Five Myths of Being a Screenwriter

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So, you want to be a screenwriter? Congratulations. Becoming a screenwriter is the most incredible, challenging, rewarding, disappointing, exciting, rollercoaster ride of self-discovery you’ll ever take.

No matter how your career turns out, it’s worth it. That said, your life is a precious thing and the choices you make stay with you and not everyone wants to spend their life on a rollercoaster. Here are five myths about being a screenwriter.

No. 1 — You don’t have to write that much

Screenplays are short. Ninety pages. A hundred. And there’s all that empty space on the page. They’re nothing like novels where you need a lot more pages and a lot more words. How hard can it be? Very. Writing short is often harder than writing long. George Bernard Shaw once apologized for writing a very long letter by saying he didn’t have time to write a shorter one.

Writing is something that almost everyone thinks they’d be good at. The reason for this is that everyone is a consumer of story. People mistakenly think that because they’re good at experiencing story – and talking about it, and considering it, and even arguing about it – that they could write a story. This is why you’ll meet a lot of people who talk about being writers – but don’t write. Or people who say they’d love to write something, if they only had the time. Or worse, people who have an idea and would like you to write it for them and split the profits—because, in their mind, having an idea is the hard part.

But the reality of the situation is that writers write. It is a vital, necessary part of who we are. We do it whether there’s a point or not. It is its own point. Now, if you’re just starting out and you haven’t written much or anything at all, I’m not saying you can’t be a screenwriter. I am saying you won’t be a screenwriter if you don’t write.

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No. 2 — It doesn’t take a lot of time to write a script

If your fantasy is to spend a few months writing a script, a few months sending it out to agents, a few more months getting it sold to a studio, and then a few months after that starting production… well, good luck. The reality is it can, and usually does, take years to master the art of writing a screenplay, a ridiculously long time to get a good agent, and sometimes years to get a script sold. And then even more years before you begin production. Many films take a decade to get from the writer’s first spark of an idea to the big screen.

Yes, you will occasionally read stories about writers who wrote their scripts quickly and then sold them quickly. The reason those stories are written about is because they’re unusual. Fast in Hollywood is not the norm. You have to be patient. Screenwriting isn’t about instant gratification.

No. 3 — Movies are easy to make

When I was in film school at UCLA, the head of our department would say that screenwriters didn’t fail, they just gave up. Screenwriters face a lot of rejection. That may seem like an unfair thing to say, since I don’t know you, nor have I read the screenplay you have or will one day have written.

But here’s what I know—everyone gets rejected. Great writers get rejection letters. Great scripts get passed on. It’s the way of the world. To be screenwriter, you have to be stubborn enough to say, “This is a good story,” no matter how many times your script gets turned down. You have to keep going, no matter what.

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No. 4 — I won’t have to sell myself, my agent will do that for me

Most writers spend a lot of time alone writing. In fact, not getting enough alone time can make us grumpy.

This is certainly true of screenwriters, until they begin to succeed. Success for the screenwriter brings a lot of meetings, a lot of notes, and the sudden recognition of something you only kind of knew, filmmaking is collaborative. If you aren’t good at meeting strangers, suddenly you need to be. If you aren’t good at playing with others, well, all at once you need to be.

Yes, your agent is there to sell you. But first you have to sell yourself to your agent. And one of the things they’ll want to know is how well you can sell yourself to other people in the industry.

No. 5 — Screenwriting is a get rich quick career move 

The large amount of money Hollywood will sometimes pay for a screenplay is often publicized. And can be very, very tempting. But… go back to number one and number two and look at the amount of time that can be involved writing that great script.

First scripts rarely sell in the seven figures. In fact, first scripts usually don’t get much more than scale (which can be as low as $46,695.) Divide that over the amount of time it took you to learn to write a screenplay and the time it took to write and sell your screenplay, and it’s not a lot of money.

No one should be a screenwriter for the money. There are only two reasons to be a screenwriter. One is that you adore films and cannot imagine a life in which you’re not involved with making films in some way shape or form. And the other is that writing is it for you, you’re the kind of person who can honestly say that stability and a nice safe, easy life don’t really appeal to you. Simply put, you are a writer.

Whether you’re just starting out or have been writing for a while, let us know what other myths about screenwriting that aren’t exactly true.

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Marshall Thornton has an MFA from UCLA in screenwriting. He spent ten years writing spec scripts and has been a semi-finalist or better in the Nicholl, Samuel Goldwyn, American Accolades, One-In-Ten and Austin Film Festival contests. As a novelist, he writes the Lambda Award-winning Boystown Mysteries. The eight book series follows the cases of a gay detective in turbulent 1980s Chicago. Marshall has also been known to write the occasional romantic comedy. You can find him online at marshallthorntonauthor.com. You can follow him on Twitter: @mrshllthornton

30 Replies to "Five Myths of Being a Screenwriter"

  • comment-avatar
    Garfield November 21, 2016 (5:58 am)

    These are very good tip’s ! As anyone can tell my grammer , spelling and puncutation is not good. Well that is ok by me but I will have to have help on these part’s . I still have stories I want to tell as a screenwriter. I may never succeed but I will keep trying and I will get help on things that I can not do. Just because a person has shortcomings dose this you should give up. Not if you really love what you are doing. this dose not mean you cannot fix them or work around them. Thank you for this email Garfield

    • comment-avatar
      Marshall Thornton November 21, 2016 (6:55 am)

      On the fiction side of things they now suggest you have your book edited before you try to find an agent. If you know you have challenges that may not be a bad idea for screenwriters.

      • comment-avatar
        Eva December 4, 2016 (5:30 am)

        Thanks for this great article. I ha e the same situation with the grammar. Where I can find a good editor for a screenplay? Thanks in advance.

        • comment-avatar
          Marshall Thornton December 4, 2016 (5:39 am)

          I don’t know any editors who deal with screenplays offhand. One of the best ways to find editors is, of course, word of mouth. I’d suggest looking for screenwriting groups on Facebook or Google+ or anyplace else that has groups focused on screenwriters supporting each other. Joining those groups would give you an opportunity to ask around for recommendations. Of course, you could google freelance editors but I don’t know that you’d get the most trustworthy results.

          • comment-avatar
            Eva December 4, 2016 (6:04 am)

            Thank you so much for your time and advice, I will. Happy holidays!

  • comment-avatar
    gkn November 21, 2016 (6:34 am)

    Excellent article. Every newbie needs to read it!

    The only myth I noticed is the attribution of that quote to George Bernard Shaw. It’s also been attributed to Churchill many times. But Voltaire said it 150 years earlier, and both of them read Voltaire. (Now whether Voltaire was citing some earlier writer, I can’t tell you!)

    • comment-avatar
      Marshall Thornton November 21, 2016 (6:54 am)

      Thanks for the comment. I did suspect that Shaw quote had been attributed around… it certainly strengthens the point if everyone wants to claim it.

  • comment-avatar
    Anton S.Jayaraj November 21, 2016 (6:54 am)

    Thanks for a really nice essay clearing myths on screenwriting. But, to say the truth, the real reason most writers are involved in screenwriting is not for money, but for the enjoyment they achieve in creating a new film the story of which is known only to them. We want to tell our stories loud to all people of the world. Film is a magnificent and powerful medium and it is sheer pleasure to be able to be a part of this medium. And, when we give a nice film, we create a name for ourselves in the film world and it will make us popular and that popularity will lead us to further success stories.

    • comment-avatar
      Marshall Thornton November 21, 2016 (6:58 am)

      Thanks for the comment. I have met people in workshops who think screenwriting is an easy route to a pot of gold. They do tend to drop out quickly. Real writers aren’t in it for the money–which is not to say we don’t deserve it!

  • comment-avatar
    Patricia Poulos November 21, 2016 (7:01 am)

    Thank you.

  • comment-avatar
    Gary Logsted November 21, 2016 (9:35 am)

    I’m not sure whether this is a myth or just an evil perception I’ve fostered over the years, but here goes: One can write a good script and have it produced for the silver screen without a desire to make screenwriting a career.

    I’ve been writing for about a dozen years, written six feature length scripts, and have (dare I say) gotten better along the way. But for me, one of the most disheartening things is “the industry’s” seemingly constant focus on career development. From everything I’ve read, it seems agents and such are primarily interested in young bucks wanting to build a lengthy screenwriting career.

    I have many creative pursuits, a successful business elsewhere, am getting up there in age, and don’t see myself embracing a new career at this point. For me, ultimate success in screenwriting would be seeing one of my scripts produced and in theaters.

    But then one wonders whether my approach is plausible, given that I may be up against the myth of part-timer success.

    • comment-avatar
      Marshall Thornton November 21, 2016 (10:03 am)

      Thanks for the comment. First, I should say that everyone’s path is unique and no two people sell a script in exactly the same way. The thing to remember is that executing a screenplay is much harder than having an idea for a movie. Execution is the real talent, and that’s why agents and such are inclined to people in it for the long haul. It may takes years to write a decent script but it takes a few days for the studios to reject it because it’s too much like something else they have. That’s why it’s important to have more than one script so that when you get their interest you keep it. It’s also important to remember that spec scripts are a small part of the market. The majority of the work is assignments: adaptations and rewrites.

    • comment-avatar
      John November 25, 2016 (1:32 pm)

      Gary, a while back I went to a panel discussion in LA for aspiring screenwriters. One of the things that came out from the managers at the table was that they were looking for writers that they could develop a 25 or more year long career. The subtext reason was that they were looking for clients that could generate income for them and their agencies for a 25 year or more time period, whereas agents were just looking for a quick sale. Being that I am also getting up there in my years (I’m in my 50’s) I’m primarily interested in that quick sale rather than the career development concept.

      Many actors write as a way to remain creative, and relevant, in between roles. So it’s a part-time gig for them, too. If a screenplay that they write becomes a produced film, so much the better.

      My goal is to be able to buy a ticket at my local cineplex and watch a film for which I wrote the screenplay. A second goal is if a film is produced from a script that I wrote that it doesn’t lose money. It really doesn’t need to make money, just don’t lose it, opening the door for paid assignments or another spec sale. Let’s be honest, I can use the money but that’s not the ultimate goal. Telling a good story is.

  • comment-avatar
    CityOfAngels.Us November 21, 2016 (10:26 am)

    That Shaw quote has been attributed the @#$% out of! I heard it came from Lincoln!

    • comment-avatar
      Marshall Thornton November 21, 2016 (12:37 pm)

      Yeah, it’s really not an uncommon idea so I think many of the people it’s attributed to have said something similar.

  • comment-avatar
    Arthur November 21, 2016 (12:26 pm)

    hey Marshall, this such a great article. I went to UCLA’s Professional Program in Screenwriting (so we probably know some similar folks) and spent years juggling classes, spec scripts, projects, and day jobs to discover these same things you mentioned.

    One myth I learned is that your script has to be perfect. Perfection is a myopia that stymies production and creativity. However, your script does have to be as good as it can be to elicit the project. This process constantly continues from inception to rewrites to shooting to editing and your script is one step in this development. Your script is not stagnant yet part of the bigger, collaborative derivation of the film (which you alluded to). I’ve met writers who are so stuck on perfectionism and unwilling to let go of their words. But you got to be willing to adapt and choose your battles.

    • comment-avatar
      Marshall Thornton November 21, 2016 (12:37 pm)

      Loved the Professional Program, which I went through before getting into the MFA program. Yeah, perfection is an interesting thing to think about with screenplays. Obviously your script has to be great, but since it’s a collaborative process producers, actors, studios and directors are going to come along and change it. The closer you think it is to perfection the harder that will be. Good point.

  • comment-avatar
    Bonnie Bayne November 22, 2016 (8:10 am)

    Good article. Full of truth. I’ve been writing screenplays for a long time. I love entering contests, getting feed-back when it’s offered and the joy of developing characters and stories. A screenplay just makes sense to me. Nothing wasted. Nothing is in it that isn’t needed. Just sayin’

    • comment-avatar
      Marshall Thornton November 22, 2016 (8:39 am)

      Thanks. You’re right a screenplay is a very elegant form. Which should get more credit on its own.

  • comment-avatar
    Risto Rumpunen November 23, 2016 (7:00 am)

    Interesting and good essay that made me think why in the first place I wanted to write screenplays. I have now written a few, optioned a screenplay and received grants to write three of them but none of them have made into a film, not yet. Whilst I have written my screenplays on spec I have published three books (two non-fiction and a novel, sorry in a foreign language to most of who are reading this) and hundreds newspaper and magazine articles but still deep in my heart I would really prefer to write screenplays and I wonder why. After reading your essay I realized it, I still dream of those moments when I can see my visions, my creation concrete and visualized by others, craving to know how other people see things that I have created. To me this is an interesting paradox. From my experience I already know that my writing has influenced people, had an impact but I still don’t really know how people have seen things that I have seen.

    • comment-avatar
      Marshall Thornton November 23, 2016 (7:10 am)

      Thanks for the comment and congrats on your successes. Remembering why you want to do this is always a great thing to do. Happy holidays.

  • comment-avatar
    Said Dibinga November 23, 2016 (9:20 pm)

    Amen. Amen. Amen. Gret nsight into the world of screenwritting. I’ shard this aritle with quite a few freinds so as to give them a glimpse into our writers world.

    • comment-avatar
      Said Dibinga November 23, 2016 (9:22 pm)

      Great* insight* . Please excuse the typo in my previous post, I have a cast on my arm.

  • comment-avatar
    Michael November 25, 2016 (10:38 am)

    Excellent article. I started this journey in 2001. Almost broke through in 04, 10,11 and optioned a sci fi script in 2013. They’re still trying to get funding in place. Roswell tells the truth about the alien that survived that famous crash.

    Keep plugging away, N.O. means Next Opportunity. 🙏😎❤👍

    • comment-avatar
      Marshall Thornton November 25, 2016 (10:45 am)

      Thanks for the comment. You’ll get where you want to go.

  • comment-avatar
    Cobalt Blue November 27, 2016 (6:25 pm)

    I’ve been told by other writers that I can’t be a writer, because I don’t smoke cigarettes or drink wine. (As if that’s what creativity is made up of)

    • comment-avatar
      Marshall Thornton November 28, 2016 (3:08 pm)

      lol… I’m sure you’ll do fine without either of those things.

  • comment-avatar
    Karen Crider December 5, 2016 (3:09 pm)

    I’m a newby to screen writing. I’m amazed by the varied comments about the craft. I have been curious about it in the past, resulting in my attending a workshop. One guy on the panel said, if your screen play was optioned, you would be lucky to have two words in it that were actually yours. I ran, cause I thought what is the point? It has taken me this long to venture back. I love to write. I find this genre to be the most demanding, time consuming , never ending art I have ever slipped into. Maybe, it will be awhile before I run again. I like the challenge. I have left several sites because of the negativity. If others feel this way, why do they stay?

  • comment-avatar
    Rick Eager December 6, 2016 (6:04 pm)

    Wow. There are quite a lot of words of wisdom in all of the above. In the article itself, I could see myself, as if you were describing me, as if you really knew me… and knew me on an intimate writer’s level! I once met another writer early in my career who had been at it for a long time. I asked her if she felt selfish for needing the alone time, or felt bad for taking it, because I felt bad for taking it away from my wife and son (maybe that’s the reason for the wine/booze.) She looked at me with a real serious look, then said, I have a sign on my office door. It says, “Don’t knock, unless there’s blood.” I had to laugh. I thought I was the only one who felt this way. I too, have been at it for about 17 years now. I have a book, 12 completed screenplays, almost had a deal at Universal in 2004, and have since had 3 scripts go into some level of production in the last few years, but… I’ve still not seen my work up on any screen yet. I, like Gary, and the others (above) feel some disconnect between a good screenplay I’ve written, the person reading it and getting it produced. After writing 12 scripts, I think I can say, I think I have learned to be a half way good writer. But just because it’s a great script, it might not be what they want, or the flavor of the month. I always offer to make changes and even do rewrites… Even though I’m not feeling the love (or the compensation) I MUST GO ON! If you feel this way… then you’re a REAL WRITER! Enjoy your writing… open that new Final Draft file for the story you’ve been pondering. There’s nothing like staring at the flashing curser after you’ve just typed, “FADE IN.” You’ve stood in line thinking about it. Just just boarded the rollercoaster. Pull down the safety bar for the wild ride that’s sure to ensue. It’s the excitement of the mental dance. Your mind bouncing in 37 directions all at once… at warp speed. Not knowing when or were the actual final draft of your script will arrive to take you on your’s life journey. Who you might meet along the way. Both new friends… and foes. My scripts have always take on a destiny of their own… so put yours out there. Enjoy the scenery on your life’s journey! It might just be a career for you… paid… or not!

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