How to Sound Like a Professional Screenwriter

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by Fin Wheeler

In his memoir Adventures in the Screen Trade, William Goldman repeatedly advises that screenwriters, especially early career ones, should be seen, not heard. This advice baffles many aspiring screenwriters. How are they supposed to get noticed if they can’t say a word?

The point that Goldman was making is that, if you’re in the meeting, you’ve already succeeded. You got noticed. It’s only once you get on the right radars that you get offered meetings. Those meetings are then a chance for producers to take a closer look at you: are you still too green, or have you reached a point where you now understand enough to be useful?

There are a lot of unwritten rules in film and television. Producers aren’t paid to babysit rookie writers and they simply don’t have the funds they used to. They can no longer give development deals to anyone but the surest bets. Meetings are a way for producers and executives to get a sense of how ready you are to play ball. Are you a screenwriter who has the holy trinity of creative talent, technical skill, and a professional attitude?

So, how do you know if you’re sounding like a pro or an amateur?

Arriving early or late to a meeting

Meetings are invariably at production offices on lots in the middle of nowhere. If you are late, don’t freak out, and don’t feel the need to talk endlessly about it. Call as soon as you know you’ll be late and give your ETA. When you arrive, apologize once, then don’t mention it again. If you’re early, sit quietly in the foyer. One aspiring writer told me they arrived 90 minutes early to a studio and snuck into the staff cafeteria because they wanted to do a little star spotting. Don’t do that: you’ll give all writers a bad name.

Over-sharing online before a meeting

You’re usually kept waiting for at least 15 minutes before any meeting. During that time the people you’re meeting with will be reviewing their notes on you. They may also check your social media presence to remind them which writer you are. Remember that in every screenwriting contract you’ll ever sign there’s a non-disclosure clause, so don’t go posting anything about the meeting. It’s only natural that you’re excited, nervous, and perhaps a little scared, but a mature, professional writer won’t blog about that. Neither should you.

Pitch or meet and greet?

Always make sure you completely understand the reason for the meeting. Are they specifically interested in your current spec/pilot, or were they just impressed with your style of writing and want to meet you so they can get a first look at the next script you write?

Listening

Meetings are essentially job interviews for screenwriters. If the producer doesn’t feel that you understand their wants and needs, they’ll go elsewhere. The best way to understand what a producer wants and expects is to listen. Meetings are also a chance for the screenwriter to get a feel for the people they’ll potentially be working with. Listen carefully to what they say. Why do they want this particular project? What do they intend to do with it?

Pitching

If you are there to pitch, keep it short and make sure you’ve rehearsed. I like to write myself a script for my pitch, which I cut down to the bare minimum. That way the producers don’t have a chance to get bored. If your pitch is succinct, producers can then ask for more details about the aspects that interest them. An interactive pitch is more engaging.

Jargon and big words

Don’t quote screenwriting manuals and don’t use technical jargon the producers won’t understand.

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So, what if you do get the gig, and your project is put into active development… Can you speak up at meetings then?

No. When you worked on zero-budget short films with aspiring directors and producers, you may well have had a lot of rowdy meetings in pubs where the person who shouted the loudest was the one who had the final word, but things are done differently in the professional world.

It’s incredibly important that professionals don’t waste each other’s time. Producers have to juggle so many different departments. When you have a creative meeting, you usually get sent a memo outlining the specific items to be addressed in the meeting. You’re also usually told how long the meeting can last.

No writer ever agrees with every note, but you’re not paid to argue. Make sure you understand and write down each point. Seek clarification if necessary, but don’t ask redundant questions. Meetings are the place to gather all information essential to create the next draft. You won’t necessarily leave with all the solutions, but you will understand what the producer’s (and director’s) concerns are, and you’ll also be very clear about the ways in which you can, and cannot, address them. You can then take all that information and use it to find creative, constructive ways forward for the script.

If you’re arguing in the meeting, you’re making snap judgments about what the others are trying to get across. But when you listen without judgment (and without argument), you’re less likely to misjudge and misunderstand what’s being said.

Every writer thinks the current draft is the best yet. It might be, but no draft is ever perfect. Be open. Listen. What isn’t clear? Which are the weakest sections, and why? Rookie screenwriters often whine about that fact that producers, directors, and lead actors all get to give notes and screenwriters only get to take them. Personally, I don’t understand the concern. The screenwriter gets to conjure up the entire universe. We get to decide who the protagonist will be and what sort of journey they go on. A producer comes along and says they’ll pay us to write and turn our dream into a multimillion dollar film. When a producer buys your script, that should be ample validation for any screenwriter — they loved your script so much they want to make it. Any improvements they want to make to the script can only make you look like a better writer.

Obviously, there are times when the screenwriter genuinely feels that the script is going in a totally different direction than originally intended. Famously, Quentin Tarantino had his name removed as screenwriter of Natural Born Killers (Tarantino only has the ‘story by’ credit) because he and director Oliver Stone disagreed so violently on the underlying message of the film and its ending. If Tarantino had listened, really listened, in those early meetings, he would have perhaps realized that that spec was being bought so that it could be developed into something with a slightly less bleak message.

If you listen in those early meetings, you’ll end up with a lot more information and be able to make an informed decision about whether to sign with the first producer to show interest (but who doesn’t necessarily have the same core values), or hold out for another producer who does.

~

Fin Wheeler is a member of the Australian Writers’ Guild and has a feature in development.

3 thoughts on “How to Sound Like a Professional Screenwriter

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  1. Good info. But don’t be sloppy with Goldman’s book title. Not hard to make sure you get the title right; Adventures in the Screen Trade. Not Tales from the … I also suggest you get his follow-up: Which Lie Did I Tell – More Adventures in the Screen Trade.

  2. There are times when the notes demonstrate that those giving them have totally taken a first class fare to Nanu-Nanu World. It is also the DUTY of the writer to let them know that the horses and wagon are headed straight at the cliff they don’t see ahead of them. As Goldman said, a writer’s job is to defend “the spine of the story” with his or her life. He never defined that term, and I and a lot of my fellow screenwriters spent many years arguing over what exactly that meant. I finally realized that “the spine of the story” can be defined as “why you sat down and decided to write this story instead of something else.” That MUST be defended.

    There is also a point where you have to get fired. When they are so far out of sync and have their heads so far up their asses that nothing is going to work. a writer has to remember what those of us who ever took training as Water Safety Instructors were told: “It’s not your job to turn the rescue into a double drowning.” Sometimes you have to let go. A good friend of mine with Major Credits once found himself working for a Major Name Producer, and they were going over the draft he had turned in, only Major Name Producer was talking about things that were not on the particular page. About halfway through, my friend realized the moron was giving notes on a re-read of the PREVIOUS DRAFT, and they were different from what had been given before. Knowing that the time had come to be fired, he stood up, leaned over the table, took the screenplay out of Major Producer’s hand and gave him his copy of the current draft. “Can we discuss the current draft?” The room went dead silent. Major Producer (a well-known asshole) then sat there and read the current draft while everyone else tried to find a way to dematerialize. He got to the end, put it down and said “It’s still wrong. You’re fired.” My friend got up and walked out of the room.

    And the movie that was eventually made was a Compleat Failure, surprise surprise.

    Yes, listen. Yes, try and figure it out. No, you don’t need to be a goddamned doormat. I had the privilege of spending several years having lunch with a Major Legendary Screenwriter-Director. :Lots of pearls of wisdom. The most important was “If you don’t give a shit about what you’re doing, why should anyone else?”

    And I am writing this from the perspective of having spent 20 years in Okeefenokee West and having written 14 produced films, one of which is a “cult classic.”

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