The Three Things an Aspiring Screenwriter Needs For Success
July 2023 | Nathan Elston
1) Material Matters Most
Who you are, your age, how long you’ve been in the industry - none of it matters as much as what’s on your page. All the connections in the world and a bad script will only get you so far. But a great script, even with zero connections, will eventually get the attention it deserves if it’s out there long enough. Material matters most. And people want to read material that matters. Try to focus on one script to be your calling card that you know is good. It should be something that showcases what you can do as a writer and your voice. You want it to stand out both on the page and in their mind. Finding that idea and executing it professionally is the hardest part, but you wouldn’t just walk into a gym and go straight for the heaviest weights. The same is true for screenwriting. You have to put the work into developing as a writer by sitting at your desk and typing in order to unlock that idea that will get you noticed.
You have to take the first step, alone, unprompted, unpaid, and write something. Having that PDF that you’re proud of, ready to attach in an email if the opportunity arises, is everything. And you want it to be perfect. You don’t usually get more than one or two reads out of a professional contact, so taking the time to fully develop your first script before taking your shot is important. You want to put your best foot forward. You need to take a very critical look at your work, and ask yourself ‘is this worth someone else’s time?’. ‘Why am I writing this, and who am I writing this for?’ Write what speaks to you, and what you find interesting, but also understand your work should be entertaining and exciting to your audience first and foremost. I don’t mean that to imply a genre, only to say, it should be a good, sharp read that feels effective and fresh.
Luckily, no one has to see how long it took you, or how much of a struggle it can be to get it there. And it should be a struggle. Even after the most brilliant table reads for high-level productions there are rounds of notes and pages upon pages of revisions. The more you write, the better your work will get. The more scripts you read, the better you’ll get. The more films you see, the better you’ll get. Try working within a genre you know inside and out, or a world, or character, you love but have never seen on screen. And then do drafts and drafts and drafts of it until it is undeniably good. Easier said than done, but that should be the goal.
2) Trusted Readers
There’s only so much feedback your friends and family can give you on your work. It can be scary putting your writing out there for strangers to read. But getting reads from other writers and industry professionals at any level is one of the most important things you should add to your process when starting out. Whether it means paying for feedback on the script sites if you can, entering contests that offer judges’ notes, joining a local screenwriting group, or even simply trying to start a material swap with other artistic friends. Once you reach ‘The End’, your search for feedback begins. And when I say ‘trusted’ I don’t mean you trust them with your feelings. I mean their taste is trusted by you or the industry. You want notes and opinions on your work from people who know what they’re talking about and understand what you’re writing.
Let those notes guide your process and don’t be too precious with your material to get back under the hood and tinker with things. Usually, the rule I like to adhere to is if someone doesn’t like something, maybe listen to them. If a lot of people have the same problem, definitely listen to them. Why professional reads are so useful is because they can identify and communicate narrative issues in your script much clearer than your friends or family might be able to. Also, they’re impartial. Sometimes ruthlessly so. Which is what you need. You want readers who will rip open the shades and inspect the dust in the corners, check under the rugs, and hold you accountable for the convenient devices in your script, or expository dialogue, you thought you might be able to get away with. Being able to take feedback impersonally, filter it, and apply notes to improve your work is the day-to-day of professional writing.
3) Get Work Out There
The name of the game at this point is to manufacture ways of legitimizing yourself and your script as a writer. Enter contests. If you become a finalist, or even win, then you’ll get attention from mangers and sometimes agents. If you wind up a quarterfinalist or repeatedly find your script is not placing, then you know you’ve got more work to do. Although the contests are all subjective, they are generally reflective of how successful your script would be on the market. That is to say, your script in its current form. Not immediately becoming a finalist or winning doesn’t mean abandon your script. It means examine it closer. And if you can afford it, always pay for judge’s feedback. Sometimes you might find they’re just not a fan of what you were doing. But usually, they will have great insights on how you can improve.
You can also use your script as a sample to apply for grants, fellowships, or other writing programs aimed at spotlighting emerging writers. Again, managers and agents keep a loose eye on these things, and will certainly not hesitate to email you or get their hands on your work. Not only are these valuable experiences and opportunities, they’re also great ways to legitimize your writing in the eyes of other entertainment professionals. If your script just placed as a finalist, or you just nearly won a fellowship, that means something. That’s how you get the ‘Feel free to send me something’ from industry professionals. It means your script is worth their time. And that’s when you’ll be glad your PDF is ready!
Would you like to share your set stories, write reviews or blog about your journey into the industry? MFJF would love to hear from you!