5 Screenwriting Traits: #3 — Consistency

March 13th, 2013 by

During the nearly 5 years I’ve run this blog, I have been privileged to do one-on-one interviews with a number of screenwriters, especially this year as I set a goal to post a Q&A per week for 2013.

Over the course of those interviews, it’s been fascinating to learn the variety of approaches to the craft, yet at the same time how certain themes recur.

Recently I was struck by five personality traits and five skill sets that keep popping up. So I thought it would be helpful to do a series, a checklist if you will, of aspects of things we should be mindful of as we develop as screenwriters. Today:

Screenwriting Trait #3: Consistency

Consistency. Pretty boring word, right? Very left-brain. Perhaps conjures up images of accountants and bankers. But we’re talking screenwriting. Why is consistency an important trait for practitioners of the craft?

Another word that begins with “c”. Comfort. As in comfort level. And that works on 2 levels as well.

There is the comfort level of the buyers. Remember: Studios executives operate from a primal level of fear. Justifiably so. Movies that fail to generate greenbacks and end up in with red ink have a way of creating pink slips.

Every major studio is owned by a ginormous multinational corporation that cares almost exclusively about profits. Yet as William Goldman famously noted about the business of making a movie, “Nobody knows anything.” So every single project that funnels into and through the script development process gets assessed on multiple levels to make some business sense of out what is essentially a mysterious undertaking. So the most fundamental thing to happen for someone on the other side of the desk to muster up the guts to utter “yes” and green light a project is hitting their comfort level. That means story concept, talent, budget, genre, marketing, and yes… the screenwriter.

39a) Older Dalton Trumbo photo

One of the all-time great screenwriters Dalton Trubmo

The screenwriter needs to have talent.
The screenwriter needs to be a team player.
The screenwriter needs to be able to communicate well.
The screenwriter needs to be a problem-solver.

But a screenwriter also needs to show consistency.

Primarily that means a consistent level of quality in scripted projects. A sense that s/he will deliver the goods this time like they have before. But also consistency in how they interact with everyone involved with the project.

They want to believe they can rely on you. If you have demonstrated consistency, along with all the other traits noted above, hopefully you can hit their comfort level.

There is another way that consistency comes into play… and that is for the writer him/herself. For you need to hit your own comfort level. You need to know that you can deliver the goods on a consistent basis.

Imagine this. You write a spec script. It’s a really good script. It lands you representation. The script circulates around Hollywood. You do the bottled water tour. In one meeting, they toss out an idea. Suddenly the heavens open, the Muses shine down on you, and you start spitting pearls of creative genius. The story unfolds right there in the room, exciting everyone on the other side of the desk. Before you know it, they are on the phone with your reps and holy crap, you have landed a Hollywood writing assignment!

Cut to your lawyer’s office about four weeks later. You sit staring at a contract for your writing services. The sum you are to be paid is six figures. Sweet! But then there is this other set of numbers, the due date for your draft: 10 weeks from now.

10 weeks. 70 days. 1,680 hours.

Do you have the confidence you can meet that date?

If you have learned your craft… and practiced it writing multiple scripts… and tested out various approaches to prep and page-writing… and have zeroed in on your writer’s voice… and have established work habits when it comes to your writing… if in other words you have demonstrated consistency as a writer… then hopefully you will hit your own comfort level, empowering you to write the hell out of that project.

A few observations by writers about the value of consistency:

“You sit in back of the typewriter and you work, and that’s all there is to it.” — Harlan Ellison

“I write only when I’m inspired. Fortunately I’m inspired at 9 o’clock every morning.” — William Faulkner

“It doesn’t matter what we write so long as we write continually as well as we can.” — C.S. Lewis

“Being a real writer means being able to do the work on a bad day.” — Norman Mailer

“If I waited until I felt like writing, I’d never write at all.” — Anne Tyler

Part 1: Passion

Part 2: Courage

Tomorrow: Screenwriting Trait #4: Flexibility.

7 thoughts on “5 Screenwriting Traits: #3 — Consistency

  1. Consistency is probably the hardest trait I have been working on in the past year. I have at least made myself consistently do some form of writing every week. I think that the biggest issue with keeping consistent is that I either want to go all the way or not at all.

    I want to get it in my head that a little progress each week, is still progress. I should aspire to be more like the tortoise and less like the hare.

  2. Erica R Maier says:

    I love this line, David: I should aspire to be more like the tortoise and less like the hare.

    A little progress is most certainly still progress. I have a tendency to self-loathe if I don’t get enough screenwriting time in in a given day or week.

    I know I need to train myself, too, to be OK with doing even a little something, which is always better than nothing.

    1. Mark Walker says:

      Erica and David – as I alluded to below, any amount in a day is good enough for me, and I have read of people who are happy even if it is 15 minutes. I was only getting work done at the weekend when I started, but I found that I was losing momentum by not working in the week, so even 15 minutes in the evening with a beer keeps me in the right headspace.

      1. Erica R Maier says:

        Yes, totally agree. I think I may finally be getting to the point where I am OK with small pockets of time. I was in “dormancy” for so long (a decade), that, honestly, ANY progress feels like a HUGE leap. But I still have to work at taming my obsessive-compulsive tendencies to want to get it ALL done NOW. ;)

        1. Mark Walker says:

          That is one of the reasons I took so long to get going, thinking I needed to have hours at a time to do some writing, but I soon realised I was waiting for something that I just wasn’t going to get! But I know what you mean about just wanting to get it done!

          I do feel better for taking any pocket of time though, however small. :-)

  3. Mark Walker says:

    Consistency is another hard thing to master, and something I find especially hard working full-time and with a wife and family. Finding time to myself away from the demands of normal life can be very demanding.

    But there are ways around it and even the smallest amount of writing each day can help reach consistency in effort – perhaps even if it is only 15 minutes a day.

    I have started getting up early to get 30-40 extra minutes done in the morning, using lunch breaks and getting a little bit of writing in in the evenings.

    It may not all be regular timeslots, but it helps me with consistency in so far as I am writing as much as I can all the time.

    And don’t forget Scott’s 1:2:7:14 ratio (there is a link on the left pane somewhere) is a great place to start as you realise that you can fit all of that in relatively easily, especially if you accept that the 14 hours of research can include reading, spit-balling, searching the internet or chatting through ideas with other writers.

    It can feel like hard work to start with, but it feels so much better when you get into a rhythym….so much so that I get cranky if I don’t get some time everyday to do something towards my writing! :-)

  4. Scott says:

    I’m pressed for time so can’t respond to everyone individually, but in the spirit of those of you who wrote about writing something every day, even if only 15 minutes, do you remember my Dumb Little Writing Trick That Works: 1-page per day?

    I heard this idea from producer Larry Gordon about how to knock out a script: Write one page per day. Think about it — at one page per day, in 4 months you’ve generated a 120 pages. So if you take this approach:

    * 1 month: Research, brainstorming, character development, plotting

    * 4 months: Writing (1 page per day)

    * 1 month: Rewrite and final edit

    Which means you can crank out 2 full-length screenplays per year — by writing just one page per day.

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