Five-and-a-Half Ways to Become A Great Screenwriter

screenwriter

by Greg DePaul (@GregDePaul)

1. Read Every Book on Screenwriting.

I’m gonna win your respect by not even pushing you to buy my book, which is prominently featured below this article. But you really should read every book on screenwriting ever written. Books by writers who’ve sold scripts and had movies made (Me!) and books by writers who haven’t. Books by writers who talk truth about how hard it is to write a great script (Me!), and books by writers who offer paint-by-numbers systems and promise easy gold at the end of rainbow. Books by really talented and good-looking, but tragically undersexed writers (Me!), and …OK, I’ll stop. You get it.

But seriously, for the cost of a single class at USC or NYU you can buy every book on screenwriting ever written. So do it. Now. Stop writing whatever script you’re working on, sit down, and read the living bejeezes out of those books, underlining as you go. Become the nationally-recognized scholar of “How to” screenwriting books. Know them inside and out. There’s no excuse not to do this, and you never know – you might actually learn something.

Different approaches work for different writers; finding the right one is up to you. And you need to spend the time doing that, because nobody’s going to just walk up and hand you an Oscar. (Well, OK, it could technically happen, at the actual Oscars, if you write an amazing script and get very, very lucky.) Point is — anything you learn from a book about screenwriting is going to help you get there.

2. Take Every Screenwriting Class.

I’m serious. Every class taught by anybody who may possibly know something they can teach you. And speaking of classes, don’t miss my FREE CLASS in Comedy Screenwriting, which I’ll be teaching at The Writers Store in Burbank on Saturday, November 19th at 2 PM. I’ll be working interactively, helping you write better scripts and break into the business. You’ll be writing down every brilliant thing I say. And probably asking annoying questions that I will pretend to know the answers to. But it’ll be fun. And it costs …well, it’s FREE, silly! Come to the class.

You should also take every class in screenwriting taught at UCLA Extension, where I’ve taught, and where they have more veteran, produced screenwriters in their stable than most film schools. And most of those writers broke in the hard way – seriously, check out their resumes – so they won’t waste your time with empty theory. They’ll put your nose to the grindstone and push you to write your best work.

If I could go back in time and show up in LA again in my twenties with the goal of becoming a working screenwriter, I’d fill my week with screenwriting classes. More than I could stand. Why? Because it’s not just about the knowledge, it’s about all the other hyper-competitive, fellow screenwriters you’ll meet — and especially the useful ones who you’ll become friends with. Maybe even start a writer’s group with. Yes, a writers group. If I haven’t said so before now, I say it now: Join a writers group, start a second one on the side, and write like the wind in both. I never saw a writer whose work didn’t improve from friendly competition.

3. Be Super Nice to Everyone (in the Industry).

Even if you don’t live in smilingly vacuous Los Angeles, it still pays to be excruciatingly sweet to all you meet. In the entertainment industry, that is. If you want to piss off the guy down the street, or some schmuck you are forced to deal with in your day job, go ahead. Be snarky, rude, even cruel. But if you’re speaking with anybody in this industry, watch out. The default standard is always good behavior and gracious compliance.

A couple years ago a partner and I sold a pitch to a major studio in a deal that called for only a single draft. The studio president would then read that draft and decide if he wanted to engage us further to re-write it. So we wrote Draft #1 and he didn’t like it. We met with him in his office, where he politely told us we could totally re-write it from scratch using his notes, or we could graciously bow out of the process before it got more expensive for him. We had another paying job in the wings at another studio at that time, so we made the wrong choice – we bowed out. After all, he was so nice when he told us we could do that and face no repercussions. Why not believe him?

A week or so later our agent called to tell us the president was talking us down all over town. He was incensed and insulted – why didn’t we buck up and get back to work? Who were we to walk away from a paying studio gig? We were shocked. He had been so soft and cuddly in his office when he told us we could walk. But deep down he turned out to be yet another passive-aggressive Hollywood player. The moral of the story – they won’t tell you to your face they hate you. You have to figure it out. And just about anything you do or say can be taken the wrong way.

So be nice. Say Yes to everything and everybody. Ruffle no feathers. Then go home and write your butt off.

4. Write on Election Night.

I have a Super Bowl Sunday ritual I’ve been following for over a decade. I write. All day, all night. I never see a single snap. Seriously. I do the same for the Oscars. I start writing in the afternoon and don’t stop until long after the last statuette is handed out. And I never turn on the TV. Yup, I avoid obligatory national TV events like the plague because they drag on for so long. Oh, and they’re irrelevant. You can see who won Best Sound Editing – as if you care – the next day anyway. Trust me – the newspaper will tell you the next morning whether it’s Clinton or Trump.

I mean you’re a screenwriter, right? Not a …TV watcher-person. Water cooler conversation shouldn’t interest you because you don’t actually want to succeed at your dreary day job. You want to sell a script so you can give your boss the finger and ride off on your white horse laughing at him as you enter Beverly Hills and take possession of your new bungalow.

In fact, another great time to write is Christmas. I mean – do you really wanna hang out with your family when you could be breaking into Hollywood? Trust me – agents aren’t hanging with the fam. They’re reading scripts and sending frantic emails to producers, who also aren’t spending any quality time with their kids – and that’s if their kids even live with them. I spent years in Hollywood and never met a happily married family-type person. The real movers and shakers all eat, breathe, and sleep entertainment. You must do so as well.

So don’t spend time buying presents. It won’t get you closer to fame. If you absolutely must drive by your ex’s house and see the kids between drafts of your nest spec, give them something you have plenty of. Like brads. Kids love brads. They can put them in a slingshot and really hurt someone. Yeah, do that. Who needs presents? You’re a screenwriter, not Kris Kringle!

5. Stay Single.

Here’s a tip: if you come to my book signing and FREE CLASS in Comedy Screenwriting on Saturday, November 19th, at The Writers Store, you will only meet other writers. Other writers who will all be following my advice and, thus, there’s no chance to hook up with any of them after the event. Trust me, if one of them asks for your number, it’s only so they can call and ask you to read their script and give them notes. And you can do that, right? For a fellow screenwriter? A sister or brother of the page? A co-sufferer? A member of the Secret Society of Holly-Scribes? Yes, you can.

Look, here’s the deal. If you really must get married, have kids and be blissfully happy, then, by all means, go forth and multiply. But know this – it won’t get any easier to write than it is on the day before you get hitched or make a baby. So write now. While you’re single.

5-and-a-half.

Hah! Tricked you. You think there’s any half-way to achieve screenwriting fame? There is none. Whatever you do to succeed in this biz, you must do it ALL the way. So start writing today, and don’t stop until they crown you the King or Queen of Hollywood.

~

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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