Hi There,

This week more of your excellent screenwriting survey answers – a fantastic ‘tutorial for screenwriting success’ with Part 1 of your answers to the question –

What’s your number one tip for screenwriting success?

‘My number one tip for screenwriting success would be to watch as many great and as many terrible films/TV programmes as possible, try to analyse what makes them great/terrible and then resolve to do something completely different.’

‘Take the advice of those that have a successful career, they are the ones that know how it’s done.’

‘It’s this: “Oi! Producers! Just fkn read my script!”
What, you meant other screenwriters? In that case it’s: “Your characters must break rules to succeed. But don’t imagine that applies to your writing.”

‘Write, rewrite, and write again. Never, ever, stop writing. If you take a pause, let it be in the creation of another script. Don’t think about the result. Forget about whether you can sell your script or not, just think about the joy of creating a written masterpiece…keep writing until your script is that perfect result of your creation.’

‘Be visual.’

‘I’m tempted to say rewriting cos that’s absolutely critical but thinking about it, there’s something that can stop you even before it comes to that. You have to learn to embrace the rejection. Jed Meccurio said that you have to see each rejection as one closer to the acceptance. It’s hard to take obviously, but if writing is the thing that you want to do you have acknowledge that there’s an element of subjectivity to writing and just because you love something doesn’t mean everyone will. You’ve got to seek out that person who loves your script as much as you do. So, in sum, I say… EMBRACE THE PAIN!’

‘Block your structure on a table – like Joseph Heller and JK Rowling did. I use OmniOutline and I picked up and refined the trick by adapting Phil Gladwin’s Excel outline. Scenes down the left hand column and characters along the top row. Then every character can have a place in a scene somewhere in a table cell – you are the writer, you decide. Then you have your structure. Don’t structure linearly, do it as a table. You can see the entire story in clear outline at a single glance. Wish I had figured this out twenty years ago.’

‘This is a biggie: Write every day! Some days it feels like I am just shovelling manure from one side of my keyboard to the other. But I fulfil a quota (typically 1000 words a day for a novel or three scenes a day for a screenplay because I am lazy) no matter how I feel. If I take three days off, I lose momentum and focus. It is surprising how many people get smacked back by writer’s block, or they might let their life get in the way. I am at the end of a very intense screenwriting course right now and at the end of six months the drop-out rate is close to 75%! The dropouts included some very gifted writers whose concepts I very much longed to see on the big screen.’

‘Answering this suggests I know what screenwriting success consists of and how to get it. Does an episode of Doctors constitute success, or are we all taking it in turns? I’d say something like, “hard work and do the writing” as no matter how good your idea is it won’t write itself. Of course, if you win the Euromillions you should probably just fund your own film. You’ll be motivated enough to be commercial, invested enough not to cut corners and involved enough to sustain your vision. So, buying scratchcards, I guess. Who said the Lottery hasn’t done anything for British Cinema?’

‘Contrary to what many others have said, my personal tip is: Don’t force it. If you don’t feel like you have anything to say today, don’t write. Don’t make it a chore. When an idea, no matter how small, strikes you, then run with it. Sometimes I may stop what I’m doing to write a little note about an idea. Four hours later I’m still hammering the keys like a man possessed because I am borne on the wave of that idea. If I’m interested, hopefully the audience will be too. If I’m just grinding out words so I can say I produced 1,000 words to day, why should the audience care?’

‘Don’t make ‘success’ your goal. Write because you love it, because you can do nothing else. If that leads to financial reward, consider it a bonus.’

‘Outlining and re-writing are the most important things for writers to learn. Outlining because you need a plan to keep you sane whilst attempting the maddening first draft; re-writing because it’s the only proven way to move beyond the mediocre and write something of real quality.’

‘Read and watch as much as possible – you never know everything. Take every piece of advice you are given.’

‘Keep writing – I believe you improve with everything you write.’

‘Not being successful, I balk at offering advice. But I will attempt it, splitting my answers to differentiate between creative success and industry success –

‘Number One Tip for Creative Success:
Know the ending. This might seem obvious, but I presume (I hope!) I’m not alone in having started many scripts without knowing what the ending was (or even what the second act was). As a novice this was useful as it allowed me to jump in and build up my muscle strength as a writer without using the lack of a clear map as an excuse for procrastination, but after a few labour-intensive scripts I soon found it more useful and efficient to write a detailed outline or treatment before I got stuck in. Knowing how your story ends doesn’t limit your options; in fact, it expands them, as you are freer to take a scenic route once you know you have the GPS installed to help you arrive at your destination in the end.

Number One Tip for Industry Success:
Know a director. As someone who does not direct, I assumed when I started out there was a long conveyor belt of directors and producers who were waiting for the next big script from an unknown screenwriter. This is not the case. In Ireland, where I’m from, people who just write scripts without also directing are viewed in the same light by funding bodies as someone who arrives to an interview with a finely tailored jacket and no trousers. Producers want things they know can get made, and the director is the magic genie that can reassure them their investment will not be a waste of money. If, as a writer, you can approach a production company or a funding body with a director already interested in shooting your script, this will greatly increase your chance of being listened to. It’s not like Hollywood where the studio system snaps up good scripts and directors compete to direct them. In Ireland, and presumably many smaller countries outside the Hollywood system, the film industry is a cottage industry, where people do things because they love them. That is why so many Irish films are directed by the people who wrote them. Because there’s no great expectation of huge commercial success, people tend to stick to projects they have a big emotional investment in, and this usually means their own script or scripts written by friends of theirs. If you can get a director who loves your script, more doors will open than if you’re just Joe Shmoe with a typewriter.’

‘It’s the words you don’t use that are most powerful.’

‘Treat it like an art, love it, enjoy it and allow it to develop and in time, you will be astounded.’

‘My main advice is never to stop, whether it’s writing, coming up with ideas or seeking avenues for your scripts. Keep going! Always keep writing and re-writing and keep your eyes peeled for new opportunities.’

‘Capture as much of a fresh idea as fast as possible at the moment of conception. There’s plenty of time to self-edit later – let your imagination run free at the start.’

‘Embrace constructive criticism – take it right between the eyes and learn from it.’

‘Find your voice, your own take on the world, your own approach, and use it to write from. All stories are built with the same tools but creating something only *you* can write is the point; and it’s what producers are looking for.’

‘It’s the opposite of what I generally do – GET YOUR WORK OUT THERE!’

‘To be constant and to listen to your heart for the earlier drafts. Things need to be completed before they can be drafted, otherwise you can work on it forever without reaching the end. And finally, it will never be perfect and more changes will need to be made even as it is being produced.’

‘If I had to choose one, I would say that the hardest thing that I have encountered, primarily in new writers, is to try to think not just in terms of storytelling but in terms of visual elements. Having been interested in cinema and television, from a writing and directing point of view, for the past 15 years, I think I managed to develop a way of thinking in terms relevant to the medium I write for. I do not think so much about dialogues but about how a scene develops, what drives it, what I and the audience learn through it, how it inscribes itself within the overarching narrative. I think the best advice I could give to any new writer wishing to write for television is therefore to not simply consume television, but to watch it, to take it apart, to try to understand its language, how a scene is formed, how dialogues unfold, how an act is structured. In other words, how TV works.’

‘I’ll tell you when I get there 😉 But I have a feeling the old “1% inspiration, 99% perspiration” is very true for me personally, i.e. shut up and get on with it!’

‘Be honest. Use what you know and how you feel, to create someone and a story. Do not just write about characters you know on the surface, or just about the people close to you, but whoever you do write about, whatever story you do tell, be as honest with yourself as you can be. If you believe what you write, others will. A dishonest writer can create a lot of shallow, unimaginable stuff.’

‘Reading the papers, keeping going. Meeting interesting people and stealing their stories! I still haven’t found the answer, but I think that it must be a combination of factors. Working at your writing as if it’s a job – constantly honing, rewriting, taking advice and notes as a compliment.’

‘Go on public transport and take notes on how people talk.’

‘Know and live with your story before writing it so every detail is easy recall.
‘Don’t know yet as haven’t had any (!) but think great characters, interesting story, and exploiting the medium are key.’

‘Practice, practice, practice and listening to those who know. Also persistence – most people give up before they’re really ready.’

‘Plan your story – only not too much! I work best by planning the major beats of the story, but not thinking too much about the detail until I need it. I used to imagine story plot and then get attached to small scene or character ideas, and meld my story to fit this small stuff. Now I trust myself to start a screenplay knowing only the broad sweep of the story, then I plan 10 pages or so of detail at a time when I come to write the script. This works for me, and seems to produce a tighter first draft. My old method was to throw every idea into the pot, planning scenes that I just loved – but which veered from what I absolutely needed. Then on the second draft I’d find I painfully need to ‘kill my babies’. So now I use ‘writing contraception’ and try not to have those unwanted babies/plot points/scenes in the first place!’

‘Write every single day.’


A huge thank you to all for your brilliant screenwriting insights…

Happy Writing!

All the best



Twitter: @philipshlley1

Nov 22nd 2013