
Patrick is available for consultation at www.patrickodriscoll.net