The Six Essential Habits of Highly Successful Screenwriters
Did you know that million-dollar, A-list scribe RON BASS works an average of 14 hours a day, seven days a week? Or that ERIC ROTH likes to wake up in the middle of the night, write for a few hours, take a nap, start again in the morning and continue in the evening?
Highly successful screenwriters are the most disciplined people I know. They make the time to write, face the blank page, produce a consistent amount of pages every day and deliver high quality scripts on deadline.
But rather than listing all their common habits (you can read about 101 of them in more detail in my book), I thought I'd share six of the most essential habits you should master if you're interested in a successful career as a screenwriter.
Billionaire Bunker Hunt once said: 'Success is simple. First, you decide what you want specifically; and second, you decide you're willing to pay the price to make it happen, and then you pay that price.' Are you willing to pay the price? Do you really know what it takes a successful screenwriter?
Too many beginners focus only on how to write a script without bothering to learn what it takes to BE a screenwriter. They believe writing a script is easy and only dream of that million-dollar sale. All they have to do is get the right software, attend the right classes, read a couple books and bingo! they're set for a six-figure development deal. After all, we all have access to a computer keyboard, and we all think we could write...
Well, as you'll soon find out, it's a little more complicated.
Let's explore some of the realities of screenwriting success by looking at what successful screenwriters do on a daily basis:
1. HIGHLY SUCCESSFUL SCREENWRITERS HAVE A DRIVING REASON TO WRITE
Most successful writers have been writing for years, and they didn't last or get to where they are today without having a driving and passionate desire to write. All writers have a variety of reasons why they write, some more or less admirable than others. Whether it's their primary way of expressing themselves, an outlet for their fantasies or a desire to entertain people, real writers don't get satisfaction out of doing anything else. They love writing for its own sake.
But before you throw out your screenwriting software because your motives are less than pure, remember that there are no good or bad reasons. You just need a DRIVING reason. Even if most writers say they to do it because they love it, there are just as many successful writers who hate writing, but are still driven to do good work. Whether any writer admits it or not, egotism is a strong motivating factor in writing. And we shouldn't be ashamed to admit it. We all want recognition. And you could have any reason to write -- money, fame, glory, revenge, or to prove to someone or yourself that you can do it -- as long as you're passionately DRIVEN by it. You have to have that obsession to write, the flame within, the 'burn' as Lew Hunter calls it. All the successful writers I know have a passion for life, for their work and for excellence, regardless of their motives.
2. HIGHLY SUCCESSFUL SCREENWRITERS SET A HIGH STANDARD OF EXCELLENCE
Put simply, highly successful screenwriters are successful because they do the job better than anyone else. They can discriminate between good and bad writing. When starting out, they took the necessary time to develop their craft. They knew what it took to succeed. Today, they're ruthless in their desire to do their best. They have to be. Their livelihood and reputation depend on it. As a beginner, you need to know what this standard is and raise your work above it. Read great scripts and compare them to yours. You'll see the difference on the page and, hopefully, it will inspire you to raise the quality of your own work. As Ernest Hemingway said, 'the most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shock-proof shit detector.'
So what's the difference between good and bad writing? The consensus among professionals is that if the writing moves them in any way, if there's identification with a character, involvement in the story, surprises and emotional satisfaction, it's good writing; if it's unoriginal, clichéd and boring, it's bad. As a screenwriter trying to improve your craft, you need to discriminate between good and bad writing before anyone of importance (the buyer) makes up their own mind. In this town, you may get only one chance to impress.
3. HIGHLY SUCCESSFUL SCREENWRITERS TRUST THEIR INSTINCTS AND WRITE WHAT EXCITES THEM
Successful screenwriters don't let the marketplace rule their imagination.
They choose to write what excites them and never second-guess their instincts.
The most often-heard advice is to write what you know, but what you know may be boring to you and a mass audience. Better to write what makes you FEEL, what excites you, intrigues you and fascinates you, because, ultimately, the only thing you really know are your emotions. You shouldn't worry about trends, and you should definitely not write what you just saw in the theaters because by the time you start, you're already two years behind.
Second-guessing yourself will only kill your original voice. All you can do is be true to what you want to do and hope other people will respond.
Now there's nothing wrong in following the marketplace, reading the trades and asking producers or agents what they're looking for, but decide to write a script only if what they're looking for is what excites you. And you should still think about the universality of your script. Some people call it the 'commercial' factor, and the argument of art vs. commercialism has been debated since the dawn of mass entertainment. The bottom line is about entertaining an audience. Unless you're writing to amuse only yourself, chances are you want millions to be moved by your story. And you'll only become a successful screenwriter if you write what people want to see and studios want to make. It doesn't mean you have to be a slave to box-office statistics, but that you have to weave your unique soul into the universal themes that have been shown to be successful around the world.
4. HIGHLY SUCCESSFUL SCREENWRITERS WRITE REGULARLY AND SET WRITING GOALS
You'd be amazed how many writers want to sell their script for a million dollars, but they still haven't written it. They keep going from conference to conference, attending seminars and buying books without actually writing anything that closely resembles a finished, professional screenplay.
Successful writers are highly disciplined. They make writing a priority.
When people say 'I'm too busy' to do something, it usually means there are other things they'd rather do more. It's quite simple: If the desire to write is not followed by actual writing, then the desire is not to write. Successful screenwriters don't wait for inspiration. Sure, there are times when they get blocked, or procrastinate for hours, but somehow they still produce pages. They know what's at stake and that their job is to write and come up with material by a certain deadline.
Their most common habit is to set writing goals. Whether it's the number of hours of actual writing, number of pages per day or number of scenes, they produce a given page count on a steady basis. If you make a pact with yourself, reward yourself if you have to, that you won't leave your desk until you've completed a certain number of pages, you'll be surprised at how soon you'll have a completed screenplay. It's all about taking small steps at a time. The difference between successful writers and dreamers is that, at the end of the day, successful writers have more pages written than the day before.
5. HIGHLY SUCCESSFUL SCREENWRITERS UNDERSTAND THE RULES OF THE GAME AND ADAPT TO THEM
Aspiring writers are generally sheltered from the industry. All they know from entertainment news sources are the 'glamorous' articles and the sound bites about projects sold, dollar amounts and players involved. It's only after selling something and being thrown into the system that they discover the realities they must adapt to.
Writer Aljean Harmetz once said, 'There are fewer stars for writers on the Hollywood Walk of Fame than there are for animals.' This pretty much sums up how the industry feels about the hand that feeds it. It's a puzzling paradox that writers are essential to the survival of the industry, and yet, they are undervalued. Put every screenwriter on a bus out of town, and see how quickly the industry comes to a halt. Producers have no movies to make, directors have no scripts to shoot, actors have no lines to speak, agents make no commissions, and so on with every job from caterer to director of photography. No one has a job without a script, and yet, screenwriting is the most disrespected element in the movie-making process.
Aspiring writers need to realize that until they sell a script, or at the very least, win a major contest or are represented by a legitimate agency, they don't exist. If executives think your script will advance their career, they'll like you. If they don't, they'll ignore you. If you can't handle these inconsistencies psychologically, set yourself up for major frustrations and depression.
Successful screenwriters adapt to the realities of the system and generally accept its flaws. They understand it's still a medium driven by stars and directors, that their work will get rewritten, that they'll get fired without knowing it, and so on. They know the only control they have is the quality and output of their pages.
6. HIGHLY SUCCESSFUL SCREENWRITERS EVOKE EMOTIONS IN THE READER
It's difficult to believe that the single most important element in any story, the most compelling reason why people go to the movies, read novels, watch television and see plays, is often the one element missing from most beginners' scripts. And that is the experience of emotions. The power of any screenplay lies in its ability to connect emotionally with the reader, and ultimately, with a movie audience. But the overwhelming evidence from aspiring writers leads me to believe they THINK TOO MUCH and FEEL TOO LITTLE when it comes to writing their scripts.
Take a look at newspaper ads for today's movies, which are nothing more than a promise for what an audience will feel by watching the movie. Some examples: 'pulse-pounding, nail-biting, tension and excitement, electrifying, highly-affecting, mesmerizing, powerfully seductive, provocative and intense, superbly gripping, fascinating, intriguing, spellbinding, stunning, packs an emotional wallop, hugely satisfying, grabs you and won't let go.' Can your script match these promises to a reader?
Every time you sit down to write, you should be afraid of losing the reader at any moment. The worst sin in Hollywood is for the reader of a script or the audience of a film to say, 'So what?' I can't tell you how often I have thought these two words. No reader recommends a boring script, and no audience pays $8.50 to be bored for two hours. Successful screenwriters rewrite their script until it not only moves them personally, but also any reader giving them feedback.
If I had to leave you with one thought, it would be this: The only question in your mind shouldn't be, 'How do I break into the business?' but 'How can I write a great script that will excite anyone who reads it?' Remember that every successful screenwriter eventually wrote a great script that got the attention of a producer, an agent, an assistant or a reader. If you have that one screenplay in a thousand, the one that moves a reader EMOTIONALLY, I promise you Hollywood will take notice. But first, you must develop the right habits, the behaviors, skills and attitudes to get you there. Try them out. If they work for you, fine. If they don't, develop your own and move on. Don't take it too seriously. Relax. Write. Play. Write. Eat. Write. Laugh. Write. Make Love. Write. Sleep. Write. Repeat daily as necessary.
Meet the Author: Karl Iglesias
Karl Iglesias is a screenwriter and sought-after script doctor and consultant, specializing in the reader's emotional response to the written page. He is the best-selling author of Writing For Emotional Impact and The 101 Habits of Highly Successful Screenwriters. He teaches at UCLA Extension’s Writers' Program, where he’s just won the Outstanding Instructor Award for 20...