5 Ways to Fail as a Screenwriter

by Greg DePaul (@GregDePaul)

Hollywood is hard enough to break into as a screenwriter. But some of us make it even harder. If you’re one of those self-destructive screenwriters who’s doing everything he or she can to fail, this listicle is for you.

Here are five sure-fire, battle-tested, absolutely guaranteed ways to fail as a screenwriter (AKA How not to break into Hollywood). These tips apply to TV writers as well as feature writers. If your goal is to make your tiny shot at success in a fanatically competitive industry even more miniscule, then you need to do these things as soon as possible:

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1. Live outside L.A.

Look, if you live in rural Idaho or Abilene, Texas, and you have kids or a life there, I’m not suggesting you pick up and move. But if you’re single, hanging out in coffee shops, and writing your tail off in the hopes of breaking into the entertainment industry — and living somewhere other than Los Angeles — you’re fooling yourself.

So don’t be your biggest obstacle. Pick up and move. Trust me, your work will improve the second you get to town – because it will have to. Yes, the competition is beyond fierce and it can be intimidating enough to send a sweet, young country kid packing. But you’ll be surrounded by rival writers whose work you will read. That’s when you will truly understand what you are up against.

And if you’re a competitor, you will raise your game. If not, and you’re not built for the Hollywood rat race, you’ll find that out a lot quicker than you will if you never leave Idaho or Abilene. And by the way — nothing against Idaho. I hear it’s great this time of year. As for Abilene – Yes, I have something against Abilene. But let’s not get into that here. Just remember to go to L.A.

2. Always market more than one script.

For godsakes, don’t go around telling everyone you meet in the industry that you’ve got a rom-com, a thriller, a horror spec, and a great pitch for a one-hour drama pilot. It will only confuse them. Chances are your latest script is your best script because writers improve over time. So pimp that script and nothing else. The industry doesn’t need you to be a one-person, human movie studio. It needs a sample of your work that will blow it away. So give it that sample and try to forget all the weaker scripts that led up to that one.

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3. Constantly worry about your copyright.

In my experience – as a screenwriter and an entertainment attorney – I can tell you that ninety-nine percent of all screenwriters who claim to have been victims of copyright infringement are full of it. No, they’re not liars, just full of it. There’s a difference.

Lots of writers think they’ve got unique ideas on their hands. I naively thought Bride Wars was a totally unique idea until I went and pitched it to producers and learned they’d heard similar ideas. In fact, I remember them: there was the one about competing sweet sixteen parties and the one about competing baby showers. I could go on. Not to mention a lot of very similar wedding ideas, as I learned after I made the sale. The point is – they bought my pitch because they knew I could write it. After all, they had read my latest spec and it made them laugh. But that won’t stop people from telling me now – years afterward – that I somehow “stole” their idea or story or whatever.

Trust me. I didn’t steal diddly. Lots of screenwriters staying up late all over Los Angeles while all reading the same websites and watching the same movies are very, very likely to come up with lots of similar story concepts. It’s the nature of the beast. Your goal is to be the one who sells that next hot idea first. And if you don’t, move on. Write something else. Don’t spend your time complaining to everyone within earshot at your favorite writing spot how you were robbed yet again by The Man. Instead, write harder and better. Then the next time you pitch something they’ll buy your idea instead of, say, mine.

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4. Always hand someone a first, second or third draft of your latest script.

Actually, add fourth and fifth drafts to that as well.

Here’s the deal: only a novice thinks early drafts of his work are worth reading. My rule about showing work – whether it’s to producers or friends – is that you shouldn’t hand anyone a script unless there is absolutely nothing more you can do to it. Thus, if you can take another pass on your latest spec, do so. Don’t give it to a potential agent or buyer until it’s done.

If that means you have to wait six more months so you can crank out ten more drafts, so be it. Your work will only improve during that time. And if you’re handing your best screenwriting buddy a script to read for notes, don’t hand it to her unless you’re totally tapped out on it. Only when you’ve done all you can do should you ask someone to help you. That’s when you need the help the most. It’s not my job to fix your script for you, so don’t ask me to read your un-spell-checked fifth draft and give you my notes. Hand me your twenty-fifth. And make sure to stay up all night for days beforehand to find every little flaw in the writing and fix it first.

If you think I’m exaggerating then you may not know enough working screenwriters. All the ones I know who are working keep their work to themselves until the last possible moment. Then they seek out notes. And they listen to what their colleagues have to say.

5. Tell the director how to do her job.

You know those action lines in your script? Some people call them stage directions. Rookies make liberal use of them so everybody can tell they’re rookies. Neophytes. However, if you want to look like a pro, you should delete them. Or at least delete as many as you possibly can.

Seriously. Unless you’re planning on making the movie yourself, never tell the director how to make her movie. If you want to write like a pro, restrain yourself like a dignified pro. Don’t type a word of action that doesn’t need to be there. Write clean scripts without an extra word of direction given to the director and actors. Whenever possible, just give us slug lines, bare description, and dialogue. If you tell us how tall the protagonist is, it better matter to the story. If you describe the make and model of the bad guy’s car, it had better be absolutely critical to the story. We should need to know that.

If not — cut, cut, cut. You’ll be glad you did. Your film school professor – Remember that goofball who told you to make the reader feel as if she’s watching the movie? – won’t like it. But that may be why he’s teaching, not writing. Cut unnecessary action lines and description. And in my experience, that’s eighty percent of all action lines and description in most writers’ scripts. Simple sells. Over-writing doesn’t.

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btfScreenwriter Greg DePaul wrote Bride Wars and Saving Silverman. He has sold screenplays to Miramax, New Line, Sony, MGM, Disney, and Village Roadshow studios. He teaches screenwriting at NYU and The New School, and his book Bring the Funny: The Essential Companion for the Comedy Screenwriter comes out this summer on Focal Press. You can learn more about him and his book at gregdepaul.com and bringthefunny.com. And Yes, he is available for script consultations.

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