It is funny, but no matter how far along you get in your career as a writer, you are constantly looking for the “secret” or that one piece of advice that will solve all your problems. I say this, because I have been supporting myself solely as a writer for the past ten years, and I am endlessly looking for advice! I often find it in the form of screenwriting books or friends, but know that even if you are a “professional” you often look to others to see if you are on the right path. I think this is so because every script is different, but there is always ONE problem with it. I can’t tell you what that is, because that ONE problem always changes.
So, I thought I would give you, dear aspiring writers, the "advice" that I dole out when young writers ask me. I am a mentor to one Florida State University student a year, and when asked for guidance there are certain things I always tell them. Instead of giving you generic advice on dialogue or structure, I thought I would compile my list of "to do’s" that I am always trying to do myself, but telling others to do.
1) WRITE AN OUTLINE FIRST I know, you don’t want to hear this, I didn’t want to hear this. No one wants to hear this. I have worked in television, and as part of your contract they make you write an outline. This is true whether you sell a pilot or work on a show. I have also irritatingly enough found this to be true for features. Some producers and some production companies make you hand in an outline or beat sheet before progressing to the script stage. I suggest the book Save The Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You'll Ever Need by Blake Snyder. He has come up with a great beat sheet formula that I think works very well. I have to at least have that beat sheet before launching into a script; otherwise you will write yourself into circles. You may want to do that, and then use that crazy first draft to then find a structure, but trust me, it’s easier if you know what the beginning, middle, end and turning are before beginning your script. My first step is to do character work first, think of all the funny things your character might do, what their background is like, how they talk etc., I will write “free form” and just write down whatever comes into my head. Once I know who the characters are, I start outlining.
2) FINISH YOUR FIRST DRAFT What does that mean? You might be asking yourselves why I would include such an obvious piece of advice that is so obvious it isn’t even advice. Well… I find with young writers that they will get close to finishing a draft, and then realize that a different story would be better. Or, they should make the boyfriend a brother, or they should change the point of view, or the main character, or the city or the ending—whatever—what I’m trying to say is—FINISH YOUR FIRST DRAFT before trying to change anything. If you have a story about a boy who runs away to join the circus, finish that idea/draft/screenplay before changing it to a boy who runs away to join a rock band. I think what we all try to do is procrastinate by changing it—you avoid finishing it. It is okay and actually expected, to have a terrible first draft. We all do. I promise you I have written some HORRIBLE first drafts. But the only way to get to a good second, third or tenth great draft is to finish the first horrible one.
3) START A WRITER’S GROUP Get a few people together who like to write. I find that having a writer’s group is incredibly helpful to getting better. I suggest keeping it to about five to six people and meet say once a week. Finding good readers, or any readers, can be difficult, so create a group. If you don’t know anyone local, try the internet to find someone and e-mail drafts back and forth. Having a group read your work, and you reading other people’s work is invaluable. If more than one person has a problem with something I’ve written, then I admit that there is a better way to do it, something that needs to be fixed. If two people don’t understand the third act, or get a joke, or like a character—well, it’s probably true.
Your writer’s group should be a SUPPORTIVE one. You are not there to tear down each other’s work. You are there to give each other constructive criticism that will make their work better. You may not (and probably this is a good thing) all write the same kind of screenplays. You need to be able to help one another reach the goal of making their story work. The flipside to that is don’t be defensive when getting criticism. I’m not saying you will agree with all of the notes, but figure out how you can take that criticism and make a better script!
4) READ AS MANY SCREENPLAYS AS POSSIBLE Read real screenplays, in screenplay format. Now that there is that nifty internet, it is really easy to download scripts for free. Dailyscript.com is one of the great sites. Find scripts that are in your genre and study them.
5) REWRITING IS WRITING As long as you finish that first draft, get it out of the way, know that screenwriting is really rewriting, as painful and laborious as that may sound, it is true. Screenwriting is very much about structure. Again, I think Save The Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You'll Ever Need is great because he talks about structure in a way that is much better than I can, but screenplays really do adhere to a structure that can be learned and employed into your own ideas. I don’t think that this cuts down on creativity, if anything, the fact that there is a structure in place gives you the freedom to be creative with character.
Structure by the way, supports character. You want to create a structure that builds. You want to have a structure that shows change and growth in character. You also want to have a structure that lets the reader know you know what you are doing. If you have a 50 page first act and a ten page third act, well, that’s just wrong.
6) KEEP AT IT Hollywood is really a 5-10 year town. Very, very, very few people make it right out of the gate. For every Diablo Cody, there are thousands of people who took seven years of writing to make it. Everyone wants to be the Diablo Cody, but know that if you really work at your craft, have great ideas and talent, you can make it. Everyone is on their own path, so don’t judge your journey by someone else’s itinerary!
GOOD LUCK AND ENJOY!
Melissa Carter graduated from The Florida State University's Film School M.F.A. program in 1996. Her student thesis film Used Cars was a student academy award finalist in 1997 and sold to Revolution Studios to became the film Little Black Book in 1999. She has sold six original television pilots, sold the feature spec Parental Guidance, and has worked as a writer/producer on two television shows, both Life as We Know It for ABC and Yes Dear for CBS. She is currently in pre-production to film her first pilot for Fox 21/Lifetime called Mistresses.