Study Hacks Blog Decoding Patterns of Success

How to Become a Star Screenwriter: A Case Study in Modern Craftsmanship

May 10th, 2010 · 32 comments

Screenplay in Progress

The Shane Black Effect 

The story is a Hollywood classic. At the age of 23, two years after graduating from UCLA with a theater degree, and eager for a source of income while waiting for his acting break, Shane Black decided to try screenwriting. He penned a buddy cop flick, featuring a deranged lead seeking redemption. He gave it the type of clipped, masculine title popular in the mid-80s blockbuster era: Lethal Weapon. The script was scooped up mega-producer Joel Silver for a quarter million dollars, catapulting Black into screenwriting stardom. Within a decade, after earning a then record $4 million for The Long Kiss Goodbye, he became the highest paid writer in the industry,

Black’s story, and those like it, drive thousands of hopeful writers to Los Angeles each year, and motivate untold tens of thousands more to bookstores to seek instruction from a bewildering array of expert advice guides. These writer wannabes take this leap with full knowledge that screenwriting is one of the world’s most notoriously elite and inaccessible industries. The Writers Guild of America counts 12,000 professional screenwriters on its rolls — that is, writers good enough to have been paid for their work — and of these pros, it’s estimated that around half are out of work at any given time. To make matters worse for the amateur, a growing number of selective screenwriting M.F.A. programs ensures a constant flow of highly-trained newcomers to compete for the few open slots that remain. In 2009, the Nicholl Fellowship, the most prestigious amateur screenwriting award, received close to 7000 submissions.

If you want to make it in screenwriting you have to be exceptional, and this is what makes it a fascinating case study for our ongoing efforts to decode the secrets of becoming so good they can’t ignore you.

The Anonymous Screenwriter

In the winter of 2008, I pitched an article to Flak Magazine. Having recently spent time profiling a rap artist’s songwriting process, I thought it interesting to try something similar with a similarly fascinating field: screenwriting. I tracked down a successful television writer and convinced him to undergo several long interviews detailing his experience.

This writer, whom I’ll call Thomas, arrived in Hollywood with an Ivy League degree and a drive to avoid the professions one is supposed to pursue with such credentials. A half-decade later, he is the head writer on a television series that was recently picked up for its second season.

In other words, among the closed community of Hollywood screenwriters: Thomas has arrived.

What interests me about Thomas’ story is its deviation from standard advice. Consider, for example, this article from the popular Absolute Write web site, that asked readers share their wisdom for aspiring screenwriters. There were two type of responses.

The first type of response: Persevere.

  • “Rome wasn’t built in a day,” says Bruce Andrews.
  • “Be not afraid,” adds James Rae. “Send that screenplay all over the place…the more people that reader it, the better chance someone likes it.”

The second type of response: Use the right techniques.

  • “Keep it short,” says Miriam Bradford.
  • “The most important aspect of any screenplay is its structure,” quips  Sandy Payne.
  • Tell the story through pictures and action whenever possible,” notes Paul McLaughlin. 

In other words, succeeding in screenwriting requires that you learn some screenplay basics, and then work hard. Sounds good. The problem, however, is that thousands of hopefuls do exactly this every year — and consistently come up short.

Something more must be at play.

The Rise of Thomas

Thomas didn’t sit in isolation with a Syd Field book and a blank computer screen, refusing to give up until he penned the next Lethal Weapon. For lack of a better word, his path was much more ragged.

He got his foot in the door editing an online humor magazine while working on a quixotic pilot for a cable network toying with the idea of original programming. After a while he shifted to a job as an assistant to a development executive. This led to a job as a writers assistant on a television drama and then a stint as the right-hand man to a writer with a studio deal on the Fox lot. Somewhere in this mix, at the urging of a producer he met, he worked on an independent film screenplay based loosely on his childhood, and eventually landed a spot on the writing staff for the new drama helmed by the Fox-backed writer he had assisted. The show was promptly canceled.  Throughout all of this activity, he had a spec script, written for a popular television comedy, that he had been continuously polishing — integrating the lessons from his other experiences as he learned them.

It was this spec script that, two years ago, landed him an interview with an influential producer working on an interesting TV pilot.  Thomas was asked to pen the pilot episode, which was later picked up as a full-time series — making Thomas a head writer.  It pulled good enough ratings to recently earn a second season.

Whew.

The standard screenwriting advice, summarized earlier, is to learn the right techniques — perhaps by reading a book or attending a conference — then put your head down and keep writing until you hit upon that magic, Black-esque hook that lights up the industry.

Thomas’ life, by contrast, points to a much messier suggestion: immerse yourself in the world of screenwriting, getting as close as possible to scripts people like, and the people who like them. Furthermore, continually extract lessons from your exposure to apply to your own writing.

People don’t like this advice because it discounts their dream of writing the next Lethal Weapon during their lunch break. It requires, instead, a complete change of lifestyle and a risky dedication to mastering a tricky craft.

In short, screenwriting requires an apprenticeship, and this is why most working writers have stories that start, like Thomas, with an entry-level industry job — not the writing shelf at Barnes & Noble.

Beyond Screenwriting

I had lunch earlier today with some executives from Ford. (I’m penning these words from the Detroit airport, after giving a talk at Ford’s Center for Innovation and Research.) Listening to their insider take on the automotive industry, a curious fact caught my attention: It can take 15 years to master the skills necessary to work the equipment in the tool and die industry.

15 years.

I think this little piece of trivia provides an elegant way of thinking about becoming excellent in competitive industries, such as screenwriting: It’s not just hard work combined with some easily learned tips — “show, don’t tell!;” “use a three act structure!” — it’s a craft. And learning crafts takes not only time, but exposure to master craftsman.

The more I encounter examples of people building remarkable lives by becoming excellent, the more I discover that this model of craftsmanship is alive and well in our modern age. This offers interesting food for thought. When contemplating your own field, ask yourself: are you the wannabe screenwriter reading how-to guides on the subway, or are you, like Thomas, throwing yourself among the masters, and proclaiming: I know nothing, but you do, and I’m not going anywhere until I do too?

(Photo by BLundin)

32 thoughts on “How to Become a Star Screenwriter: A Case Study in Modern Craftsmanship

  1. paurullan says:

    Interesting, I will think about this.

    I am finishing my degree on computer engineering so I suppose I have this kind of approach easily than others (join a free software project or a local user group) so I will keep an eye on the comments to see what other people do.

    Thanks for the reading!

  2. Lisa says:

    The idea of “throwing yourself among the masters” is a powerful one. I teach at an engineering college that has an art collection devoted to work, especially the history of industrial work, and several of the paintings feature the classic master, journeyman, apprentice approach to learning a craft. We (my classes and I) often talk about what has been lost when that model disappeared, but, perhaps, as you suggest, it needn’t disappear (or perhaps it presents itself differently today).

    Terrific post. Thank you!

  3. Russ says:

    Great story. Very true. Way too many writers buy the latest screenwriting book, take a few seminars and even write a few spec scripts, but never work along side those who are already doing it in the business. Mentorship for screenwriters is a rarity.

    I’m pretty sure I know how “Thomas” is.

    Good stuff!

  4. Brian Emery says:

    Great post. According to wikipedia, Shane Black went to a top 1% fine arts high school, and took dramatic writing in college, so maybe there is more deliberate practice and apprenticeship to the Lethal Weapon story than we’d typically hear.

  5. Study Hacks says:

    We (my classes and I) often talk about what has been lost when that model disappeared, but, perhaps, as you suggest, it needn’t disappear (or perhaps it presents itself differently today).

    This is a great observation, and actually one I’ve been thinking about for a while. We’ve lost a culture of craftsmanship that is actually needed by today’s skilled labor.

    I’m pretty sure I know how “Thomas” is.

    Interesting…don’t reveal it! I didn’t ask his permission to use his name in this blog post.

    Shane Black went to a top 1% fine arts high school, and took dramatic writing in college

    Also, it wasn’t his first screenplay, and he did extensive work with Silver to get the script into a form that a studio would greenlight.

  6. Jonathan says:

    This is a very timely post for me, Cal, since a friend of mine and I have recently begun mapping out our own screenplay, mostly “just for fun” we tell ourselves, but with the thought in the back of our minds that maybe, just maybe, someone will buy it on spec.

    And while I think the example of Thomas is an excellent point, as other commenters have mentioned, equally important is deflating myths.

    What do I mean? Sure, there are people like Tom, working their way up from the mailroom, paying their dues, working as apprentices, journeymen, honing their skills with the greats. That’s what people should do.

    But, as long as there are people like Shane Black, as long as there is that one in ten million person like him, people will identify him and half-heartedly pursue a dream. It’s important to bring them back down to earth. Black went to a top notch arts high school, then a top notch arts college. But hey, a lot of people do. But then he also, likely, beyond taking courses, worked in his spare time, honing his skills with professors mentoring him, and working through several drafts of different screenplays. Far less romantic.

    Black still got 1,000 x more lucky than most aspiring screenwriters ever do, but even one of the highest-paid screenwriters of all time went through years of study and practice and finally consultation with a mentor to make sure he sold his script.

    Me, I’ve always wanted to be a novelist, but Cal and Gladwell’s Outliers helped me get off my but. Stop reading about writing, stop dreaming about writing and do it. It’s been an arduous, discouraging road. I go through extensive periods of self-doubt. It hurts, realizing your limits and how far you have to go to get better. But you know what? I’m not nearly as bad as I thought I was. And deliberate practice isn’t a pain because I love writing and I love feeling myself slowly but surely improving. I took a creative writing course (still in college), and made connections with the creative writing people on campus. I get notes from them time to time. Even Thomas Pynchon, brilliant as he must be, spent years researching and writing his books. I read his collection of short stories and realized, everyone starts somewhere, and you get nowhere if you don’t start.

  7. peadarcoyle says:

    I think its a very important point you make here. The notion of craftmanship and actual mastery of a topic. I think this is why PhDs can be valuable in Science research, learning the various tools and mastering the trades.

  8. Mary says:

    I am a screenwriter and happen to have met Shane a few times.

    I have been working for 7 years and just got my first sale. I have had two excellent agents and this is crucial to selling work. How do you get an agent? 1) Win or place in one of the three prestigious contests – Austin, Sundance, Nicholl. 2) Get professional feedback and take it. 3) Read Save the Cat and be smart enough not to underestimate its value. 4) Write two to three hours per day 5) Have more than one script before you try to get an agent.

    WIth regard to Shane Black , the man is a brilliant genius. It’s like asking how Stephen Hawkins got ahead in his field. However, there are things about him that you can copy. He is well know for being impossible to reach. Until last year he didn’t have a cell phone or email. He protects his work time and doesn’t squander it…. leaving him time to write. He also is fervently devoted to making every scene he writes the most excellent, brilliant piece of work he can. He obsesses over it and it make his work unique.

  9. Lulu says:

    Your timing is impeccable – I have been curious lately about the process of making it in the screenplay industry.

    On a different note, your Yellow book focused on being a standout student over the school year – do you have any suggestions for doing something mind-blowing over the summer?
    (Or is it a time to rest and recover?)

  10. Maureen says:

    I’m not sure but going to a top school and getting a top notch education should short circuit the craftsman route. i.e. going to a good school and getting at least a masters, you are in a position to hire and direct the craftsmen and woman.
    You agree? Thanks

  11. Maureen says:

    Further to my point, good techniques and practice in any endeavour will make you better.

  12. Cal:

    Great piece with bold implications for careers of all sizes and stripes, not just screenwriters. The “give it to me now” instant gratification need has long neglected the value of apprenticeship. The professions, such as law and investment banking (ok, not as much on the latter) depend heavily on modeling the right behaviors and applied skills. Yet firms and companies alike have stripped this necessity away for the sake of short-term profit at the expense of long-term value. Even those making career change are better served by a series of experiments vs. inward introspection. Screenwriters have a lot to teach their more conventional brethren. Thanks for a provocative post,

    JG

  13. Frank says:

    paurullan: “I am finishing my degree on computer engineering”

    As a software engineer 10 years out of university, the best thing you can do is spend the first 2 years buddying up with the best engineers you can find. And move jobs if you need to keep your learning going (looking in Agile). It pays off many many years later, and i see this dramatically when interviewing candidates. I was lucky..

  14. Gabor Szabo says:

    @paurullan I think this is the direction: http://xkcd.com/519/

  15. Suzie Bee says:

    I think another lesson I’d take from this story is “shop around”. Even if you can’t get your dream right away, there are lots of things which are almost there. For example, if you want to write a screenplay, try getting into your student newspaper to do film reviews. You get exposure to films and you get to write about them.

  16. I love the:

    People don’t like this advice because it discounts their dream of writing the next Lethal Weapon during their lunch break.

    It is hard to accept that you need to work hard, for a very long time to succeed. Especially in this world, where everything is going so damn fast. I want to thank you for this sentence alone Cal, I get a lot of motivation out of it!

  17. MCG says:

    A beautiful exposition of a neglected truth, Cal. What you say about screenwriting applies to every craft I know of, from plumbing to dentistry. Ph.D. programs are built on this model. Every Ph.D. candidate has an advisor who is a mentor, both instructor and model. James McLurkin, whom you described back in March, appears to have had exceptional models and mentors.

  18. MCG says:

    Reading my own post I realize that I neglected to agree with you on how important it is just to soak in the fellowship of other people in the same craft.

  19. Roxie Rivers says:

    Thanks for the post. I was an aspiring writer too and I’ve been through that washing machine of self-help writer books.

    I’ve learnt 2 things from your post…

    1. don’t visit Absolutewrite ever again
    2. re-think writing as a career

    … but something in the post has made me reconsider returning to classical music. It maybe a much more interesting venture. I think it was your mentioning of the immersion factor. As messy as it may seem to me, it certainly has more appeal than immersing myself into a writing life.

    Thanks again. It really helped.

    Roxie

  20. Pingback: Quora
  21. rick says:

    I’m a bit surprised by this post since it relies completely on one piece of anecdotal evidence as opposed to a more comprehensive survey of writers and wannabe writers. Perhaps such a broad survey is not possible for you–you may only know Thomas among such people–soo I’ll just throw in that I know many people who have worked in such a way that Thomas has and not been able to make the leap to television writing, as well as people who have not worked in those types of jobs yet have become television writers (e.g. they were playwrights). This suggests that it’s helpful but not necessary.

    Moreover, Thomas is actually a television writer, not a screenwriter, and aspiring screenwriters do not have a similar apprenticeship system available to them (unless, of course, they come from television, some of which do).

    It seems to me that this “apprenticeship” is helpful not so much because you learn so much about writing but because of the classic “it’s who you know” thing. You don’t even hear about TV writing opportunities unless you’re on the front lines like that.

  22. dana says:

    I completely agree with rick’s comments. The value of the ‘apprenticeship’ was that it gave him access to the right people, like that influential producer who had a TV pilot in his back pocket.

    Let’s say Thomas had written the exact same script but had no such connections- it probably wouldn’t have been gotten past the gatekeeper and it would be languishing forgotten with a pile of forgotten screenplays.

  23. Bertie says:

    Wow. You’ve articulated some thoughts and feelings I’ve had brewing in my subconscious for a while now. Thank you so much. You’ll never know how much you’ve helped me!

  24. Chris says:

    So how do you get that in with an apprenticeship/mentorship?
    What if you cant even obtain an entry level position in or near something relevant to the industry? But understand you need an apprenticeship in order to learn by these masters of our craft.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *