The Business of Screenwriting: Three scripts

April 19th, 2012 by

This is advice for the front end of your life as a screenwriter. Advice you may not want to hear… but advice you need to hear.

Three scripts. Don’t even contemplate working in Hollywood as a writer until you’ve completed at least three scripts.

You may think you know your way around a screenplay after you’ve written your first one.

Trust me, you don’t.

After finishing your second script, you are amazed at how much further along you have come in your understanding of the craft.

You’re still not where you need to be yet.

In my experience working with writers, It’s not until at least your third script that you can distinguish between your metaphorical ass and metaphorical hole-in-the-ground.

You can study the craft, you can read books, you can take classes, you can watch movies, and all that you should be doing. But there is a kind of knowledge you can only get by writing and completing scripts, a conscious and intuitive understanding of the craft you must have to succeed as a working writer.

Why three? Why not five? Ten?

In all honesty, after you’ve written five scripts, you will look back at the You Who Wrote Three Scripts and say, “What the hell was I thinking?” And when you’ve written ten scripts, you’ll reflect back on You Who Wrote Five Scripts and say, “Gawd, what I didn’t know.”

You will always be learning.

So why three? Oh, I could give you all sorts of theories… how after 1 and 2, three is the first number to signify a pattern… how there may be a synergistic connection to a story’s three acts… but in truth I choose three because K-9 was my third script, and I sold that as  spec. Hey, if it worked for me, maybe it can work for you!

Now let me share something important. I deal with this all the time: A writer who is finishing their very first screenplay. And they are consumed with the idea about how they are going to use it to get representation.

Fine. I get their enthusiasm. Finishing that first script is important, perhaps the single biggest step in a writer’s career path because it proves you can do it. The first script separates you from all the people out there who simply talk about writing a script, but never do.

So please understand, I grasp the significance of that first script.

But imagine for a moment it’s you who has just finished that first script. We are talking about it and you utter these words: “How do I get an agent or a manager?”

This is a scenario I want you to consider.

Let’s say you blind query 500 managers.

You get that script to a manager who reads it, contacts you, and agrees to take you on.

Then that script goes around town and you start to take meetings.

One of the meetings goes great. They hit you up with a story they have in development. It needs a fresh take. You throw out a few ideas off the top of your head.

Lo and behold, they love your ideas! And the next thing you know, you have landed your first professional writing gig.

You get an agent! You get a lawyer! You get a hangover from a celebratory night on the town!

Cut to your lawyer’s office. You’re sitting at a table. In front of you is a contract. For this vaunted writing gig. And right there in black and white is a date: 10 weeks from today.

That is the day you will be contractually obligated to deliver the draft of the script.

Your script.

Now I ask you these questions: “Are you ready to deliver the goods? Do you have a set of practices you have developed to get you through that writing process? Do you have the confidence to believe you can nail that story?”

Because when you sign that contract, that’s it. Play time is over. Your butt is on the line.

I say this not to scare you, rather to inject a sense of reality into the situation. Ultimately your competition is not with some hypothetical aspiring writers or writers in screenplay competitions, but actual professional writers. And you need to be able to match up to their level of creativity, proficiency, and understanding of the craft and the business.

Will one script get you there? Almost assuredly not.

Two scripts? Maybe.

Three? If you write and complete three screenplays, at least you will have a foundation of experience and understanding. You will have faced the peaks and valleys of the entire scripting process multiple times. You will have started to develop your own approach to the craft, your own writer’s voice.

This is not to say you will know everything. See my comments above about five scripts and ten scripts. And no matter how good you become as a writer, it is almost a lock at some point you will fuck up. In a business where, as William Goldman famously said, “Nobody knows anything,” that is a given.

But at the front end of your career, you want to do everything you can to give you the best chance at succeeding as a professional screenwriter. And a certain amount of that can only come by knocking out scripts.

So you’ve finished one script. Great. Congratulations. Go write another one.

You finish a second script. Excellent. Congrats, again. Go write another one.

After you do that three times, maybe… just maybe you’ll be ready for Hollywood.

UPDATE: On Twitter, @alxhuls agreed about three scripts and made another good point:

It’s mostly because I know how amateur it would be to have an agent see one script & say “What else you got?” & have nothing

True. I made the exact same point here.

The Business of Screenwriting is a weekly series of GITS posts based upon my experiences as a complete Hollywood outsider who sold a spec script for a lot of money, parlayed that into a screenwriting career during which time I’ve made some good choices, some okay decisions, and some really stupid ones. Hopefully you’ll be the wiser for what you learn here.

8 thoughts on “The Business of Screenwriting: Three scripts

  1. My friend Adam sold his very first script, which also made the Black List. Then the pressure of writing under contract made him feel like Barton Fink, so he decided to throw in the towel and go back to Harvard for a science PhD instead.

    1. SimAlex2000 says:

      God, I understand this far too well.

  2. I as of this moment have 9 animated TV sitcom specs. I’ll have 10 by the end of the month. Is that a decent “writer’s equivalent?”

  3. I started to comment on some of these very points yesterday with regards to balancing theory and actual creativity. I scrapped it because I realized I was going a bit off course, then lo and behold, I read this today.

    What I had written yesterday was I believe in the rule of three and do not get, at all, the advice sometimes thrown around that one should set something aside and start something else fresh.

    Writing is problem solving. The author is the God of the world they have created and if they get stuck and don’t know how to fix their story, then they’re not a very good God nor a good problem solver.

    Furthermore, I’ve never figured out these people who write 15-16 scripts. Huh? I admire the ambition, but my gut tells me they keep repeating the same mistakes, over and over and over… because they haven’t learned how to actually write.

    Writing is problem solving.

    The author is creating some dilemma for their hero to overcome. That’s a problem. Finding a way to have them overcome it in a meaningful way the audience can relate to is solving the problem.

    Think about it: as writers, we’re the ones responsible for creating the problem. Why would we bother doing that if we didn’t already know the solution before we set out? I know Scott has said this before, but professional writers start with their ending first. How does one go about getting to the end of the journey without first knowing exactly where they want to go?

    Anyway, that’s my hubbub to share.

    I read a lot of scripts that don’t have any theme to speak of and when I ask the writer, they shrug and say “I didn’t really think about that”. Themes typically come from the climax – how the story turns out, whether they’ve succeeded or failed, or if they’re in a better place despite the tribulations like in Michael Clayton.

    But the writer needs to know what it is they’re working toward because everything that happens up to that point in the climax is going to be the dramatic argument for or against whatever it is they’re trying to say, and unfortunately many don’t realize this until they’re on their third or so script.

    Hell, it took me several years to look at my first three scripts and ask “what exactly is it I’m trying to communicate here?”. Once I figured it out, the quality of my writing benefited greatly – it now was saying something. I was saying something.

    And once you’ve figured it out, that fourth script feels like it writes itself in record time because you know more or less what you’re doing. There’s a purpose to it other than a mere “oh, this is cool!” factor.

    1. Scott says:

      TBBB, we must be in sync because I just started a draft of a new TBOS post titled “They see you as a problem-solver.” I’ve discussed this before, too, but it’s worth repeating. A studio exec or producer looks at their slate, and what they see are problems. This script’s plot is a mess. That script isn’t funny. And this script down here, who the hell knows what’s up with that, but it definitely needs work.

      Problems. Who to solve them? Writers.

      This is where our critical analytical skills — the ability to read a script or manuscript, identify the problems, then suggest viable solutions — are… well… critical. I talked about that a bit here.

      It should go without saying that you develop those critical analytical skills by reading a ton of scripts, breaking down a ton of movies, and confronting and solving problems that arise when you write your own scripts.

      Thanks for weighing in with a great observation.

      1. Yep, definitely in sync!

        When I started to write this yesterday, I was saying with regards to learning theories, that the writer’s journey will have one always learning and that I personally found there to be a learning curve.

        That quest to get better will ultimately lead people to seek more knowledge out and for myself at least, that came from recognizing there were problems to begin with.

  4. This is the best, most practical advice you could offer. And I would suggest one more step. Once you’ve completed that third script, go back to your first. If the concept still grabs you and you think it’s worth the time…do another rewrite. It will be an eye-opening experience and give such a confidence boost.

  5. Totally agree with everything being said here.

    Would you say that a first (and indeed, second) script should only be considered as training exercises? Only, I’m coming to the end of my first script and was toying with the idea of sending it out when it’s completed, but now I’m not sure I should.

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