The Business of Screenwriting: Three scripts

August 15th, 2013 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 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.

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.

[Originally posted April 19, 2012]

12 thoughts on “The Business of Screenwriting: Three scripts

  1. Jenny McNabb says:

    This is extremely true and very valuable information! I did get a manager on my first script, and I’m struggling to get through a second, as I don’t yet have my confidence, voice, or process worked out. So, as you so rightly say, Scott: the only way out is through!

  2. Lydia Mulvey says:

    Great post, Scott. And I couldn’t agree more.

    I’ve written about ten features so far and I wouldn’t show any of the first seven to anyone.

    They live in a box in the corner of my study as a reminder of just how much work is involved in not just getting the words on the page but in a way that’s lively, readable and viable commercially.

    Number eight got me an agent. And I had two more to show her when she asked me what else I had.

    I will swap out two of those when I finish the two I’m currently working on.

    There is a MASSIVE difference between the scripts I first wrote back then and the scripts I write now. And it’s only recently that I’ve felt confident enough in my work to send it out.

    I think for many beginner screenwriters, getting three decent scripts under your belt can feel a little insurmountable. But this is a long game. If you’re not prepared to put in the work, if you’re only in it for the “lifestyle”, then choose another profession.

    Of course, some writers sell their very first script. But the majority of first scripts never sell. You have to put in the work. You have to learn as you go. And you have to have patience.

  3. Mark Walker says:

    It can feel insurmountable to get 3 done…certainly when you are sitting down having just written “FADE IN” on the first……but it can be done. I had three finished in the space of a year. It was a hard slog, and the first two are “okay” (in my opinion) but they taught me so much about how I work as writer.

    Will they ever be saleable – probably not as they are, but I may go back to them one day.

    But what that did was give me the confidence to take on the advice and guidance of friends on the Black Board and Scott and the Screenwriting Masterclass delegates to redraft number 3 into something bigger and, hopefully better…..confidence and skill I definitely didn’t have when starting number 1.

    Whether or not I get anywhere with #3 is yet to be seen, but #4 is on the way, and #5 and #6 are gestating. Stopping at one and trying to make a career out of it would probably ended that career before it started.

    So, as Lydia says, you have to put in the work and keep writing, writing, writing…the more you do, the better you get and, I hope, the easier we are to sell!

    So 3 may be the magic number, but 4 can’t hurt, or can 5, 6, 7 or 8…..

  4. 14Shari says:

    Solid advice. When do you recommend to work with the formula to write one script and prep the other? After the 3rd finished script or after script number one?

    1. Scott says:

      Shari, I wrote about this here: The Art of Stacking Projects.

  5. CydM says:

    Thank you so much, Scott, for making this post. You’ve done a great deal in bringing us interviews with writers who have paid their dues, done their apprenticeship, and continue working and improving. Sometimes you have to flat out say it.

    I’m returning to screenwriting, and writing in general, after being away for over a decade and stunned silly by the changes. Back then I owned every single book written on screenwriting, all four of them :-) Our little group met twice a month, and we looked pretty dumb if we showed up without something written and ready to critique, rewrite, then write another one for more critique. We turned out some pretty darned good writers…after many really bad scripts.

    Everything has changed in a short period of time, and I’ve had difficulty adjusting. I just had to get back in the mindset that this is a profession and it’s not a just-add-water profession. Every other field where others aim for the brass ring accept and expect a long term commitment, many mistakes, hard work, and getting back up and continuing to do it all over again. If it gets easier along the way, something’s wrong.

    @Lydia…You kept your first scripts? Brave lady! Only one of my earlier scrips survived The Great Purge Of Past Junk, and I nearly stroked out when I read it — what a train wreck. I’m so glad the others are beyond these eyes.

    1. Scott says:

      Cyd, it has changed in 10 years. Some of the ‘old’ guard who broke in 10 or more years ago have little awareness of what it’s like for new writers hitting their boots on the ground for the first time. They’re like, “Managers? Who gets a manager when you have an agent?”

      The changes extend to everything from screenwriting style to format to what’s selling to… well… just about everything.

      That’s one reason why I focus a lot of my interviews on writers who have broken in in the last 5 years or so. Another reason: They have a much fresher awareness of what it is like to be on the other side of Hollywood’s fence.

      That said, some things never change like this: If you write a great script, someone will notice it. In some ways, that’s even MORE true nowadays than ever.

      Welcome back to the fray, Cyd. The world needs more thoughtful, colorful writers like you!

    2. Lydia Mulvey says:

      Cyd, I even have the first script I wrote when I was 17, which was hand-written on an A4 pad and was about 67 pages long :)

      I didn’t know you’d been away from writing. Welcome back. You’re an absolute library of knowledge on the Black Board forum so it’s always great to see your input.

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  7. kevinpgoulet says:

    Uh huh… Agreed; one script ain’t enough. You gotta be ready and sure of it.

    Is there anything worse for a newbie writer than having dinner with a Friend and his very legit producer Buddy and not really being properly prepared to take advantage of the opportunity?

    (The Buddy’s Dad was part of a duo that produced some big, big star-driven films.)

    Moreover, I feel as though I let my friend down as he was doing me a kindness he certainly didn’t have to do.

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