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 #5: Persistence
As any of you who follow this blog or my Twitter feed know, I collect quotes. On writing. Screenwriting. Creativity. Why? For many reasons, but this may be the most fundamental one: Sometimes when you are floundering and flailing in the roiling waters of creative uncertainty, and your ability to write a story feels like it’s being washed away by a tsunami of doubt, a good quote can function like a life preserver, and keep you afloat until you ride out the storm.
With that nautical frame, I offer to you one of the best quotes about working in the entertainment business I have ever run across:
“Hollywood is the only town where you can not fail. You can only quit trying.” — Dennis Foley
That is so true – especially about screenwriting – and it speaks to the power of persistence. And what is persistence? Here are three definitions:
Persevering especially in spite of opposition, obstacles, and discouragement.
Honestly as far as screenwriting is concerned, that’s the Unholy Trinity we face on an ongoing basis: Opposition, Obstacles and Discouragement. It’s not only severely difficult to write a good story, it’s a major challenge to get into a position where you are even able to have the opportunity to get paid to write a story. And then to actually get a movie produced? I have a friend who has worked in the business as a screenwriter for over two decades and has never had a movie made. Not one. Projects get green lit. Then something happens. Red light. Or the movie gets produced, but it turns out to be a disaster. You’re hot. You’re cold. You’re working. You’re not. Honestly to be a screenwriter, you have to have the creative spirit of an angel, but the grit of a warrior to handle the relentless challenges you face.
The challenges persist. So do rewrites. In a recent interview I conducted with a screenwriter, he told me he wrote 16 drafts of a spec script. 16! That is persistence as repetition. But at the end of the day, that very screenwriter sold that spec to a major studio for nearly a million dollars. That is persistence as payoff.
Lasting or enduring tenaciously.
This gets to the heart of screenwriting persistence: You just have to hang in there, keep writing and believing in yourself. Screenwriter Brad Ingelsby had this to say in an interview I did with him:
If you’re passionate about the material and the story, and you believe in yourself then it can absolutely happen to you. I’m the perfect example of someone who got extremely lucky, so I always tell aspiring writers, “If you work hard enough and believe in the story, then there’s a place for you.”
There’s a place for you… but only if you are persistent enough to work for it over the long haul.
“I am going to NAIL this story… but only after I eat a muffin.”
Michael Werwie wrote 9 scripts before he won a Nicholl Fellowship. John Swetnam wrote 17 scripts before he landed his first paying gig. M. Night Shaymalan wrote 5 drafts of The Sixth Sense before he realized this: Maclolm Crowe is dead.
A screenwriter must have persistence as part of their arsenal of traits.
Here’s another quote to help you through the dark times and perhaps my personal favorite:
From FADE IN to FADE OUT. That is the writing journey for each story you craft. But there is a world of stuff outside the actual page-writing through which you must also persist. Summon up the staying power to stick around. All it takes is one script to change your life. Believe me, I know this from my own personal experience.
So if you have Passion… Courage… Consistency… Flexibility… and Persistence, you have the traits a screenwriter needs to succeed in Hollywood. But you also needs skills. That is what we will explore next week.
See you Monday.
Have you found this series helpful thus far? Please let me know in comments. Also which of these 5 screenwriting traits do you think is most important for you to develop?