Ask LA Screenwriter: “Am I Out of My Depth?”

We’ve started a new advice column here at LA Screenwriter that features answers to any and all questions you might have about screenwriting and the film world. If you have a question, please send it to

Our question today comes from Elizabeth:

Is it hard for everyone when they start off writing screenplays? I find them so much more different than writing, say,
short stories and stuff like that, which is the only thing I really have any experience with, and my first few attempts at screenplays have proven pretty disastrous.

I’m just wondering, is there ever a point where I’ll be like, “Yeah, I know exactly what I’m doing here,” – and is there a way to help myself get there? I feel so completely lost sitting down trying to format and structure my screenplays correctly, sometimes it seems like I’m totally out of my depth.

It’s a pretty generic question, I know, but I don’t even know where to start with most of my screenplay ideas – I hope you can offer some advice!

“Is it hard for everyone when they start off writing screenplays?” The short answer is, yes. The long answer is, yes, and it doesn’t get much easier.

Margaret Atwood has a great quote about how she doesn’t like to write, she likes to have written. The actual process of sitting down and figuring out your story, then developing your characters and putting the right words into their mouths… it’s a fun adventure in a lot of ways, but it’s also painstaking and, honestly, terrifying. Most writers share a common fear that once they put their perfect, beautiful, award-winning ideas down on paper, the result will be a disaster.

But this is a fear we all have to get over, because ultimately the only way to become a better writer is to write. Write as often as you can. Write as many different stories as you can. And perhaps most importantly, take the time to rewrite. As Hemingway said, the first draft of anything is shit. If you’re disappointed that your scripts aren’t turning out perfectly the first time around, that’s silly. No first draft is ever any good. Even the pros who get paid millions for their scripts have to go through anywhere from three to thirty rewrites before the script truly works.

So don’t be discouraged. Your scripts may not be that great right now, but if you put the work in, they’ll get better. If you really want to be a screenwriter, plan on it taking six to a dozen scripts before you write something that someone will want to buy. I know that sounds discouraging, but you’ll learn something from every script you write, and hopefully you’ll enjoy the creative process along the way.

That said, here are some general tips (in addition to the number one ultra super tip of “just keep writing”) for moving your screenwriting forward:

  1. Buy screenwriting software. Formatting your scripts by hand is crazy. Invest in Final Draft, or use a free online service like WriterDuet. The formatting should not get in the way of your creativity.
  2. Read screenwriting books. First and foremost, read Story by Robert McKee. Then read Save the Cat by Blake Snyder.
  3. Read scripts. Look through our script index and find scripts for movies that you love that are in the genre that you want to write in. Pay attention to the wording of the action descriptions, the pace of the dialogue, the white space on the page, and try to figure out how the story is structured.
  4. Before you write, outline. Make sure that the nugget of an idea in your head is something real before you start writing. If you just write without any direction laid out, you’ll most likely get stuck within the first ten page. Really think about whether your idea is high concept (you can explain it in one sentence, and it feels compelling and unique) and whether or not it’s something that producers might be interested in. Don’t let lack of popular appeal keep you from writing something, but use it as a barometer for whether or not the idea is worth your time.
  5. And stay positive. You’re going to feel like you’re not good enough. People are going to tell you that your scripts are crap. It’s going to be really, really hard. If you want to be a writer, grow a thick skin (and a bit of an ego), because if you don’t believe in yourself, no one else is going to.

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