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By Stephanie Palmer
Here’s a different approach to how to write a screenplay. My goal isn’t for you to simply write a screenplay – it’s to write a script you can sell.
Have you been struggling to write a screenplay or sell a screenplay you’ve written? This post is for you.
I’ve worked with many screenwriters to help them make their first sale. I’m not talking about selling the first thing you write – I’m talking about writing the first thing that you actually sell.
In my experience, screenwriters need to take four important steps before they can sell a screenplay for the first time. Today I’m going to explain the four steps and give you specific things you can do to learn how to write a screenplay you can sell.
Prior to making the first sale, a screenwriter will often:
This is where most screenwriters are: at the beginning of a “hard knocks” education.
But can you learn how to write a screenplay without several years of wrong turns, hard knocks, and wasted time? In a word, yes.
WARNING: If you think writing a screenplay will be easy and that you’re going to cash your script in like a lottery ticket, you’re in the wrong place.
My approach requires overcoming fear, making tough choices, and working hard. That said, it can be done – and it’s a lot better than getting beaten up by Hollywood over a period of years.
Most screenwriters who have not sold a script yet are like Ralph Macchio’s character Daniel in the original The Karate Kid.
For those of you who don’t know, this is a story about a boy from the wrong side of the tracks who learns karate and becomes an honorable man like his teacher.
In the beginning of the movie, Daniel is getting beat up a lot by the bigger kids at his new high school. This is what it feels like to be new to the screenwriting game.
Instead of getting physically beat up, beginning screenwriters get told “No” over and again. Producers won’t take their calls. Agents won’t read their script. It’s nearly impossible to get a meeting with someone who can actually do something.
Some beginning screenwriters think it’s because they lack connections, and that may be true. But it’s not the only problem. So let me get all Miyagi on you for a minute.
Remember when Miyagi starts teaching Daniel karate? He doesn’t start with punches and kicks. It’s “paint the house side-to-side,” “sand the floor,” “paint the fence,” and “wax-on, wax-off.”
Daniel hates it because it feels like busywork – until he realizes that he’s been learning karate the whole time. Better yet, his fundamentals are so good that he’s a better fighter than the bullies who just learn to kick and punch.
Most aspiring writers do not want to hear this. That’s okay.
You want to preserve your creative freedom. You’ve got ideas for so many things – and you may have some viable ideas in different genres.
Most beginning screenwriters create projects in lots of different genres and fail to sell them, over and over again. Then, one day, when they’ve finally written their tenth project in one genre, they get an agent and finally sell their first screenplay! At that point, three things will often happen quickly:
This isn’t just true for you – it’s true for decision-makers as well. When a decision-maker considers purchasing a script, that’s a big decision. The script will cost a lot of money to buy and even more money to produce. This puts the decision-maker’s reputation on the line. If you are developing multiple projects in different genres, decision-makers see your unfocused creative resume and think:
If you are developing multiple projects in the same genre, executives and other decision-makers see that and think:
It is better to create ten projects in one genre than ten projects in different genres.
If you want to be able to focus in one genre, you have to feel good about limiting yourself to one particular area. Try this:
The genre most of these projects are in – that’s probably your genre. Focus here for now. Once you’ve sold a few things, then you can branch out.
Most beginning writers think they already know how to write a story. You probably know that a story is a journey of transformation. A hero wants to achieve the goal and there’s an obstacle in the way. This journey follows a structure expressed by Joseph Campbell’s monomyth, Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet, and explicated further in these screenwriting books.
The question is, do you know story well enough to use it?
A lot of people know about the importance of diet and exercise. They know they should eat less, eat differently, exercise more – but they aren’t able to use what they know. Then there are professional athletes who live and breathe the principles of healthy living. They use what they know because it’s their career on the line.
To work as a professional screenwriter, this is the equivalent. You have to do more than just know how to write a story, you have to know it at a deep enough level that you can use what you know. Otherwise, you can read scripts, watch movies, write screenplays, and STILL not get anywhere.
If you develop one project into a complete script, you’ve written about 120 pages and one story. But if you develop fifty projects into 2-3 page pitches, you’ve also written about 120 pages – but you’ve created fifty stories.
That’s 50x the practice.
That’s how you learn story structure like the way you know your morning commute to work. Deeply, fully, automatically. That’s how you learn how to write a screenplay.
To learn how to write a screenplay, it is better to develop fifty pitches than to write one script.
You can create and structure your short pitch using this pitch development process.
Most beginning writers do not want to get feedback. They think that feedback is typically unhelpful, and besides, no one really knows what will work, right? So why get feedback?
Then, after writing a dozen screenplays over a period of years that don’t sell, they start to think that maybe, just maybe, if they took more time to get better quality feedback, maybe they’d save themselves some time and heartache.
Professional writers get feedback early and often.
Before a professional screenwriter goes to script, they get feedback on their pitches to select their best ideas. Then they get feedback on their complete pitches and treatments to make sure they are executing it well. They spend a lot of time testing their stories because they know it will save them a ton of time when it comes to writing the screenplays.
It is better to get feedback at least ten times on your pitch before you write the script than to get ten reads on your script.
The keys to getting good feedback are:
This may sound like it could take a lot of time – it does. However, it takes less time than writing full screenplays, and it makes it more likely that you learn how to write a screenplay you’re able to sell.
Every successful writer I know, at some point, has taken one produced project and analyzed it down to the atomic level.
They know the core story, every beat, every sequence, every scene, every shot. They can watch the movie and turn the pages of the script in their head.
Once you’ve done this, watching movies and reading scripts is a different thing.
In a way, it ruins it because it’s hard just to enjoy the story because you’re also watching how the story is being told. That’s what it’s like to be a professional writer.
Beginners may be willing to watch lots of movies and read lots of scripts. It’s fun, and they think they’re getting a complete education. Unfortunately, they’re only building superficial knowledge. They don’t really understand what’s going on at the deeper levels inside the movie.
They’re like a person who can look at an analog watch and tell the time – and they think that means they know how to build a watch. If you want to know how to build a watch, at some point, you will have to take a watch apart, piece by piece, down to the tiniest of the gears.
It is better to read one screenplay ten times than ten screenplays.
It is better to watch one movie ten times than ten movies.
With respect, if you haven’t done this, then in a way, it doesn’t matter how many movies you’ve seen or how many scripts you’ve read. Because you don’t fully understand what you’re seeing or reading.
Once you have immersed yourself in a template, the right template, you will understand screenplay structure. Not just story structure, but screenplay structure. Sequences and scenes. Tone and pacing. Creating moments.
There are many wonderful scripts available online.
Here are some screenplays to get you started:
If you want to learn how to write a screenplay you can actually sell, you can make a ton of frustrating mistakes over a period of years, or you can take these four steps:
Take those four steps, THEN write your screenplay.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
I haven’t learned a goddam thing!
Yeah, how to sand your decks, how to wax your cars, how to paint your house.
Not everything is as looks, you know.
Stephanie Palmer, a former MGM Pictures executive and best-selling author of Good in a Room, has been featured by NBC, ABC, CBS, Los Angeles Times, NPR, Variety and many more. To connect with Stephanie: goodinaroom.com, facebook.com/GoodInARoom, @goodinaroom
Explore more articles and research at Producers Resources.