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 a 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.
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.
[Originally posted April 19, 2012]