The Real Key to a Writer's Success
By James Bonnet
We all know how incredibly hard it is to get a screenplay produced. We have all heard talk about all the great scripts out there that never got made. And that might be true. But why is it true? If you have a professionally crafted screenplay, one with obvious commercial potential, which has never been produced, the real problem might be that someone got discouraged and dropped the ball. After your work is of a professional quality, perseverance is the key to success. It doesn't really make sense to ever be discouraged or deflected by criticism, rejection or a slammed door. It's just part of the game. If an agent or producer doesn't like your work and rejects it - it means absolutely nothing, if your work is of a professional quality. And that is the issue I'm addressing in this article. But let's start at the beginning and ask:
How do you get your work to a professional quality?
You begin by recognizing that storymaking is an art form. It requires a special knowledge, a serious commitment, dedication, a thick skin, and lots of hard work. This is true whether you are a screenwriter or a novelist.
It would not occur to most people to write a classical symphony without any musical education. But a surprising number of people think they can write a screenplay without any training at all. This may have something to do with the fact that a lot of our thinking is in visual terms and most of us have fragments of films coursing through our imaginations. It may also have to do with the fact that we instinctively know a good story when we see one. That seems to be part of our hard wiring. But knowing a good story and being able to create one are two very different things.
When I was twelve my Uncle Budd gave me a recording of Verdi's opera, Rigoletto, as a gift. I was so taken by the incredible music and emotionally arousing arias that I wanted to write an opera myself, despite the fact that I didn't know the first thing about music or singing, and the only Italian word I knew was pizza. Somewhat conscious of my shortcomings, but determined to succeed, I went to a bookstore and bought an Italian-English dictionary, and that very day began writing the libretto. I never got that opera produced, by the way. Should I be shocked? I don't think so.
Ninety percent of all screenplays submitted to Hollywood are written by complete novices, mariners who are lost at sea without any hope of reaching their destination. In short, if you plan to be a professional, you need to have special knowledge.
For one thing, you need to have a special knowledge about story. Story is at the heart of all the different media and all the different genres. And if you plan to write, produce or direct films, it's important that you learn as much about story as you can. The market for great stories is vast. There are, in fact, six billion people in this world with a desperate need for real stories, which isn't being met. And Hollywood, at the moment, really can't deliver. Out of the 400 or so feature films produced each year, fewer than ten, in my humble opinion, are worth seeing. You have, in truth, an entire industry manufacturing something it doesn't understand. What the Industry doesn't understand is story. If you take the trouble to learn what a story really is, it will give you a tremendous advantage.
To help you accomplish that, you have to understand the concept of metaphor. Great stories are visual metaphors. They are a symbolic language. Their different characters, places, actions and objects make an important psychological connection and together create a kind of collective dream, which has the same relation to society as a whole that the ordinary dream has to the individual. They both use the same archetypal symbols but the meanings hidden in great stories are universal, whereas the meanings hidden in dreams are personal. A great story gets much of its power from the metaphors, which express these archetypes, and you should have a working knowledge of this phenomenon so you can control it, put it into your work, and deeply affect the audience you're trying to reach.
You also have to become skilled in the ways of the creative process. When we work with creative processes, the creative decisions we make are governed by positive and negative intuitive feelings. That's how we know what works, by how we feel about our ideas. Well, what's behind those feelings? Where do those feelings come from? What is going on when you are making creative decisions? You need to have a working knowledge of that, too.
You also need to understand what a high concept, great idea is, and how to create one, so you can - with just a few words - intrigue the people you are trying to interest in your work. Creating a high concept implies an ability to formulate your idea into its most powerful and concise form - to make it as short and as marvelous as possible. In order to do that you have to come to terms with what your story is really about. In order to do that, you not only have to understand all of the important structural elements of your story, you have to get at the very essence of your story; and to do that, you have to come to terms with the threat, which is the cause of the problem, which is the central event of your story. Master this art and, at any given moment, you will be only one great idea away from success.
Also, be sure to pick a project that is truly worthy of your time and talents. Nine out of ten ideas that you try out will be duds and you'll lose interest in them. Keep working until you find something that has real power, something that's really worth your time that can sustain your interest for a year or so. And don't try to outguess or make the grade in Hollywood. Hollywood is not set up to develop talent, it's set up to exploit success. Explore the things you really want to write about and do those things in such a way that Hollywood can't resist them. Do something really significant and they will hunt you down.
After you've found your story and can express it as a great idea, then field-test it. It is important to put your work out there to be tested. You won't know for sure that you're tapping into something powerful and universal until you have that confirmed by outside sources. So you need to develop personal relationships with knowledgeable people you can trust to give you an honest reaction. That's not easy to do and it takes time, but it needs to be done. You will learn things about your work that way which you could never figure out on your own.
After you've assimilated that feedback, develop your ideas into a twenty-page treatment or oral pitch and get feedback on that. And when you've assimilated those results, write a first draft or extended treatment and put that out there. Keep doing this until it's finished. There's no limit to the number of drafts. It's an evolutionary process and you should take the time to get it right.
When you're finally finished, then really get your work out into the marketplace. And this is where you take to heart the idea that once your work is of a professional quality, perseverance is the key to success. Which is another way of saying, you never give up until you make it happen.
Many, many scripts have been turned down all over town, but then became major successes because of somebody's persistence. It took more than seven years to get Forrest Gump made into a film and at least nine years to get Shakespeare in Love produced. The same is true for novelists. Harry Potter was rejected by many publishers and so was Dr. Seuss' first book, The Cat in the Hat, which was rejected twenty times before it found a publisher. But the king of them all was F. Scott Fitzgerald. He received one hundred and twenty-six pink slips from publishers rejecting his first novel, The Other Side of Paradise. The one hundred and twenty-seventh publisher accepted it, and it was an overnight success. So you shouldn't start feeling discouraged until you've been rejected at least that many times.
And, if you are a novelist, keep in mind that your hardcover book only has to appeal to one in a hundred readers to become a bestseller. That means that ninety-nine out of a hundred potential readers can completely ignore or dislike your work and you can still be a best-selling author. The same is true of agents, producers or publishers. One in a hundred is enough to launch a career.
During a conversation with the musical director of a recent project, I mentioned that I love Beethoven's music. He said, "I don't like his music very much. He's not one of my favorites." Now, he is entitled to his opinion. I would never dispute that - but what does that actually say about Beethoven's music? Does it mean that Beethoven is not really the genius music connoisseurs believe he is? Or does it mean that Beethoven is still great but no artist will ever please everybody?
So what does it really mean when your script or novel is rejected by an agent or producer? Nothing. It means absolutely nothing. It just means that people come in all tastes and sizes and different artists appeal to different tastes and you need to persist until you find the people who share your chemistry and your vision. You persevere until you find the allies who will help you find the agents who will help you find the producers who will help you find the financiers who will help you get your work to the public. It takes a lot of effort but they're out there. How many people do you have to filter through to discover a new fast friend? Hundreds. It's the same with producers, agents or financiers. It's always a numbers game. If your work is of a professional quality, and they don't like it, it means absolutely nothing. You keep looking. You just keep going until you make it happen.
Meet the Author: James Bonnet
James Bonnet is an internationally known writer and story consultant. Elected twice to the Board of Directors of the Writers Guild of America, he has written or acted in more than forty television shows and features. He created the role of James Roosevelt in the Tony Award winning hit Broadway show, Sunrise at Campobello, and received his first professional writing job at 23. Recently he was honored with a Writer’s Guild of America award for his writing contribution to the hit television series, Barney Miller. His book has been taught in university courses around the world and is having a major impact on writers in all media.