Ken’s Top 10: Tips for Aspiring Screenwriters

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by Ken Aguado (@kaguado)

Sorry, this article is not about screenwriting. Well, some of it is, but it’s really about familiarizing yourself with some well-known tips about how to become a screenwriter. Talent is only one component of the process. Thomas Edison formulated that success is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration. This article is about that sweaty 90%. Here’s the balmy truth.

1. Want to write a script? First read a script.

Hopefully the reason for this is self-evident. If you want to be a writer, try to read other scripts that have sold and/or been made — preferably recently. Sure, read Citizen Kane too, but you will be writing for the current marketplace, so read what’s getting sold and getting made now.

2. Learn how to write clearly.

It pains me to include this one, but I read many screenplays by aspiring writers who possess a tenuous grasp of the English language and struggle with clear and effective writing. I’m sympathetic. But even if you never learned in school, it’s time to start educating yourself. And, I will confess, this is what I did when I was starting out. I’m still learning.

 

3. Learn the proper form of a screenplay.

This is another one I shouldn’t have to mention, but I also read many beginner screenplays that are poorly formatted or not traditionally formatted. This is not just a matter of style, it’s a matter of clarity. It involves things like how to clearly introduce characters and establish locations and describe actions. Not having these elements buttoned down is sign of a rank amateur.

4. Know your talent.

I’ve seen many writers struggle but fail because they mistakenly believe their talent lives in one genre or another. For example, they think of themselves as comedy writers only to discover (years later) that their marketable talent is writing thrillers. Screenwriter Paul Guay likes to say that the sweet spot for a screenwriter is to find the intersection of what they can write, what they love, and what they can sell. Always listen to Paul.

5. Choose your best idea.

This is usually related to #4, above. Sometimes a writer will come to me with ten ideas for scripts and ask what he or she should write. It’s great that a writer has so many ideas, but it also feels kind of random. If I don’t want to hear every one of the ten ideas my usual reply is “Which one do you love the most?” But in truth, the answer lies in #4 on this list.

6. Have a point of view.

This is another way of saying “Write what you know” or “Learn what you don’t know.” This is not just about story. Yes, of course you should know something about the medical profession if your lead character will be a doctor, but it’s more than this. Try to have something to say about the human condition that is unique to your point of view, even if your story is about non-humans, like Finding Nemo. Having a “personal voice” is a highly sought-after quality in Hollywood right now.

7. Understand the elements of a complete narrative.

This might be one of the most pervasive and fundamental problems I see with aspiring screenwriters. They just don’t fully understand what qualifies as a complete narrative, or at least they haven’t done so for a given story they want to write. These elements should include things like a defined and active protagonist who we care about. A challenging and eventful journey. A defined antagonist. And so on. As I said, this is not an article about how to write. For more information, screenwriter Doug Eboch has written a great article about this topic. You can read it here. Doug’s blog about screenwriting is a wealth of information. Read it.

8. Write every day.

Schedule time in your daily life to write. Much of writing is about personal discipline. Writers are experts at coming up with excuses as to why they can’t write. Don’t be one of them, and putting your butt in the chair on a regular schedule is what it takes, even if you have no great ideas to write on any given day.

9. Work from a solid outline.

Few things make me cringe, but I do when I hear a writer tell me, “I just have to start writing. I’ll find my story that way.” No. Just, no.

10. Finish the first draft.

Francis Ford Coppola was famous for advocating that all screenwriters should power through to the end of a first draft and not worry about making everything perfect in a first draft. This is not meant to negate all the previous nine tips. Just the opposite. This tip is in addition to the above nine. Francis’ point is that all writing is rewriting, and the world is full of aspiring screenwriter who never actually become screenwriters because they just can’t seem to finish a first draft.

Please let me know what you think. Did I leave anything off this list?

Read more of Ken’s Top 10 lists here.

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Ken Aguado is a producer and co-author, along with Douglas Eboch, of The Hollywood Pitching Bible. Follow Ken @kaguado.

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