You’ve probably heard the word “screenwriter” before, but unlike directors and Hollywood A-list actors, screenwriters tend to work behind the scenes. But who exactly is a screenwriter, what does the job entail, and how does one go about becoming a screenwriter?
We will answer all of these questions in this article!
If you want to become a screenwriter, then this is the perfect first step. Stay tuned for everything you need to know!
To put as it simply as possible, a screenwriter is literally a writer for film and TV. Each piece of media starts from a screenplay. This can be more or less detailed depending on the requirements. But for feature films and TV shows it is usually a faithful draft of what audiences end up seeing on screen.
A screenwriter, then, is the person writing the screenplay. This can be done speculatively. Such as a screenwriter deciding to write a story they feel passionate about without being prompted. Or it can be commissioned by a studio or production company that has already secured funding for a specific story.
The more well-known and prolific a screenwriter is, the better chances they’ll have for their work to go into production and to be called by production companies to oversee new projects.
Some of the most well-known screenwriters (such as William Goldman, Spike Lee, Aaron Sorkin and Nora Ephron) are tied to iconic feature films. But the recent spike in streaming services has meant more filmmakers can flex their hands at working in film and TV and being both screenwriters and directors or producers. For example, Shonda Rhimes, Ava DuVernay, Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Guillermo Del Toro.
What’s great about being a screenwriter is the ability to create a story from nothing. Screenwriting truly is the first step into getting any kind of visual narrative on screen. It’s a great instrument to tell individual experiences in a unique but universal way. It’s thanks to some brilliant screenwriting minds if some iconic stories stayed with us through the years.
But where does one start becoming a screenwriter? Firstly, it’s important to decide whether the role is actually for you. Screenwriting requires creativity but also practicality, patience, studying and thick skin.
Reading screenwriting guides and screenplays, especially those that have made history, can be educational in terms of learning the format, jargon and quirks of the job. But it’s also good intel to see if it might be suitable for you.
Writing screenplays is not like writing prose. It needs to be spare but evocative and it’s a much more collaborative process between all those involved in the making of the film.
All aspiring screenwriters should know that, just like any career in filmmaking, there’s some fierce competition. You will need to be able to pile through countless rejection letters before you strike gold.
But more so, unlike other on-set professions, screenwriters don’t have as many chances to do paid freelance work when starting out. You can either self-fund and produce a screenplay that you wrote, or you can work your way up as a production company’s script reader, script editor, development executive, and, eventually, credited screenwriter.
Bottom line, you need to be in it for passion first and foremost. As it’s likely you will have to work another job alongside it for a while.
Depending on your possibilities and the stage of life you’re at, you might decide to get a degree in screenwriting. There are several universities offering courses in screenwriting as part of both their bachelor’s and master’s degree programs. A screenwriting degree ties into communication, media studies, and other film degrees.
Check out our article What Are The Best Filmmaking Colleges And Universities? for our film school recommendations!
What’s useful about going down the academic route is the possibility of creating a network of support and life-long friendships within the industry. Every time you write a screenplay, you will hopefully have at least two or three experienced writers to turn to for feedback. The teachers in these courses are usually industry professionals and it’s in their best interest too to see you succeed.
By investing in a degree, you will have direct access to professional feedback on your writing, as well as educational material, books, and student discounts on professional software like Final Draft.
Universities often organise introductory meetings and pitching sessions with production companies. Which you would have a hard time accessing if you were starting out on your own.
That said, it is a serious financial investment. You might be able to obtain student financing or a scholarship. But even so there is no guarantee you’ll be making back the money you invested – not immediately, at least.
There’s no rule or perfect trajectory on how to become a screenwriter. If you need encouragement to branch out independently, celebrated screenwriters like Tarantino and The Wachowskis sisters never went to college. What can you do instead?
You might have a connection in the industry already and use that to score an internship in a production company. Or perhaps a runner role or similar entry-level job on sets.
Don’t forget screenwriting is based on quite strict rules. You’re probably familiar with the words inciting incident, midpoint, climax… Narratives rely on some fixed points to allow the conflict to evolve.
It goes without saying that certain stories work precisely because they “break the rules”, but it’s important to know them before breaking them.
It might therefore be helpful to invest in screenwriting guides. Once you learn the tricks, you’ll start picking them up in all the films you watch.
Read lots of screenplays and try to narrow down which genres resonate with you the most. Join networking groups. Eventually, once you feel confident enough about your writing, consider reaching out to a script editing service to receive professional feedback on your screenplays.
Some of these services are incorporated within screenplay contests, such as Shore Scripts or ScreenCraft, which means paying the submission fee guarantees a double service.
Professional script editing is truly valuable for both new and established screenwriters. It will highlight which areas need the most work and the amount of editing that is needed before the screenplay is up to the industry’s standards.
A good way to get your name out in the industry is to submit to screenplay contests and festivals. This will require a monetary investment. But placing well within these contests can offer credibility when approaching agents or funding opportunities.
You can also decide to invest in your own screenplay and get it produced. This is usually more achievable with short films, which require a smaller budget. Shooting a short film is a great first step in getting to know other filmmakers. The final product will also serve as a calling card for your writing.
Growing your career is about getting your name out there and building a reputation in the industry. Whether that’s through winning contests, self-funded projects or being selected for a prestigious program (such as Sundance Screenwriting Lab). Those in charge of commissioning projects need to be able to see a commitment to the screenwriting career path.
It’s also important to decide which area you want to specialise in: do you want to write features or work in a TV writers’ room? Are you a horror or comedy writer?
As we’ve seen, it’s now easier to work across multiple avenues. But, if you’re starting out, a consistent track record and clear goal will prove trustworthy.
So let’s say you’ve given it thought, you’d ve done the research, you finally hit a turning point in your life and decided that screenwriting is what you’re meant to do. How long will that take to become a screenwriter? The realistic answer is that there is no fixed rule.
Regardless of how talented you are, the rejection letters will pile up. Just as it’s impossible for you to like every film that has ever been made, your writing will not always work for everyone. There’s also a good deal of luck involved. Such as your project ending up in the right hands at the right time. Hiring an agent to represent you also helps to get access to gigs that would not be open to unrepresented writers.
Although it might feel disheartening to see other screenwriters get their break when they’re only in their twenties, there are several examples of well-known writers who got their first commission later in life.
David Seidler won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay at the age of 73. If you feel this is what’s right for you, you shouldn’t give up! It’s also worth noting that nobody gets to decide when you’re officially a screenwriter.
Technically, the moment you’ve completed a screenplay, that’s the job you just executed. It’s not easy to turn the stories in your head into a universal narrative.
Of course, having your work commissioned means you’re allowed to turn your passion into a paid profession, but a strong passion for the craft should always be your guiding force as you navigate the highs and lows of the industry.
This was our guide on how to become a screenwriter! We hope that you found this article useful. Are you a screenwriter? Let us know your experiences in the comments below! Also, don’t forget to share this guide across your socials and tag us @musicgateway!
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