How Screenwriters Work


Screenwriters like Catherine Johnson, here at the "Mama Mia" premiere, write television and movie scripts. See more movie making pictures.
© Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images

Every summer, thousands upon thousands of bright-eyed college graduates migrate to Los Angeles with the dream of becoming screenwriters. They get underpaid jobs as office temps, production assistants, executive secretaries and personal slaves to the stars, all with the hope that one day, somehow, someone will read their script and say, "Kid, welcome to Hollywood."

Screenwriters are the people who create movie and television scripts. Behind every hit TV show or box office flop is a screenwriter or team of screenwriters. You might think that your favorite actor is witty, savvy and smooth, but 90 percent of his charm comes from the laptop of some lady in Santa Monica. Screenwriters may not be household names, but they get paid well to do what they do, even though very few people are successful at it.

According to 2005 statistics from the Writers Guild of America, West (WGAw), there are slightly less than 8,000 WGAw members and only 4,281 of them are employed [source: Writers Guild of America]. So in all of Hollywood, there are less than 5,000 people writing for all the scripted TV shows and movies at any given time. In other words, don't quit your day job.

But there's something undeniably exciting about being at the heart of the creative process. The dialogue you type on your computer screen might be spoken by world-famous actors. Your detailed scene descriptions might be transformed into special-effects spectacles. And someday, this humble 135-page script tied together with brass tacks might be a blockbuster movie seen by millions.

What exactly are some of the different types of screenwriters? How do they break into the business? And what are the tools of the trade? Keep reading to find out more.

Types of Screenwriters

Some screenwriters write for TV and some write for movies. Sony's Matt Tolmach, left, with director/screenwriter Adam McKay at the "Step Brothers" premiere.
Some screenwriters write for TV and some write for movies. Sony's Matt Tolmach, left, with director/screenwriter Adam McKay at the "Step Brothers" premiere.
© Todd Williamson/WireImage/ Getty Images

A screenwriter is a screenwriter is a screenwriter. It's what they write that's different. Many screenwriters can write for TV, film, comedies and dramas, but the way they approach the work changes considerably with the specific type of project.

TV comedy writers, for example, not only have to be funny, but they also have to be able to work in a highly collaborative, sometimes pressure-filled environment. Sitcom screenwriting is a group effort. A typical sitcom might have 10 or 12 full-time staff writers. Most of their day is spent in the writers' room, a large conference room where the writers meet to brainstorm story ideas, beat out the plot points for each episode, pitch jokes and continuously revise scripts until they're ready to be shot.

Once an episode has been outlined in detail by the whole group, one writer or writing team is assigned to write the first draft of the script. When the script is finally shot weeks or months later, it will have undergone so many revisions that it might not even resemble the original version. For this reason, TV comedy writers need thick skins to avoid getting hurt or angry when their best jokes are cut by a studio executive or shot down by a senior writer. In other words, there's not a lot of personal ownership in TV comedy screenwriting. It's all about being part of the team.

TV drama screenwriting is also highly team-oriented, but writers have a little more ownership of their individual scripts. On some TV dramas, the show runner or executive producer actually writes all of the episodes and then has the staff writers help revise and punch them up. On other shows, it's the opposite, with staff writers writing individual episodes and the show runner revising them all himself. Either way, when a TV drama screenwriter is credited with an episode, you can be sure that at least some of the lines were actually written by that person, which isn't the case with TV comedy screenwriters.

Feature film screenwriters are much more solitary creatures. Film screenwriters work closely with directors and producers to develop an idea, but once the story and characters are defined, the screenwriter is allowed to go off and write more or less in peace. Of course, he may be asked to submit several revisions before the script is accepted. A screenwriter may work for years on a single script, but the compensation is considerable.

For films produced by major Hollywood studios, it's not uncommon for several screenwriters to be credited with the same script. Unless two of those writers are a writing team, it's unlikely that any of them actually worked together on the script. More often than not, a single screenwriter was originally hired to write the script, then other screenwriters were brought in to punch it up. Maybe some romantic dialogue needed re-working or some of the jokes were falling flat. Sometimes punch-up writers aren't credited at all.

Now let's tackle the toughest topic of all: how to break into the screenwriting business.

How to Become a Screenwriter

Screenwriters like Shane Black, left, and Syd Field, right, honed their skills at workshops and classes. Field's screenwriting books are very popular.
Screenwriters like Shane Black, left, and Syd Field, right, honed their skills at workshops and classes. Field's screenwriting books are very popular.
© Kevin Winter/ImageDirect/Getty Images

Becoming a screenwriter starts with developing your talent as a writer, and the best way to develop your talent as a writer is to -- you guessed it -- write. Your first project doesn't need to be a screenplay or TV script. You just need to start somewhere; essays, short stories, plays, et cetera. The idea is to become comfortable with the writing process -- a surprisingly slow and frustrating experience -- and find what they call your "voice." Over time, you'll discover if your talents lie primarily with comedy, drama or some combination of the two.

Some people find it helpful to develop their writing skills in a structured educational setting, whether it's a college course, a film school program, or an online writing workshop. The advantage of taking a class is that there are deadlines and grades motivating you to sit down and get to work. At film school, in particular, you also have access to a community of artists, writers and filmmakers from which to draw inspiration and fresh ideas. And if you're lucky, friends and connections you make in film school could lead to your first industry job.

But formal classes and degrees are certainly not required to become a screenwriter. You can create your own personal film school, renting and studying the greatest films and TV shows. There are several free and pay Web sites for reading film and TV scripts online. And there's no shortage of books written for aspiring screenwriters. The most famous is Syd Field's "Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting." Since digital video technology is so affordable, you can always get together with a group of friends and write and produce your own films to gain experience.

When it's time to get serious about your career, you'll have to move where the jobs are. In the United States, that's Los Angeles, and to a lesser extent New York City. Once you relocate, your goal is to get an entry-level job with a production that most closely matches your professional interests and talents. For example, if you want to write for sitcoms, try to get a job as a production assistant (PA), writer's assistant or studio runner on a show. If you're more interested in writing dramatic feature films, try to get a PA or script-reading job with a production company that makes the kind of movies you'd like to write.

In your spare time, you need to write one or more spec scripts, completed TV scripts or screenplays that show off your best work. For TV, the spec script should be for an existing, well-known TV show. A feature film screenplay, on the other hand, should be entirely original. Your spec script should be the absolute best example of your writing talent.

When you feel like the script is perfect -- and the timing is right -- show the spec script to colleagues and industry contacts you've made through your work. Ask them for feedback and suggestions. Remember that you're not the first person to move to Los Angeles, get a PA job and hope that some producer will read your script and offer you a job on the spot. Seasoned writers and producers have been handed scripts hundreds of times. The key is to establish a genuine relationship with the person to whom you give the script. Don't network for the sake of networking. Do a good job, be a good person, make some friends, write a really killer spec script and the networking will happen by itself.

Now let's look at the latest software for streamlining the screenwriting process.

Screenwriter Software

There are many software programs available to help screenwriters format scripts.
There are many software programs available to help screenwriters format scripts.
© Urbano Delvalle/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

Screenwriter software is absolutely essential for both aspiring and professional screenwriters. The best reason to buy screenwriter software is to easily format your scripts to industry standards. Believe it or not, scripts need to be formatted differently for half-hour TV sitcoms, hour-long TV dramas and feature films. And to make things more complicated, specific shows have their own unique formatting conventions.

If you're going to be handing your spec script to producers and agents, they want to see that you've put in the time to learn how many spaces to indent character names, whether to capitalize scene descriptions, and that you know your FADE OUTs from your JUMP CUTs.

In the past, screenwriters had to do all of that formatting by hand-counting spaces with a pencil or a cursor, moving chunks of dialogue back and forth so they wouldn't be cut off by page breaks, et cetera. Now, with programs like Final Draft and Movie Magic Screenwriter, the software automatically formats the page as you type.

When you open a new project, the software allows you to choose from sitcom, drama and feature film formats. Final Draft even comes with pre-loaded templates for over 50 popular TV shows. These software programs even allow you to import raw text or Microsoft Word files and have them automatically formatted as screenplays.

Beyond its basic formatting capabilities, screenwriting software also helps streamline and organize the entire brainstorming, outlining and writing process. While brainstorming, you can jot your ideas on virtual note cards and begin putting them in order as scenes. Then you can expand those note cards into a more formal outline for the screenplay. As you write the actual script, you can have your outline and note cards windows open to keep your scenes and plot on track.

New features of screenwriting software include the ability to collaborate easily on scripts using extensive change tracking and commenting capabilities. The latest versions of Final Draft and Movie Magic Screenwriter both come with a handy text-to-speech engine that will read a script aloud using computerized voices that you can customize for each character. And Final Draft also includes a handy tool for automatically registering your completed script with the Writers Guild of America.

Another type of screenwriting software helps you develop your story before the writing process begins. Dramatica Pro is the best example of a new kind of screenwriter software that walks you through the process of creating and developing characters, drafting a satisfying story arc and tracking multiple themes and plotlines throughout a script. These are not idea-generating machines, but rather tools for helping a writer get the most out of his ideas. The software can identify holes in the plot, extraneous story lines or characters that need deeper backstories.

Now let's look at one of the most highly competitive ways to break into the screenwriting business: studio development programs.

Hollywood Screenwriter Programs

Writing workshops are a good way to learn about screenwriting. Screenwriters Robin Swicord, left, and Diablo Cody, right, offer advice for aspiring screenwriters.
Writing workshops are a good way to learn about screenwriting. Screenwriters Robin Swicord, left, and Diablo Cody, right, offer advice for aspiring screenwriters.
© Amy Graves/WireImage/Getty Images

After spending years in Los Angeles or New York City without landing one professional writing job, you might wonder if there are even any gigs out there. But the truth is that Hollywood studios and TV networks are constantly looking for fresh ideas and writing talent. One of the ways they do this is through screenwriting fellowships, mentorships and workshops.

Acceptance into one of these programs is extremely competitive. You and thousands of people just like you will be fighting for a handful of spots in a handful of prestigious programs. But if you get in, you'll have access to working writers, producers, directors and studio executives who are actually interested in hearing your ideas.

The longest-running and best-known Hollywood screenwriting program is the Warner Bros. Writers Workshop. This program, run for 30 years at Warner Bros. Studios, has separate divisions for drama and comedy TV writers. The program's mission is to seek out talented young writers and groom them for staff writing positions on network TV shows. The four-month program meets one evening a week for three hours and includes script workshops and close interaction with Warner Bros. writers, producers and executives.

Disney and ABC television offer several sought-after screenwriting fellowships. The intensive Disney ABC Writing Fellowship awards paid, year-long fellowships with Disney and ABC's many TV and film divisions. There's also a special ABC Daytime Writing Program for screenwriters interested in soap operas.

Disney and ABC's Diversity Creative Development Program identifies talented minority writers who are already members of the Writers Guild of America and offers them a chance to develop a spec script into a pilot for production. Disney and ABC also offer two other fellowships especially for Native American and Latino screenwriters. The Nickelodeon Writing Fellowship also identifies and mentors talented minority writers and young screenwriters from diverse backgrounds.

For screenwriters concentrating in feature films, the Sundance Screenwriter's Lab is the top destination. This exclusive program is for young screenwriters and filmmakers with proven potential or even a couple of produced films under their belt. Twelve fellows are invited to Park City, Utah, for five days of intense script consultation with colleagues and professional mentors.

Other fellowships are structured more like screenwriting contests. The Don and Gee Nicholl Fellowship is for professional screenwriters who have earned less than $5,000 for their work. The fellowship awards five $30,000 grants chosen from thousands of screenplay submissions. The American Screenwriters Association International Screenplay Competition not only offers $10,000 in cash for the top submission, but a script critique from a Hollywood script consultant, promotion of the winning script to major Hollywood studios and a trip to LA.

For lots more information on screenwriting, filmmaking, movie production and related topics, check out the links on the next page.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links 

Sources 

  • "Key Features." Final Draft. (http://www.finaldraft.com/products/final-draft/index.php)
  • Sundance Screenwriters Lab. (http://www.sundance.org/press_subgen.html?articleID=8&colorCode=blue)
  • "The 2007 Hollywood Writers Report: Tables." Hunt, Darnell M. Writers Guild of America, West. May 2007. (http://www.wga.org/uploadedFiles/who_we_are/HWR07_tables.pdf)
  • "The Don and Gee Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting." Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. (http://www.oscars.org/nicholl/index.html)
  • "What is NWF." Nickelodeon Writing Fellowship Program. (http://www.nickwriting.com/)
  • "Writers Workshop." Warner Bros. (http://www2.warnerbros.com/writersworkshop/)
  • "Writing for Episodic TV: From Freelance to Show Runner." Jean, Al et al. Writers Guild of America, West. (http://www.wga.org/subpage_writersresources.aspx?id=156)

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