Follow by Email

Tuesday, May 15, 2012


Anybody can learn to write a script, and there are a number of books and sites and seminars that will teach you how. What the the books and the sites and the seminars don't tell you is that you'll probably never be much good at it, no matter how slavishly you follow their rules.

You'll notice I said "anybody can learn to write a script."  This is analogous to saying "anybody can sing." Unfortunately, simply because one has the ability to execute a task, it doesn't necessarily follow that one will excel at said task. 

Sure, if you really practice, work long and hard at any given undertaking, you may become fairly competent.  That said, blowing them away at Applebees on Karaoki Night doesn't make you some kind of Sinatra.

Any artistic endeavor requires craft and talent. The more you have of one, the less you need of the other.  It's sort of like state college entrance requirements.  If your SATs are great, your GPA can kinda suck (and vice versa) and you can still get in. 

However, if you want to go to Harvard or Yale, more people are competing for fewer spots, which means both your GPA and your SATs have to be pretty damn good.  Real damn good.  Plus, having a relative who's a big wheel in the Alumni Society doesn't hurt either.

(Hey, this is turning out to be a better analogy for the movie business than I thought!)

So if you want to make it as a screenwriter, the sad fact is: 
  • You must have talent.

There, I said it.  The ugly truth.  And it gets uglier: 
  • Talent, no matter what anybody tells you, cannot be learned.

When I say "learned," I mean it in the normal sense, as in out of a book or in a classroom.  I can't teach you how to be a great writer.  

Nobody can.

But I can tell you how to be a good screenwriter—or at least better than you are now—in three easy steps.

Step One:

Stop writing screenplays.

Step Two:
·        Start reading poetry;
·        Read more poetry;
·        Write poetry;
·        Lots of poetry;
·        Stop talking;
·        Listen;
·        Read;
·        Masturbate like a doomed lab-monkey;
·        Write more poetry;
·        Shoplift food;
·        Work at a series of meaningless jobs;
·        Get betrayed by someone you cherish;
·        Be afraid;
·        Watch THE SEVEN SAMURAI without reading the subtitles;
·        Pray for forgiveness.  Mean it;
·        Read your poetry out loud to an unappreciative audience;
·        Get stoned;
·        Contemplate suicide;
·        Help someone for no reason;
·        Hitch-hike;
·        Get angry;
·        Read Bukowski, Fante, Vonnegut and Ellison;
·        Drink coffee all night;
·        Be true;
·        Fall in love (at least twice);
·        Observe;
·        Get fired for hitting your supervisor;
·        Doubt yourself;
·        Flip back and forth from A&E Biography and The History Channel until you're sure Tammy Wynette built the pyramids;
·        Drop acid;
·        Throw an ashtray through the television set;
·        Have kids;
·        Quit a job without giving notice.   At lunchtime;
·        Fail;
·        Listen to music.  Very loud;
·        Toss and turn;
·        Understand nobility and treachery, practice both, favor the former;
·        Make passionate love to someone you don't even like;
·        Tilt windmills;
·        Get evicted;
·        Suffer pointlessly;
·        Pay attention;
·        Be foolish;
·        Go to jail (at least once);
·        Survive all the above, but imperfectly.

Incidentally, the entire laundry-list of tasks I've listed above can be boiled down to one word: LIVE! Live as greedily and aggressively as you can. Make every heartbeat count for something. Surrender yourself to as wide a range of human experience and emotions as you can without ending up in jail or a rubber-room.  


Because no matter what they tell you in film-school, nobody wants to see a movie about a movie written by somebody who's only seen movies.

Once you have lived a decade or so past your teens, you may move on to...

Step Three: 
·        Write a screenplay;
·        Write another screenplay;
·        Rewrite the first one;
·        Write a third screenplay;
·        Rewrite the second one;
·        Burn the first one;
·        Repeat the above instructions indefinitely.

Because here's the deal: Writers write. They don't talk about writing. They don't strike poses in front of open laptops at Starbucks. They don't whine about being blocked. They don't piddle around in workshops. They don't argue about the comparative virtues of Final Draft 5 versus Final Draft 8.

Writers. Fucking. Write.

So go for it. If you're lucky and you have talent, you just might make it. But even if you don't, know this: Trying is its own reward. The very fact that you are willing to chase a dream makes you better than 99.9% of the humans on planet Earth.  

Even if you're not very good at it.


  1. I agree with a lot in this. However, I will never be convinced Tammy Wynnett build the pyramids, unless that big hair qualities as one.

    I don't want to see or read something from a 20 something. They don't have enough life experience or basic understanding of flawed human nature to create characters or situations of depth.

    Good article, thanks.

  2. Great points. Being that I'm now 30 looks like I can now write another screenplay that might actually have depth. ;-)

  3. Got the "work at a series of meaningless jobs" down pat among most others. Now I just have to Fucking. Write. and stop drinking so much. Thanks Daniel!

  4. Yes blakendecker - I have more than a few of those in my life resume. And you want to talk about an abundance of material from a job? Try teaching. I get comedic material on a daily basis.

    Now I might take up drinking.

  5. Great post. Best thing I ever did was go to McKee's Story seminar and learn how the greats do it. I loved every one of those 37 hours. I agree about bitching and posing. Start tapping keys in a good sequence. Story also taught me how HARD it is to even be mediocre, let alone, good or great at writing. Ain't no shortcuts.

  6. And they don’t hang around other writers web sites, except sometimes they do.
    There is a discussion under way regarding conservative voices in the Arts.

    I would love to see your Breitbart essay posted there, it would add so much to the mix.

    You can find the link on under the title “Are conservative bad at pop culture?”