What is a screenwriter?

Without screenwriters, there would be no big-budget blockbusters in the summer, no independent movies to screen during Oscar season, no straight-to-video sequels–no movies at all. Every movie needs an idea, which can be turned into a treatment, which can be turned into a full, three-act movie. So the world of film needs screenwriters.

They create the script or screenplay for a movie or television show, the foundation for the entire film production. A finished product includes dialogue, action, and the overall structure of the story. Screenwriters play a crucial role in the filmmaking process, as they are responsible for crafting the narrative and characters that will be brought to life on screen.

They often start by developing the initial concept for a film or TV show, which may involve creating a unique idea or adapting an existing story, novel, or real-life event into a screenplay. Scene descriptions, character dialogue and development, structure, and other elements are necessary to convey the story visually and audibly.

Occasionally, they’ll work with directors, producers, and other members of the creative team to refine the script and make necessary changes during the pre-production and production phases. This may include multiple drafts and revisions, so they must be open to feedback and collaboration. They can work as freelancers or be employed by studios, production companies, or television networks.

What does a screenwriter do?

As a screenwriter, you are responsible for writing the script or screenplay that serves as the blueprint for a production. Your role is pivotal in bringing stories to life on the screen as you’ll generate original ideas (your own or from someone else) or adapt existing material into a screenplay.

Following a very strict template, you’ll write everything that will happen in the film, including scene descriptions, character actions, and dialogue. A screenwriter will create and shape the characters in the story, build the world around them, and give them authentic and engaging dialogue. Each character must have a unique voice, emotions, and idiosyncrasies, all while advancing the plot in the classic three-act structure.

You’ll build the film’s narrative, creating conflict, and resolution, and maintaining audience engagement over those three acts. There’s no one way of getting there (see Pulp Fiction and Memento), and you’ll collaborate closely with the production team to refine the script and make necessary adjustments throughout the process.

You are the architect of a film or TV show’s narrative, the storyteller who shapes the characters, plot, and dialogue–bringing captivating stories to the screen for audiences to enjoy. A screenwriter’s work is essential to the filmmaking process–without you, there is no movie, film, TV episode, or video.

How do you become a screenwriter?

Becoming a successful screenwriter is no easy feat. Not only do you need to come up with an original story, or at least find a new way to tell a well-worn story, but you’ll also need to tell it in a way that is new, fresh, and able to capture the imagination of the people that have the power to turn it into a movie.

Read books and scripts, and watch films critically to understand storytelling techniques. Begin writing regularly, even if it’s just for yourself. Experiment with different genres and styles to find your voice. You may consider enrolling in screenwriting courses or programs or look to online resources, books, and workshops that teach the fundamentals of screenwriting. The more you learn about the craft, the better you’ll become.

You’ll also need to learn the structure of movies, both technically and creatively. All scripts must follow exact templates and adhere to font type, font size, proper indents and margins, and everything else that goes into a script. Creatively, you need to learn how to introduce a story, provide the conflict that drives the movie, and a conclusion.

Consider collaborating with other writers, or even asking for feedback, tips, and pointers from an established writer. Receiving different perspectives can help you improve and grow as a writer. Look for screenwriting contests, fellowships, or internships that can provide exposure and experience. The most important advice is to believe in your talent and passion: the journey to becoming a screenwriter can be challenging. Persistence is key–keep writing, learning, and pushing forward, even in the face of multiple rejections.

Additional Information

Like most jobs in a creative industry like filmmaking, there’s a debate about whether or not you need a degree to have a successful career. If you’re an accountant for a studio or an entertainment lawyer, a degree definitely makes sense! And while some formal education may help you as a writer, you definitely don’t need to be in school for four years (or longer) to be a screenwriter.

Still, university programs in film and screenwriting offer structured courses that provide a strong foundation in storytelling, scriptwriting techniques, and film theory. You may even be able to build connections with other writers for collaboration down the road. And there are some production studios that may value a degree to some extent.

However, a university education can be expensive, and a film degree does not guarantee a job or success in the industry. You may even need to pack up your life and move hundreds or thousands of miles away to attend a “brand name” school. And, honestly, a degree does not automatically make you a great screenwriter.

Many successful screenwriters have not taken the traditional university route. They’ve built their careers through self-study, practical experience, and networking. This is exactly what Film Connection offers in our Screenwriting Program. We pair you with a mentor–an experienced screenwriter–who will guide you through the screenwriting process. You don’t need to go into massive student loan debt, you don’t have to move, and you may even get a chance to pitch your story to a decision-maker who can get your movie made!

At the core of screenwriting is the ability to craft compelling and engaging stories. You may have a story that comes along once in a generation, but if you don’t know how to tell it, it will just stay in your head. You don’t necessarily need to be Shakespeare, but you need to be able to create a coherent narrative structure, understand pacing, and have the ability to move your plot along without getting bogged down.

Creating relatable, multi-dimensional characters, authentic and engaging dialogue, and descriptions that will captivate the reader and translate effectively to the screen are definitely skills you’ll need to hone. Depending on the genre or subject matter, you may need to conduct research to ensure accuracy and authenticity in your writing.

Writing consistently is key to honing your craft. Set a schedule and stick to it, even when you’re faced with writer’s block. Yes, it’s starting to sound a lot like homework, but at least you get to pick the subject matter! Treat your writing as a profession while embracing your unique perspective and creativity.

Originality and fresh ideas can set you apart in a competitive market. Be open to feedback and willing to revise your work–it may be your story, but you want your audiences to stay engaged, too. Rejections are part of the process for most screenwriters: developing a thick skin, while still considering different viewpoints, is a key skill you’ll need. Becoming a successful screenwriter is a journey that requires continuous learning, practice, and a passion for storytelling.

The best way to learn screenwriting is to dive right in and start writing scripts, or at least get your ideas down on paper (or the screen) for future development. While there are some technical aspects of screenwriting you’ll need to take care of, writing scripts is largely a creative endeavor. And the best way to hone those skills is to be continually working on them.

With some direction, of course. Start by reading as many screenplays as you can, analyzing different genres, themes, and eras to understand the different approaches to storytelling. You can find screenplays online, in script libraries, or through screenwriting books and invest time in learning the fundamentals of screenwriting techniques, structure, and formatting.

But practice is key. Begin by writing short scenes, dialogues, and eventually, full scripts. Set aside dedicated time each day or week to write. The more you write, the more you’ll improve. And share your work with others–taking constructive feedback to make your work better is part of the learning process. Watch films and television series actively, paying attention to storytelling techniques, character development, and dialogue. Learn what works and what doesn’t.

Finally, define your screenwriting goals: do you want to write a feature movie, a TV series, or a short film? Having clear objectives will help guide your learning process. Don’t be afraid to rewrite your scripts and keep your creativity flowing by drawing inspiration from various sources. As you continue to learn and practice, you’ll develop your unique voice and storytelling style. It’s not just about becoming a screenwriter–it’s about enjoying the process of storytelling.

There is no one-size-fits-all answer to this question because no two screenwriters are exactly alike. There are a variety of factors that come into play, including your talent, dedication, experience, and work ethic. Some screenwriters break into the industry within a year or two, especially if they already have a background in the industry while others may take a decade or more–if ever.

And there’s nothing that says you have to go through the usual channels of screenwriting, either. If you have the resources to make your own movie, you can become a screenwriter in however long it takes to finish your script! That’s what Robert Rodriquez did for El Mariachi, but his movie was picked up, packaged, and distributed by Columbia Pictures.

Generally speaking, though, it takes time and practice to develop the skills and knowledge necessary to write a great screenplay. There are many books, articles, and online resources that can teach you the basics of screenwriting structure, character development, dialogue, and more. The more you write, the better you will become at it. Don’t be afraid to experiment and try new things.

Once you have written a draft of your screenplay, get feedback from other screenwriters, directors, producers, or anyone else who can give you a constructive opinion. Attend industry events, meetups, and conferences. Get to know other screenwriters, producers, directors, and agents. But this all takes time, and how much time it takes is dependent on you.

While screenplays for both film and TV have their similarities, there are differences between the two processes. Obviously, the length of the screenplay will be different as a movie will be around 90-120 pages long (each page being about a minute of screen time) and a TV script will be between 22–44 pages long.

There are also differences in the format of film and TV screenplays, using different font types and sizes, margins, direction, scene headings, and more. But the big differences come during the writing, both in the time it takes to write, the collaborative nature, and the structure. Films typically have a three-act structure while TV can have a variety of different narrative structures, such as episodic, serialized, or procedural.

There is also more collaboration when it comes to writing for the small screen. A team of writers works together to keep a weekly show or limited series on schedule and coherent. For film, a screenwriter may work closely with the director or cinematographer for clarity, but once the screenplay is done, the bulk of the writer’s job is over.

Film screenwriters typically earn more money than TV screenwriters, but it is generally more difficult to get your screenplay produced into a film than it is to get your script produced into a TV show. And once you’re on the show, you’ll have steady work–as a film screenwriter, you’ll need to come up with the next big idea.

One of the best things about being a screenwriter is you don’t need a lot of equipment to buy to get started. In fact, you probably already have the equipment you need right now: a computer or laptop, the internet, and maybe some pens and paper. Pretty simple stuff.

At some point, you’ll need to start organizing your thoughts into an actual screenplay, or even just a treatment or synopsis of your movie. There are plenty of free screenpay, treatment, and other templates you’ll need online. If you want to pay a little bit for more features, we’ve recommended Celtx in the past.

Although it seems like they’ve almost gone the way of a fax machine, people still like to hold a hard copy of a script. So make sure to have a solid printer and plenty of black ink to print out your screenplays several times. Backup storage is a good idea, too, and thumbdrives are relatively inexpensive.

As accessory items, research books on how to write screenplays, the art of writing screenplays, and others to either help you through rough patches or to give you new ways of thinking about your craft. Becoming a successful screenwriter means constantly working at it, and reading about different aspects of writing a screenplay should be included with your daily work.

This question falls into the “it depends” category. What media form you are writing, the length of a screenplay, and even different parts of the screenplay can all come into play. While there will probably be changes to many of these numbers (this was written shortly after the writer’s strike had ended), here is a detailed look at what screenplays, writers, and others can expect to make as a member of the Writers Guild of America.

We covered this in-depth here, but this is an example from that blog: “For example, if you’re delivering an original screenplay, including treatment, the low end of the scale is $77,495. They even have it broken down by installments: delivery of an original treatment is $35,107, delivery of the screenplay first draft is $30,512, and the final draft pays $11,875.”

Now, this is scale for writers, and some screenwriters can make a heckuva a lot more than these baselines. Joe Eszteras once made $3.7 million for a screenplay that was reportedly based on an idea written on a napkin. That movie was Showgirls and was a colossal flop. However, he also wrote Basic Instinct, which was a tremendous success and he made $3 million for that.

But that also signaled the end of big paydays for screenwriters. You can make above minimum after gaining experience and establishing a solid record of hits. But until then, expect to make quite a bit less than Mr. Eszterhas. But first thing first: make sure you protect yourself and your work by joining the WGA.

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