Book & Quill GifWhat makes you think you know how to write? Because you’ve written a pile of unproduced, unsold screenplays?

Screenwriting is very technical writing. It is scrutinized in a way other writing is not. It is evaluated in a process that comes with mountains of baggage, none of which is designed to be helpful to training the aspiring writer and much of which is very subjective. Because of this, an aspiring screenwriter can cling to the belief that he or she knows what he or she is doing with no evidence whatsoever. Rather, the writer blames rejection on a million other factors – not having a good connection, not living in L.A., another similar project beat you out (even though you were never even remotely on the radar of the buyers in the first place), Hollywood is wrong about what makes a good movie (that’s my favorite one), you are misunderstood, and on and on and on. Never that you’re writing just isn’t yet good enough.

At a storytelling level, the elements that make a screenplay work are the same elements that make any story work; they are just embedded in the most technical dramatic writing in the world.

So, here’s a thought. Take a big step back. Forget about selling a screenplay or selling anything. Forget about three-act structure, forget about formatting issues, forget about number of pages. Instead, focus on telling a great story.

And tell it in prose….

That’s right, prose. Simple narrative. Just tell the damn story. Whether it is short story length, novella, novel or ten volume opus. Feel free to delve inside the characters’ minds, have soliloquies, reveal internal thoughts, do everything you can’t do in a screenplay (or do none of it – you’re the writer). Just make sure you tell a great story.

And let the story be personal. I don’t mean write about your childhood or the girl who just left you. I mean, make sure you think about what it is you want the story to say, what points of view you want it to reflect, how you want to shape the reader’s experience of these points of view. Make this a story no one else could possibly write – only you.

Here’s what you’ll get out of it. First, you’ll have a story that is more easily accessible to qualified readers, a story from which you can more easily get a body of solid feedback. You will find out where your weaknesses are – at least the fundamental storytelling weaknesses. Second, even without feedback, you will learn a tremendous amount about your writing. You will discover things you have to say, how to say them, and what is important to you as a storyteller. Third, you will improve as a storyteller simply from having made the effort to tell a great story. You will not have the excuse of structural challenges or any other technical issue. It is just you and the story. Fourth, you will take a big step towards developing your own unique voice. And that voice – your voice – is really the only thing you have to sell Hollywood. Anyone can learn the technical end of screenwriting. Only you can tell stories with your voice. But you must find and develop that voice or you are just copying better writers and you will fail. Writing in prose is a terrific way to develop that voice.

So, write something else. Write a story, write a novel, write an opus. It will be worth it, I promise. When you’re done, Hollywood will still be there. You can dig into your next screenplay with a new zeal and, perhaps, some new insight.

Now go write.

(And, by the way, it is no harder to sell a well-told unpublished short story or novel to Hollywood than to sell a screenplay. If you do a great job on the story – you have something else to market.)


  1. You will not have the excuse of structural challenges or any other technical issue.

    In all due respect, bullshit. As someone who has read 1000+ short stories (and hundreds of screenplays) in the past 4 years as a reader for Zoetrope: All-Story, I believe that writing an excellent short story is harder than writing an excellent screenplay.

    With a short story, there are more variables to play with – how you meter out description, selecting a POV, deciding whether to use more than one POV, how much interior world the reader gets exposed to… It’s so much harder.

    A novel? I don’t know. Maybe that’s easier.

    But a short story that works, like those written by Raymond Carver and Adam Haslett, is rarer than a screenplay that works. Trust me. I’ve read the slush.

  2. I should delete my comment. I re-read the post this morning and got a different point out of it. I think it’s great to write out story ideas in prose form. I do that myself. (I call them treatments. I know, I know… different than what you’re talking about.) I just take issue with the idea that there’s nothing technical about writing a short story. It’s an exacting form.

  3. Great post. Worrying about technical details should be the very last step in any writing process. The easiest mistake to make in writing, I think, is to let those details cloud your brainstorming and creation stages.

    I would go so far as to recommend writing in whatever crazy format seems right for the story at hand. If it’s a crazy mix of screenplay formatting and short story formatting, fine, you can work that out later. Just focus on telling a compelling story. Only when the story is something you LOVE should you waste energy on formatting.

  4. The only reason I remain unproduced is because I insist on using 1.3″ margins instead of 1.4″.

    What is wrong with these people?! IS THERE NO LOVE FOR ART IN THIS GODFORSAKEN TOWN?!

  5. It is an excellent idea to switch from movies/screenplays to prose. I have written and directed my own feature films. I decided to quit making low budget/high self-exploiting movies. I said to myself, that writing a novel gives me the freedom to move around, go internal, use the language as a tool instead of the fifth grade grammar of the screenplay. Even dialogue in a movie is quite basic. Also, the production costs (before printing it, which is the equivalent of distribution cost for a movie) for a novel are practically zero, besides having a computer and spending time on it. And revising is definitely cheaper than reshooting scenes in a movie. And I don’t have to deal with crazy crew members who only want to eat beans or cry when there is mayo on their beloved sandwich. Writing prose allows to deepen the story and to develop a personal voice.

  6. Interesting. I came to this site from blogs for fiction writers. For the past hour I’ve been reading how wannabe story writers have to shun adjectives, start with action rather than description, and eschew writing in the first person present because it’s been done to death. Font should be Times Roman, 12 point. Novels should be loose sheets, never bound….

    It’s everywhere. There are probably even technical rules for commenting on a blog.

  7. lisa:

    You cannot use four “.” in a row when commenting on a blog. I’m afraid you will never make it in the blogosphere….

  8. you know, i just starting writing short fiction. highly recommend it. it’s so free compared to screenwriting (and much easier to get published). it also improves screenwriting technique.

    highly recommend it


  9. I was under contract with one of the big three agencies and the largest management company in the world. With two sales and an option, I’m telling you the MOST IMPORTANT thing when it comes time to write a script you actually want to sell is ORIGINALITY. You must be able to take us into a world we HAVE NEVER SEEN BEFORE. Once you jump that hurdle with a perfectly executed script, then you can go back and do you pet passion project.

    This is assuming you instinctively know how to write, that you understand pacing and momentum and creating dialogue that leaps off the page and resonates in the listener’s brain. If you do not understand those technicalities and/or you cannot execute them with panache, then you’re just wasting your time and clogging up an already crowded system in which agents are reluctant to read because they end up getting so much junk submitted to them from amateurs, it ruins it for the pros – or returning pros.

    I’ve dropped a font size, compressed line spacing and shifted margins – all of that means NOTHING as long as you’ve already SOLD one REALLY GREAT SPEC. I didn’t get into Yale by cutting corners – you can’t cut corners if you want a career in this game – there are only so many slots available and you’ll have to try and displace a guy like me first. So strap on a helmet and start writing.

    Good Luck.


  10. I’ve written my very first spec script just recently (so I’m an aspiring writer… not a professional, yet) and I have to agree with “J-P’, I would imagine that ORIGINALITY is the most important thing (and the one commodity that is severely lacking in Hollywood today). When conceiving my first script, the original idea was one that quite literally leapt into my brain a decade earlier, during a period in my life when I was quite unhappy. It took me all of this time to finally work out the rough patches and commit it to paper. The process of learning how to write has been a rewarding one – and I’m still learning (one never stops learning a craft). I’m busy at work on the sequel now. My work is not produced and hasn’t been noticed yet. My great hope is that I’ll be able to get it out there and read by the right people from my home base in Cleveland, Ohio! Well… I’ve always been a dreamer. At least I have my normal “9-to-5” to fall back on. Thanks for the words of wisdom… I truly appreciate any and all information I can get from the pros out there. Screenwriting is my passion… I hope to someday leave a mark and make my dreams come to life on the big screen. How cool would that be?! And if that never happens, I have some cool scripts for my friends, family, and children to leaf through. Either way, I feel accomplished. It’s not easy putting together a three-act play or creating a unique vision on 120 pages! Hats off to those who are successful! Kudos!

  11. as far as “runing it for the pros” goes, i have been watching movies long enough to know that the vast majority of them suck: either the story is not interesting, or the plot is too thin, or the dialogue is pathetic. at least one of these things is true in almost every movie ever made. if what gets produced these days is what we have to expect out of the “pros”, then i think people that actually have something creative to write about should be encouraged to challenge the professionals. If movies like Tank Girl, Fair Game, and Navy SeALs are what the “pros” crank out, then i am not afraid to challenge their job security and make them actually work for it.
    Yale diploma aside, my sympathy for you having difficulty selling your screenplays due to ambitious amateurs does not go very far, even though im sure it bugs the hell out of you when you hear about someone who didnt drop $150,000 on an education makes it in your line of work.

  12. I know nothing about Hollywood even though I live very close, practically next door. It seems to me, though, that making it in this industry would be like any other. It is never purely about one’s education or about one’s connections. Those are merely methods to get through the door. Once inside, to be a valued asset , a person must be able to carry their weight professionally. An Ivy League Education demonstrates not only an ability to pay, but a dedication to a long term goal and the discipline to carry it through.

    After moving to the LA area, I was very surprised to find that everyone I met who worked in Hollywood was together and very impressive personally. I don’t know why, but I wrongly assumed that people in this profession would be unreliable and flaky.

    With a line of people waiting to take their place, why would this be the case? The industry is competitive and very fast paced. JP’s comments really drive the point home.

    Thanks, JP!!

  13. What puzzles me is how on earth there are so many lousy movies made every month, every year, every decade. Well over 90% of what Hollywood turns out is junk…and that’s the best of the best? Surely more than a handful of truly quality stories are being offered to Hollywood every WEEK! Why is quality being pushed aside to make room for the crap that makes it to the theatres? Consumer demand seems too simple of an answer. And too scary.

  14. Not that I enjoy being narky and picking on individuals… OK, so I do, but I notice that, straight after having exclaimed that originality is the number one important value of a good script and non-existent in Hollywood, Devin then mentions that he is working on a sequel to his first (assumed totally original) script. Seems a little “Hollywood-y” to me…

    My point is, that if you are unproduced, and trying to get a start, don’t do what everyone else is doing. Be scary. Be dangerous. Use the fact that you are not bound to the “system” (under contract) to your advantage. Do what “they” would never dare to do. Do something so new and outrageous that people sit up and take notice, in the way that only you can.

    No-one remembers the name of the 37th writer that Spielberg chewed up and spat out during the 143rd rewrite of “War of the Worlds”, but who remembers names like Woody Allen, Coen Brothers, Joss Whedon, Robert Rodriguez, Quentin Tarantino et al ? (all were writers first)

    Now if only I could think of something like that to write about….

  15. I think the reason for crappy films is the emphasis on following the strict format of script writing, forcing people to conform to a particular style of story telling. I have been looking into screenplay writing, and feel like originnality is only praised if you already have a name for yourself. Hopefully i am wrong! I feel like i have some original ideas, but feel bound by the seemingly intense importance of format, plot scheme, and writing/story developing style. ” My opinion so far”….D-Man

  16. Story ideas are not my problem. My problem is SECURITY ! I get stuck feeling it’s boring. I send the first ten or so pages to friends and they bug me for more pages that I cant send because I am fixing the first ten (for a month). Sometimes even my concepts and plot ideas have my friends demanding I write the story.

    My question is this:
    Is there anywhere i can get some write-esteem; a way of feeling confident enough to get on with the damned story?

  17. Lewd,

    I feel the same way. I will go back and forth wandering if I am making the right plot decisions. Should my characters do A or B? Well both A and B have very strong arguments for and against. So I go back and forth, back and forth. I tell myself to just pick one because no one will know that the other one even existed. Hopefully soon I can learn to do this, stick with my decision, and move on to the next section and then the next project.

  18. RE: Stop Writing Screenplays
    I believe that this advice is some of the best ever given. It is the second time I have heard it, just expressed slightly differently.
    I once spoke with a gentleman about my writing issues. At that time, I had not contemplated screenwriting, but was just struggling with what I call “story-overload.”
    He listened intently, as I told him that I had so many stories in my head, that I was overwhelmed. It was true. It was as if the characters were screaming to be put into print. I even had headaches.
    The gentleman’s advice was rich, and tantamount to the above treatise. He said to “just write it all out.” He told me that I just needed to write everything that was in my head. He said that once I wrote it all out, then I would have something to work with, and would be free of having so much inundating the brain.
    This was the richest advice that I had ever received. Thusly, I agree with the above advice. I think that I was so intent upon writing a screenplay, that I was actually developing it as I went along, as my basic story was yet undeveloped.
    To write out the entire story, in whatever form it takes, would be a brilliant strategy. Then, once it is all on paper, it then becomes exactly that which my mentor aptly advised, all the raw ingredients of what one needs to further develop his next steps.
    I have found it to be quite a chore in gathering all of my stories, hidden in various and sundry notebooks, from years gone by. However, many forgotten, though important things, have been retrieved. And now, I can sit do what what I need to: put it all together in ONE place, and develop my novel. After that, who knows? The skies the limit!

  19. I agree with the thrust of what you are arguing for by re thinking or re envisioning ‘story’ but I have also found it useful to get three or so actors to do a reading in front of camera so you can then watch the result with screen play in hand. By having something up front you’d be suprised what you learn and good actors will even be able to reflect things back to you during the process.

  20. I absolutely agree, I think that writing in prose is in fact the first step to writing a screenplay, just like having a whole bunch of written vignettes for individual characters that never make it into the final story. How did Tolkien write LOTR, after all? He wrote tomes of history and created languages before he even tackled the story itself. It’s all about looking at it from different angles, then you will have something real and three dimensional.

    I’m the type of person that likes to do things myself. The reason I’ve decided to write a screenplay isn’t to sell it and become slightly less poor, because that will never happen. I’d much rather take it a step at a time, and bring in all the talent I’ve met over the years and put together a production by myself. People who have done this might say they have issues with this approach, as the low budget thing gets old quick. But see I really don’t care if I only make one movie and then decide to go into, I dunno, environmental law. I’m all about experiencing, which is why I feel I have something original to contribute to the massive body of expressive arts that already exists. I’ve been in so many different worlds and see connections between things that most people are completely oblivious to. So, whether or not I become world famous really doesn’t matter – what matters is that I’m working, and enjoying every minute of it.

    Great blog 🙂

  21. Couldn’t really take writing advice from someone who doesn’t know the difference between you’re and your.

    “Never that you’re writing just isn’t yet good enough”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *