I had a chance to speak at a DC Film Salon panel on screenwriting. It was a really interesting session, with lots of great questions from the audience. This is the advice I provided.
I won the Film DC Screenwriting Competition in 2006 for my feature-length screenplay, Mount Pleasant. Since then, people have asked me about screenwriting, what software I use, if I took classes, etc… How’d I do it?
It’s simple, really. Just two steps:
My screenwriting journey began when I friend of mine gave me a couple of scripts to read. We had been in a writers’ workshop together, discussing short stories in a basement conference room. She shared with me the classic of the genre which, believe it or not, is the script for Rocky. Yo! It is the archetypal hero’s journey.
Luckily these days, plenty of scripts are online at sites such as Simply Scripts. Find the scripts from your favorite films and read them. I read a bunch of them – On the Waterfront, Taxi Driver, Swingers, Raising Arizona, Fisher King.
Don’t read too many books about screenwriting. There are scores of books about how to market your script, how to beat the Hollywood reader, how to “save the cat”, to make your script as perfectly structured as a the Empire State Building. Avoid these prescriptive tomes, for they will lead to paralysis, as you try to follow someone else’s vision rather than your own.
Your job is to write. It’s a lonely calling, requiring you to spend hours in front of a computer. Find the method that works for you, whether it’s waking up early to craft that screenplay or escaping to some coffeeshop to do some work.
It’s astonishing to me the number of people who have ideas for screenplays but don’t actually write them. We could examine the reasons for that (see the excellent but oddly out of print On Writer’s Block for an examination of the psychological perils of creativity). Yes, your script will never be as good as the perfect vision in your head but isn’t it better to get it done?
Mount Pleasant began for me as a novel. I knew the story from my time in DC (racial conflict in a gentrifying neighborhood). I did further research, created descriptions of my characters and wrote a detailed outline. After fifty pages of writing, however, I ran out of steam.
A couple of years later, I met a couple of filmmakers who were looking for someone to edit their script. It was a romantic comedy set in DC. Prior to this, I had always been a bit puzzled by the screenplay format. However, after reading their script, which featured people and situations so familiar to me, it was like a lightbulb went on. I can do this, I thought.
I got to work in turning my novel into a script. I got to around page 30 and then got stuck again.
The F. Scott Fitzgerald Literary Conference was coming up. There was a workshop on screenwriting and you only had to supply the first ten pages of your script for review. Perfect! That was about all I had.
During the workshop, the instructor brought up my screenplay first. She said, “Joe obviously knows a lot about screenwriting.” Which made me laugh but also convinced me that I better finish this script.
It was an on and off process that took about a year but I did eventually complete Mount Pleasant.
Random Bits of Advice
Software – Final Draft is a bloated beast created by a company that could give Microsoft a run for their money in terms of pure evil. Instead, check out Celtx or, if you’re a Mac user, the elegant Montage.
Classes – Is it worth taking a class on screenwriting? Yes. I like the Writers Center in Bethesda. Also, check out WIFV, which has a screenwriters’ group. Is it worth taking dozens of classes, year after year, and hardly writing anything? No. Your job is to write.
Community – The DC area is packed with filmmakers. You can learn a lot from watching how the sausage gets made. Take part in the madness that is the 48 Hour Film Project. Volunteer with DC Shorts to judge film or screenplay submissions. Come to the DC Film Salon and meet other creative artists.
Contests – Winning a contest confers credibility. But it doesn’t guarantee anything. I won the Film DC Competition and had an eye-opening visit to the set of the West Wing. It lead to my greater involvement with the local film community. But my script was never turned into a movie. My advice is to enter contests selectively. Enter the really big ones that will make a difference (Austin, Nicholls) and target smaller competitions that are well-suited for your script (like the Kairos Prize for religious stories or DC Shorts if you’re a local writer).
Conferences – Like with classes, you could spend your life going to writing conferences without ever actually writing anything. ScriptDC is a great local conference that is inexpensive and well-worth attending. I also enjoyed the Austin Film Festival, but I love everything in that city.
In conclusion, if you can tell a story with a beginning, middle and end, then you can write a screenplay. It’s a matter of learning the form and then actually doing it. Which is the hardest part of all.