CreativityEngaging CultureMedia Production

Writing A Screenplay? It’s Tougher Than You Think. Here’s Why:

Although we don’t ask for them, hardly a week goes by that we don’t receive a movie script, reality show concept, or other media project at our offices in Los Angeles. When it comes to screenplays, it seems everyone is writing them, and most are convinced their first one will be a box office success. But the truth is – rarely are they worth reading at all.  That’s why I was fascinated with Steven Shapin’s comment while reviewing a book on the history of science: “There’s a story told about a distinguished cardiac surgeon who, about to retire, decided he’d like to take up the history of medicine. He sought out a historian friend and asked her if she had any tips for him. The historian said she’d be happy to help but first asked the surgeon a reciprocal favor: “As it happens, I’m about to retire too, and I’m thinking of taking up heart surgery. Do you have any tips for me?”

The same could be said for screenwriting.  Heart surgeons, pilots, army generals, college professors, pastors, and plenty of others never think twice about sitting down and writing a screenplay with absolutely no practice or training. But those same experts would never consider the idea of a screenwriter becoming a heart surgeon, pilot, army general, professor or pastor with no training in those fields.

Regarding the history professor, Shapin goes on to say: “The story is probably apocryphal, but it displays a real asymmetry between two expert practices. The surgeon knows that his skills are specialized and that they’re difficult to acquire, but he doesn’t think that the historian’s skills are anything like that. He assumes that writing history is pretty straightforward and that being a 21st-century surgeon gives you a leg up in documenting and interpreting, for example, theories of fever in the 17th century. Yet not every kind of technical expertise stands in this relation with the telling of its history. Modern installation artists don’t think they can produce adequate scholarly studies of Dutch Golden Age paintings, and it’s hard to find offensive linemen parading their competence in the writing the history of rugby.”

You get the point.  Screenwriting takes skill, training, practice, and more practice. If you don’t have it, then get it. The Act One Program in Hollywood is a great place to start. It’s one of the most highly regarded screenwriting programs in the country, and if you’re serious about your craft, I’d check them out today. But wherever you decide to train, do it. Start investing in yourself and in your future.

Creating the blueprint for a motion picture is more difficult and challenging than you may expect. Before you become an architect for a film, learn the building process.

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9 Comments

  1. I love to travel, been on hundreds of planes, and have a decent understanding of the concepts behind lift and aerodynamics… guess that makes me a pilot, eh?

  2. In my experience of mentoring and teaching screenwriting, I can’t begin to tell you how much push back I’ve gotten from people who expect to compose astounding scripts with total disregard for rules, formatting, and structure. Storming the castle unaware of the mote that’s waiting to drown them.
    (Of course, I was the same way in my screenwriting class! Thank goodness my professor put me in my place early on!)

  3. After writing/editing/ghostwriting more than 250 books professionally, I was shocked to learn that if I ventured out of nonfiction to write a fiction piece, I would be considered a beginner by the industry. Why? Even such a subtle shift within a field presents a new set of rules, secrets of the craft. Screenwriting adds skills in non-verbal characterization, stage craft, and pacing and much more.

  4. recently submitted a script to act one in hollywood…..a staff member called me back and spent over a n hour with me going over constructive notes……as a 79 grad of ORU nice to see a company in hollywood geared towards christian themes……god bless

  5. Earlier this month I submitted my first children’s picture book manuscript, but lately have become acutely aware that my story idea of many years is probably outdated and too simple, as compared to the exotic fantasy level of today’s stories. Worse yet, I sometimes feel that perhaps my skill level is below what is required, compared to published authors. While I agree that training of some level is necessary (not only for the sake of writing, but in order to learn the business end of publishing, as they say), if artists through the centuries relied on training before they ever put a brush or pen to paper, the world’s museums and libraries would be empty – as the saying, goes, there is nothing better than an original idea. Your comparison of surgeons and pilots is over-stated – in both cases human life is at stake, while a bad screenplay at worse would mean the play closes after the first night, or in my case the picture book never gets published. I understand your concern or frustration, but you sound more like the voice of discouragement…

    1. There’s a difference between the voice of discouragement and the voice of reality. If human life being at stake were the only requirement for training, then teachers wouldn’t have to have a degree, attorneys wouldn’t need to pass a bar, and concert pianists wouldn’t need lessons. Do some homework and you’ll see just how much training artists through the centuries actually had. Take a class, work with a mentor, and most of all write. If God has given you a miraculous gift, then great. But if not, I’d start putting in the time to learn.

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