Are you a screenwriter who feels like you’ve been chewed up and spit out by the big Hollywood shark? If so, let me help you change the status quo in 2021. It can be frustrating to spend weeks, months and even years writing a screenplay or TV pilot, only to be ignored by producers and agents. You’ve tried everything to break in, but something is still lacking.
There’s an old saying that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. Aspiring screenwriters do the same things over and over again, but still haven’t made a sale. Are you ready to stop the insanity?
As a Story Analyst, I see mistakes aspiring screenwriters make on a daily basis in terms of writing skills, marketing knowledge and even how they perceive the industry. It’s especially heartbreaking if the writer has potential. The biggest mistakes may not be recognizable to the screenwriter, so I’m going to cover them in this article. I hope you’ll give each one serious consideration because I want 2021 to be the year of the Screenwriter! Let’s get started with my Top 10 Screenwriter Tips for 2021 (in no particular order):
#1 – SET A HIGHER STANDARD
In the 20+ years I’ve been a story analyst, there hasn’t been a single week that’s gone by without an aspiring writer contacting me for rush coverage because a producer has requested their screenplay and they want to know if it’s ‘good enough’. When I ask if how many coverages they’ve had previously with a ‘RECOMMEND’ status, 9 out of 10 say ‘NONE’, or they’ve had coverage that came back with a CONSIDER or a PASS.
Let me be blunt, this is a fool’s game! A writer only gets one shot at the producer, why blow it with a screenplay that isn’t market ready? Let’s face it, if the writer’s requesting rush coverage while a producer waits, isn’t is obvious the writer knows it isn’t ready? This makes me ask, WHY ARE YOU MARKETING A SCREENPLAY THAT ISN’T MARKET READY? And what if it needs lots of work? The producer isn’t going to wait!
STOP IT! This is what amateurs do and I have NEVER seen one of these writers go on to a career in Hollywood.
Set yourself to a higher standard. Act like a pro and you won’t have to act like desperate newbie when you get a producer interested in the script. Here’s my recommendation:
Get coverage from different parties and wait until 3 coverages receive a RECOMMEND! Next, put the script into contests and get at least 1 semi or finalist placement. In my opinion, the script is NOT market ready until it’s had 3 recommends and 1 solid contest placement! Once the writer achieves this standard there’s no need for rush coverage because the writer already knows the screenplay is market ready.
#2 – MASTER FORMAT
Even the most proficient aspiring screenwriters get format wrong. It’s usually a result of not being up to date with the current industry standards. Here’s the fix – Purchase Fade In Online’s Spec Format Guide once yearly and you’ll always be up to date because the book is kept up to date.
More importantly, the aspiring screenwriter needs to master format. This means going beyond just knowing the current industry standards and to apply them. It means mastering screenplay format because the professional screenwriter – the writer making the big bucks – knows how to use format to enhance a story, to create action, suspense, emotion, etc. It isn’t just added in for appearance.
For example, the pro writer knows when to use dialogue (O.S.) off stage to build suspense. How to add proper transitions to keep pacing flowing and how to use specific formatting technique to build rising tension throughout the story.
Furthermore, format is the #1 way a producer (or story analyst) can tell if the writer is a newbie or a pro. Frankly, I don’t even have to read a screenplay to make a determination if the writer is a pro or not. I can just flip through the script and see how the format was handled. Pros know how to use it and they know it’s as important to the story as plot/execution, characters, scenes and dialogue!
Extra tip: If you don’t know what transitions are or how to use them, please pick up Extreme Screenwriting book: Screenplay Writing Simplified. The book covers transitions in detail.
#3 – OUTLINE FIRST
Two things newbies have in common; they haven’t mastered format and they rarely outline. If they do outline, it lacks details and is only vague impressions gathered from brief inspirational moments that lack the depth required to sustain a motion picture.
Do a beat outline or what I call a full screenplay outline. Literally write out every primary slug in the movie and add 1-3 lines for each slug. For example:
EXT. ALLEY – NIGHT
Introduce a MYSTERIOUS KILLER and a DEAD MAN’S BODY (JOE, the cook).
INT. CYBER SECURITY COMPANY – DAY
Introduce SAM (mid-20s), the hero. His job and potential connection to Joe.
By outlining every scene in the movie, gaps stand out and can easily be fixed. Most importantly, it helps the writer see if the story has the legs to sell as a feature film.
During the outline, the writer should identify the following: 1) scene that states the theme 2) the arc scene 3) Plot Point I & Plot Point I. These are areas covered by every producer. So, when a producer asks you, ”What’s the theme?”, the writer can point out the actual scene in the story!
Yes, I know this is time consuming and the newbie writer wants to jump into the story. You’re excited and filled with inspiration! STOP! Pros don’t need inspiration to write great material. My advice – stop relying on it because it’s a crutch that can cause you to stop writing while you wait for inspiration or drive you to hurry-up and write a sloppy story that doesn’t work as a motion picture. The best way to avoid the INSPIRATION TRAP is to outline. Take the time to do this. The writer should end up with a 10-15 page outline. What’s great about the outline is once it’s solid, the writer can just copy/paste it into Final Draft and expand the outline until it becomes the screenplay!
#4 – MASTER GENRE
Screenplay writing requires a writer to understand structure and format, but most stop there. In the process, genre often gets overlooked. This is a huge problem because producers purchase screenplays based on genre. In fact, most producers work within a specific genre. Genres contain their own set of rules, structure and even format. Understanding the genre rules elevates the writer beyond the norm and could help a writer make a sale and maintain a career as a screenwriter.
What is a genre rule? There are a lot of them, but I’ll use Horror as an example. In this genre, the threat must remain in the end, even if the story’s horror factor is destroyed. For example, in Hocus Pocus, the witches die in the end, but the spell book that can bring them back is alive and we see its eye blink, therefore, the threat remains. Horror has other rules, but ignore this rule and the screenplay fails. The genre with the most rules is Romantic Comedy from chase scenes to the big kiss, it’s one of the most genre-specific screenplays.
Every genre has its rules and every writer should know and understand those rules. But what if the screenplay is a mixed-genre story? First, I’d recommend the aspiring screenwriter stay within the confines of a single genre. Mixed genres are almost exclusively sold by A-list writers with established careers. However, if your story must be mixed, then go by the rules for the primary genre of your story. For example, if it’s primarily a horror, but it has strong comedy, then adhere to the rules of the Horror genre.
Another opposition to following the rules is writers don’t want to write a cookie-cutter story. This is a viable argument or is it? After all, people live in the same type of houses, drive the same types of vehicles, wear similar clothing, etc. Society lives by ‘norms’ and it isn’t easy to break those norms and be accepted. Same goes for stories. With that said, I’d suggest sticking with the norms, but do it in an original way. For example, there have been countless vampire stories made and Thirty Days of Night fits the genre rules, but it stands out as original because it puts the old vampire story into a setting where there’s no reprieve from the monsters because daylight never arrives.
Stick with the rules for the genre and give it an original twist and you’ll become a paid screenwriter in 2021. If you don’t know the rules for the genre, pick up Extreme Screenwriting’s book: Screenplay Writing Simplified. All genre rules are covered in the book.
#5 – FORGET INSPIRATION
I’ve already spoken about inspiration as a trap, so I won’t spend too much time on this topic. All I can say is FORGET INSPIRATION! It traps the writer into only writing when inspired and writing without careful attention to important details that later sink the writer’s story. It’s a useless waste of time.
Do you wait for inspiration to take a shower?
Do you wait for inspiration to go to your day job?
Do you wait for inspiration to decide to stop at the red light?
Kick inspiration to the curb. Write every day! Keep it simple. Commit to writing one-hour a day, seven days a week. If you can’t find the time in your schedule, make time. Get up an hour early or go to bed an hour later. Try for 5 pages a day. Write for an entire month on a single project and you’ll have 150-pages in a month! After editing in month #2, you could have a completed, market ready screenplay every 2 months!
Another reason this is important is because professional screenwriters are given tight deadlines for edits and studio changes. If you aren’t used to writing every day and writing a specific amount of pages, this can be a problem that will likely result in another writer being brought in to rewrite your work! I’ve heard the arguments, “I can afford the time to write this much when I’m a paid screenwriter because I won’t have to go to my day job.” Really? The average screenplay sells for around $80K (or less), but let’s say you get lucky and it sells for a low six figures like $125K. After taxes that’s less than most people make in a year and there’s no guarantee you’ll ever sell a second script. It’s wise to keep the day job and learn how to write daily!
Don’t fret about what I just said about never making a second sale. I’m going to show you how to avoid that trap and become a paid screenwriter – over and over again.
#6 – OUTSMART TRENDS
I see this mistake every day! The writer submits a script for coverage and mentions it’s a hot topic they want to get onto the market asap. I guarantee it’s already a flop, even if it gets a recommend.
Movies take 18 months or more to go from script to screen. What’s hot now will be old news by then. Here’s how to fix that problem:
If you’re hot for a trending topic, go ahead and write the screenplay but ask yourself where the topic will be in 18 months from now? Write the screenplay based on the future rather than what’s trending now. By literally staying ahead of the game the writer can outsmart trends and write a script that will still seem like a trending topic when it finally opens in theaters.
By the way, if you’ve thought of a cool, trending concept (even with a twist), I guarantee a thousand other screenwriters have thought of it too. But rarely are those screenwriters focused on the future of the trend. That’s how you write the trend you’re interested in, while beating the competition.
#7 – PRACTICE THE PITCH
Do the norms, like a one-page, logline, synopsis, etc., but go beyond this and practice pitching the story. BUT, do it in a new way. Frankly, most writers suck at pitching. Why? Because they try to tell the story instead of selling it. Every detail seems important to them and they feel like they have to get that information across to the listener to evoke interest in their work.
But is this how you tell a friend about a movie you’re recommending they go see at the theater? Or do you hit upon the highlights, speak excitedly about a moment that captured your imagination and leave them with a hook rather than spoiling it for them?
Frankly, I have no idea why gurus teach writers to pitch in a boring way that tells the story. STOP DOING THIS! Just act like you’re telling a friend. This is the best way to express your excitement for the story and naturally hit upon its selling points to a producer! Just end the pitch with, “Would you like to read it?”
#8 – WRITE BEYOND SCREENPLAYS
Did you know that 99% of aspiring writers who’ve never written anything but a screenplay never become professional screenwriters? Pro screenwriters have almost always written something else before making their break in Hollywood. Some have written books, blogs, magazine articles, greeting cards, documentaries, newsletters, etc. It expands their horizons and hones their skills.
Secondly, being open to writing more than just screenplays or your own stories in a lucrative way to become a paid screenwriter. Did you know there are script doctors and ghostwriters in town that make more than many A-list screenwriters? A screenwriter might make a six-figure, one-time sale for a screenplay, but a script doctor or ghostwriter can make millions over the years. And being open to writing on assignment is very attractive to agents that will consider that writer a constant source of commission revenue rather than a one-hit wonder.
Lastly, writing beyond screenplays can open up venues to that big sale and becoming a professional screenwriter. For example, when sending out queries, note the coverage recommends for the screenplay, contest placements, and mention that you’re open to ‘writing on assignment’. Producers love this! You get paid and most importantly, you’ve made a Hollywood contact. The trick is DO NOT SOLICIT the producer to purchase your work while doing the assignment. Wait! Rewrite someone else’s stuff while building a relationship with a Hollywood insider and the rest will happen naturally
#9 – REMEMBER EMOTION
No matter how well the writer structures the story, masters format and adheres to genres rules, if the writer fails to move the reader (audience) with emotion, the screenplay isn’t likely to sell – ever! Every screenplay, regardless of genre, should evoke emotion. A comedy should make us laugh so hard our sides hurt. A horror should keep us up at night. A romance should make us remember the first time we fell in love. An adventure should inspire us to travel the world.
Having read tens of thousands of screenplays over the years, I can tell you that there are those that stand out and the reason I remember them is because they evoked a strong emotion. Why do you remember a movie years after its release? It’s probably because it evoked a response in you. Do that at the screenplay level and you’ll beat the competition because most writers take it for granted.
#10 – MARKET OUTSIDE THE BOX
Now it’s time to learn how to make that big sale in 2021 and how to do it again and again!
How many screenplay queries have you sent out in the past year? How many responses have you received? How many reads? If it’s less than 30 per query, you’re not alone, but statistics say a ‘great’ script needs at least 30 reads to even come close to a sale. Most writers can’t get more than a few producers, if any, to read their scripts. Then why do screenwriters keep sending out queries if they don’t work?
It’s time to think outside the box!
First, producers aren’t ignoring you. Most are inundated with queries into the thousands, often receiving 50-100 per day. It’s a matter of the market being saturated.
So, how does the screenwriter stand out? STOP doing the norm and start paying attention to what attracts producers. For years, you’ve been told you MUST have a screenplay to sell a concept to a producer. Really? Then why do producers buy novels? A novel isn’t a screenplay. In fact, it has to be adapted for it can become a motion picture. And what about reality-TV web series and YouTube sensations that sell their video ideas to producers? They don’t even have anything in writing.
What these non-screenplay parties have in common is an audience. That’s why the producer is interested in their work. It makes sense when you think about it. When you pitch a producer a story he has to like the story, but he’s already thinking about whether the material has an audience. You might think it does, but he’s not sure. In fact, he’s taking a huge risk because he doesn’t really know if your story – even if he loves it – is going to attract an audience. Nobody knows or do they?
What if you brought the producer a screenplay that already has an audience? This immediately answers his biggest question about the work – can it attract an audience? The answer is YES! By bringing him a project with a built-in audience, the screenwriter eliminates a lot of the risk associated with purchasing and producing a motion picture.
How does the screenwriter do this? Some have made movie trailers, but this is a mistake. Why? Because they make the trailer to attract the producer. WRONG! They need to attract an audience! The audience is what attracts the producer. And this doesn’t involve a movie trailer, it requires a story teaser! Basically, a YouTube driven quick video that hits the selling points, including the genre and builds hype via an audience. In turn, the audience makes the story very attractive to producers.
Sure, you can do this on your own if you know how to create a story teaser for an audience, know how YouTube works and how to get a video to go viral, but there’s a learning curve involved. You can literally purchase a book that covers the ‘How to’ from A to Z. Here’s the link to Magnetic Screenplay Marketing.
If you don’t know about SEO, video creation, going viral, etc., and don’t want to take the time to learn the fastest and easiest way to do it, then try Extreme Screenwriting’s Marketing Done For You. This is a subscription service that allows the screenwriter to pay a low monthly rate to have Extreme Screenwriting do everything for you: create video teaser, build an audience, write the pitch, and even provide a list of producer’s contact information. A one-stop marketing venue that uses the ‘audience building’ approach to attract producers to screenplays. Cancel anytime.
I hope this article was helpful and that 2021 is the year you sell your first screenplay and become a full-time, paid screenwriter! Good luck and Happy New Year!