How to make it as a screenwriter

21 March 2024

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Category: Industry insights

Ever wondered if you have what it takes to make it as a professional screenwriter? Success in the screen industries is about more than just great ideas; it’s also about knowing how to execute those ideas in a way that works for different audiences and collaborators. In this article, Dr John Finnegan, Course Leader of Falmouth’s online master’s in Writing for Script & Screen, explores four key skills that emerging scriptwriters need to succeed in the screen industries. 

Master the craft 

I always liken screenwriting to an engineer designing a bridge; it’s one thing to be able to design a structure that can link two sides of a river, but will it sustain a flow of heavy traffic without collapse? A well-structured bridge will, and good screenwriting craftwork is as much about structure as it is about imaginative ideas. Anyone can tell a story, but learning to tell your story in a way that sustains an audiences’ attention throughout the script or film without them losing interest is arguably the most important thing to master. So, if you have a great idea for a script, don’t be so quick to put it out there; instead, take the time to ask yourself: will it keep the reader’s attention? Can I get them across the bridge? 

Assemble a portfolio 

Once you have developed a strong skillset and have the confidence to execute your ideas to industry standards, you’ll need to develop a portfolio of work. You never know who you’re going to encounter at a networking event or a film festival, and so it’s always wise to have a diverse portfolio of screenwriting.  

Many people focus solely on television or feature film ideas, and while these projects demonstrate ambition, that can be very costly. Remember that only a small portion of the industry can afford to make these with ease and when you’re starting out, you’ll likely be networking with people on the lower rungs of the industry ladder, and so it’s wise to have a selection of writing that is easier to produce. Short films are a must in any portfolio, not only because they can attract the attention of directors, actors and other talent, but because they can be made far more quickly, be eligible for film festival awards (whether they are produced or unproduced) and help build IMDb credits much faster than a feature film or television series. As a bonus, short scripts are a lot easier to read for those busy agents or producers who might not have time for your feature script. 

Network, network, network  

So, you’ve learned your craft and assembled a great portfolio, but you don’t know who to send your work to. This is where good networking comes into play, which can be a daunting experience for some and is often demonised by many because it can be fraught with rejection. However, the trick to good networking is not to simply spam people with emails asking to read and buy your scripts or sign you to their agency. This approach will almost certainly lead to rejection. It’s like reaching out to companies out of the blue and asking for a job – they might not be hiring after all.  

Instead, you should use networking as a chance to learn from others and to create potential collaborative opportunities. Rather than asking an agent to look at your work, ask if you can interview them to get a sense of what the agent/writer collaboration looks like, and to get a sense of where you stand in your own journey at this stage. Or rather than asking a director to make your script outright, try to be of service to their projects and demonstrate good collaborative and professional qualities. You’ll make a far greater impression and show that you are taking the right steps to ready yourself for the industry. 

Understand the industry 

Finally, it’s imperative that you understand how the industry works. Too many emerging writers make the wrong impression with industry gatekeepers because they don’t understand the systems and mechanisms of the screen industries. They ruin a great pitch by not doing their research about the people they are pitching to, or they lose the interest of a producer because they can’t hold a conversation with them about current industry practices. Successful screenwriters know the industry inside-out; they read the trade journals and keep up with the latest news, and that’s what you need to do as well.  

So, every morning when you reach for your phone to see what’s going on in the world, don’t forget to visit websites like Deadline, The Hollywood Reporter and Screen Daily to get the news that is relevant to your success as a screenwriter. You might not think it applies to you now, but knowing what’s big and what’s not, or what trends are forming, will keep you sharp. 

By working hard to maximise your potential in each of these stages, you’ll be incredibly valuable to any production. Through good networking and an up-to-date knowledge of the industry, you’ll be able to make opportunities for yourself, instead of just waiting for them to come to you, and when you get that all important pitch meeting, you’ll have the portfolio of work, backed up by great writing skills, to close the deal.  

This is the goal we set for all our students on our MA Writing for Script & Screen programme. For two years, our global community of students continually refine their screenwriting skills and develop a diverse portfolio of shorts, pitch decks, and long form scripts like TV pilots or feature length screenplays. They work collaboratively and individually, develop long-lasting collaborations with their fellow writers and get hands-on experience networking with the industry as part of their on-going discovery of the screen industries. When they finish, qualified graduates are then invited to join our acclaimed graduate-run studio, The Script Department, where they can translate their portfolio into IMDb accreditation and more. 

About the author: Dr John Finnegan is a senior lecturer in screenwriting at Falmouth University. He is the Course Leader of MA Writing for Script and Screen, as well as the co-founder of The Script Department where he researches contemporary screenwriting practices and their relationship to spectatorship studies. 

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