Navigating The Maze of Aspiration | Making it in Screenwriting

By: Justine Owens, Director of Contests | Shore Scripts

So, you want to become a screenwriter. That is why you’re here, right? In this article, we are going to reflect on the process of becoming a professional writer and the positive approaches that writers and screenwriting contests can take in facilitating that journey.

Rather than just bemoaning the number of obstacles that emerging writers face, we hope to show how overcoming these obstacles is a necessity and how screenwriting contests, when they act responsibly and intelligently, play an essential part in the personal development of writers and their stories.

Unfortunately, screenwriting contests have been negatively referred to by some as “the hope business.” This innocuous label is often a warning to any wannabe writer not to enter a hopeless fight against terrific odds, one that is ringed by snake-oil salesmen sitting ready to pick the bones off of those taking part. This article is also a response to that accusation.

We do not deny that the odds are fearsome but it is important to recognize that writing a spec screenplay is an act of personal aspiration within a community of potential critics. No one has commissioned you to do it. No one is offering a guaranteed paycheck. Moreover, to see some reward, beyond the writing itself, you will need other people to praise and endorse your creation and take forward what you have conceived.

So the screenwriter is by necessity enmeshed in a world of hopes and dreams and subject to the criticism and appraisal of others.

“I am not a writer. I am a screenwriter, which is half a filmmaker….But it is not an art form, because screenplays are not works of art. They are invitations to others to collaborate on a work of art.” – Paul Schrader

And this encircling mass, from which a screenwriter must distinguish themself, extends beyond the physical. The very tools of story are born in the collective unconscious; fictional conceits are strengthened to iron by more than a thousand years of retelling. Somehow, a writer must grapple with this fiction and bring forth something from it that is both new and original, and yet still be widely understood and easily communicated to others.

This article will look at the way an organization such as ours can help writers achieve this. And how, in participating in the writer’s creative development, a modern contest and/or coverage service must become self-aware of its role in giving validation and feedback. Most of all, to succeed in the modern entertainment industry, screenwriters and screenwriting contests must avoid inappropriately applying generic screenwriting rules, and avoid unconsciously applying received cultural expectations, thereby.

Let’s make a start by looking at the business end of the business.

Today’s Screenwriting Business

The volume of writers vs. the number of opportunities is often cited as the first roadblock an aspiring screenwriter will face, so let’s look at the industry itself.
Statistics :

  • John August & Craig Mazin’s screenwriting podcast, Scriptnotes, regularly receives 80,000 listeners.
  • The Writer’s Guild of America West currently has around 20,000 members.
  • Of those members, more than 5,900 writers reported employment in all work areas in 2021.
  • However, this rate of employment represented a 6.1% decline from 2020.
  • The average salary of screenwriters working in the US in 2021 was around $60,000 per year.

So, true, not all those who aspire to become a screenwriter will end up making their full-time living from it. And also true, that only a tiny percentage of the spec scripts available will be bought by major studios and streamers. But a great deal more spec scripts are optioned or acquired under shopping agreements. And many more writers will be staffed on various writing gigs. So, whilst no one can claim it is easy, making a living in the industry is definitely a possibility.

But the challenges for an aspiring screenwriter go beyond finding a job. This is a hyper-competitive industry, where rejection is commonplace and personal creativity a matter of public debate. To survive, let alone thrive, a screenwriter needs to have some powerful motivation. So, what is it that screenwriters are working so hard to obtain?

Modern Motivations for Becoming a Screenwriter.

The money?
Well, it depends where you are in your career – but most writers would probably say that the money is not why they write. Yes, the rewards for a few can be high, but more often, a screenwriter is working unpaid on as yet unrealized projects. So, yes, writers need money, but they are not necessarily motivated by money. Mostly, they want to be able to tell their story, they want to have creative input, and they want to be heard.

The glamor?
Again, glamor is not a word most writers would associate with screenwriting. The job of writing is often far removed from the locations of production. Especially now that the uptake of remote working has meant that a writer can make a living away from the glitter of Hollywood. Yes, some writers have achieved a measure of celebrity, but it is still not common. And would we want it to be?

The creative environment?
Now we might be getting somewhere. To be amongst peers and collaborate creatively with others is something special. Moreover, the nearest experience of this for most of us is when we are at school or college. Whether you find yourself the lone writer of an enormous feature production requiring a host of talents; or participating in a writers’ room that feels more like a rerun of 12 Angry Men, there is still a buzz about working in an industry that makes magic.

To create a new way to tell a particular story?
This is what we believe is the true motivation of the majority of aspiring screenwriters, and it is what powers a screenwriter’s creative endeavor. When asked, almost all our former winners and finalists want to talk about their inspirational moment; the moment when they realized that they had to write a particular story. And frequently, how they felt compelled to write their story in a particular way. 

Screenwriters love the mechanics of storytelling. From the outset, they are fully cognizant of the need to tell their story in a series of sequences, and that whilst the expectations of the audience must be met, they understand that meeting them freshly and originally is what will elevate their script and themselves ahead of the pack.

But doing something new risks not being understood. And as stated above, this is a business where being understood is essential to your success.

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The Role of Screenwriting Contests in Today’s Industry

In recent years, many emerging writers have entered screenwriting contests to assist their professional development. The path often cited to becoming a professional writer demands that they put themselves forward for criticism again and again and often follows something like this:

  • Write a script – can’t do anything without that.
  • Gather contest awards & peer recognition – more on this below.
  • Obtain some useful attachment(s) – director, actors, cinematographer, etc.
  • Get a manager – they will help you develop yourself and your projects.
  • Get an agent – with representation you’ll be attractive to producers.
  • Get a producer – your script is on its way to getting made.

Ironically, at this point, the project will probably restart again as everyone re-evaluates the investment and profitability of the final project. But writers, like all the other creatives engaged in a project, need to recognize they work in a multi-million-dollar industry, and business rules do apply.

And it is in the hue and cry against “big business” where the most frequent criticism arises that new ways of storytelling are impossible. The logic goes like this – everyone who can make a project happen is only looking for a bankable story.

Unfortunately for aspiring writers, whilst this is true, to some degree, it is also true that originality is a must. So, there is a doubly high mountain to climb.

The industry has just suffered a period of unprecedented stagnation. One that no one could have foreseen. But do not let the rolled eyes at another franchise tent-pole blind you to the fact that in today’s industry, screenwriters must be able to communicate with an original voice and, preferably, come up with an original approach to the format, genre, and premise of their story. No one is looking for an unoriginal idea or a hackneyed execution of a familiar plot. If anything, to revive the industry, increasingly original and diverse voices are being sought.

So, how does an aspiring screenwriter get off the horns of this dilemma and reach the top of the mountain? How do they write an original story which at the same time can be understood by millions and that will likely also become a commercial success?

How Writers and Contests can work together.

The fact is that a screenwriter cannot achieve greatness by themself. Becoming a professional screenwriter means writing a “great” screenplay and then sharing that with others to take on as a produced project. So, the appellation of “great” must be awarded by someone other than the writer alone.

Whilst screenwriting contests are not the only way to learn the craft, they play a vital and wider role in validating the career aspirations of aspiring screenwriters. By awarding recognition, affording promotion, providing financial rewards, and development tools, offering advice, feedback, and industry connections screenwriting contests offer material and motivational benefits to the writers that participate.

By giving validation of a writer’s mastery of their craft and the story they wish to tell at an early stage of their career, screenwriting contests can provide an essential support mechanism that can motivate a writer to continue towards their goal.

To make the most of a screenwriting contest, a writer needs to enter with their eyes wide open. Like the industry itself, screenwriting contests reflect the disparity between the number of participants vs. the number of opportunities. And again, like the industry itself, to succeed in a contest, a writer must win the approval of others. Writers entering contests need to do their homework and research the contests out there to ensure that those they enter are offering rewards that match their objectives. Different contests have different objectives and this guides what kinds of scripts they give awards to. These might be awards for demonstrating mastery of a given format or genre or having an original voice, a wish to advance marketable scripts to industry connections, or identifying producible scripts that can go easily into production. The important thing is that the writer is conscious of why they have chosen to enter a specific script into a specific contest and that the rewards offered will truly help them concerning where they are in their career today.

But it is not only the screenwriter that must do some work. To assist the writers to make their decisions screenwriting contests also need to step up to the plate and actively overcome the challenges they face. Modern screenwriting contests need to ensure that their readers reflect the society in which they operate and that their readers are skilled in cultural sensitivity. A contest also needs to be transparent about what it is seeking to reward and its approach to appraising scripts and providing criticism. And lastly, screenwriting contests must offer an easy mechanism for feedback, complaint, and redress.

A modern, well-run screenwriting contest needs to do all this because the most common and conventional complaint laid against contests is that inexperience and subjectivity will always be an issue. So, let’s take a look at that.

Contests, Subjectivity & Bias

Screenwriting communities are awash with complaints that contest readers are unable to recognize original writing when they see it — whether that is due to their readers’ inexperience or the constraints of the role that contests occupy.

As one of the gatekeepers to the elevated heights to which emerging screenwriters aspire, the very process of assessment, scoring, and frequent rejection makes for a difficult environment for both writers and readers to work within.

However, it is worth bearing in mind that these “inexperienced” readers may also be your peers. Fact: readership is an entry-level role within the industry. It is generally low-paid and requires the reader to read a high turnover of scripts to make it an economically viable career choice. So, to read successfully, readers often have to read hundreds of scripts in a year. Whilst readers may not yet necessarily be personally experienced in production, they are often screenwriters in their own right, and they are primed to identify an original story or strong voice. Moreover, they are often from the generation that is coming through; and so are likely to be sympathetic to the storytelling aspirations of the current environment rather than the decades of history that have gone before.  

As stated above, to satisfy the business of screenwriting, most readers are looking for an original story that is well-told and that can be developed as a commercially viable project. And in any specific contest, a reader will be guided by the kind of scripts the contest is looking for. So don’t waste time pushing round pegs in square holes – do your research and enter those contests that are looking for the stories you want to write.

Not a new problem – conscious & unconscious bias

Along with accusations of inexperience, contests and their readers are often accused of conscious bias. The most common bias contests are accused of is “you people are only looking for scripts that will make money.” But as we have discussed above, making money and making a great script are not irreconcilable ideological opposites. Rather they are two sides of the same coin that the screenwriter must learn to flip. And that the screenwriting contest must be able to identify and reward.

Making money is not necessarily a bad thing, and the pervasive creative aversion to it comes from the fact that somehow poverty and creativity have got conflated in the stories that come to us from the history of art. Sadly, this history is littered with examples of creatives who were devastatingly poor during their lifetime, only to have their works traded for millions as soon as that profit could be pocketed by someone else after they were dead. Rather than believing that poverty (rather than necessity) is the mother of invention, we believe that should these artists have chosen their fate, it is pretty safe to say that many would not have chosen this outcome. At least in screenwriting, we have an industry where writers get to earn while they are alive and are protected to some degree by agreed rates.

Over and above the financial side of things, though, is the more problematic issue of personal subjectivity and prejudice. Readers who exclaim self-righteously that “I don’t get the story” or make suggestions based on racial and cultural stereotypes no longer have a place in this business. And if a writer feels the critique of their script has fallen prey to this approach, then this is where contests need to offer a transparent mechanism for complaint and redress.

Feedback and assessment born of traditional (production company) coverage reports are more open to accusations of this kind of bias because they often have a polarized, yes or no approach, based solely on the draft presented. This sort of coverage leaves no room for the screenwriter’s as yet unrealized aspirations, only what is there on the page today. But this kind of coverage also fails to support the writer develop their work.

Falling back, as this kind of feedback often does, on the screenwriting “rules” approach, writers can feel the full brunt of rejection whilst not being offered any meaningful help to develop their story and their screenwriting skills.

However, even more, insidious though, has been the gradual realization and discovery of unconscious bias. This psychological phenomenon first arose in the world of Personnel and Human Resources after studies found unsettling trends in the treatment, promotion, and recruitment of those underrepresented in the workforce. In essence, unconscious bias means we make assumptions based on our cultural context, and we don’t even know that we are doing it.

Unconscious bias has a deep impact on the craft of screenwriting. Both readers and writers can fall prey to conscious and unconscious bias as writers, as well as readers can leverage screenwriting conventions and expectations as they seek to elevate their story (or criticism) and gain recognition for their particular perspective. Sadly, the days of using a character’s dialect for comedy purposes are not yet over.

But at its most fundamental level, screenwriting is prey to unconscious bias because it is a world populated by archetypes, tropes, and stereotypes. And most of our understanding of this cultural phenomenon arises in the unconscious.

Some contemporary sources of screenwriting advice urge us to embrace these conventions and archetypes wholeheartedly. However, thinking about the problems that bedevil today’s entertainment industry, it now seems that this is the last thing we should do. Rather we should approach these inherited conventions critically and only use them with informed and evident purpose.

So the original question of “how can a writer write an original and commercially viable script?” is now expanding to ask, “how can writers mobilize the traditional hero’s journey without falling prey to reductive thinking about those portrayed?” And “how can a contest help a writer more by evolving their approach to scoring and feedback?”

The writer seeking to break an original story must push through conscious and unconscious bias to reach a new elevated form of storytelling. And screenwriting contests and their readers must also overcome their conscious and unconscious bias to at least question how so-called “screenwriting rules” about heroes, character traits and flaws, conflicts, and resolution should be applied today.

At Shore Scripts, we believe we are developing an answer to that problem, so let’s look at how a contest might better support a writer telling an original story when approaching contest scoring and script coverage.

Two possible solutions for avoiding unconscious bias when evaluating a screenplay.

The first suggestion as to how contests and their readers might mitigate the effects of unconscious bias is to propose that they focus less on the cultural context of the characters and instead focus on other “purer” screenwriting elements, such as a character’s personality or the plot structure, or dialogue. But this seems like a path to hell that is paved with good intentions. A path of avoidance rather than pro-actively challenging a reader’s unconscious assumptions.

Rather than seek to avoid the problem, we at Shore Scripts, are tackling the challenge of unconscious bias in two ways. Firstly, by adopting a management policy of transparency – holding our organization up to the light to look at whether our processes and values meet the contemporary criteria to best assess the scripts that come to us.

Moreover, we are pioneers in developing a different approach to mitigating unconscious bias – an approach we like to call “premise-led” coverage and critique.

Being “premise-led” means that we try to derive our criticisms from the writer’s intentions and not from arbitrary rules. For example, if the writer has set out to write a short horror/comedy about gender bias, then our approach to coverage and contest scoring that script is to feedback on how well we feel they have achieved their goals within the creative framework and choices they have already made.

So, our first question when receiving a script is “what story is the writer trying to tell?” Or more succinctly – what is the premise?

Only when our readers feel they have a sufficient understanding of the premise, do we embark on constructive criticism with actionable feedback.

And like the challenges for screenwriters – it is not easy. Sticking to the concept that “it’s all got to be in the script” means we can sometimes make mistakes. To help us make fewer mistakes, we are embracing training and awareness of cultural sensitivity, and we also have an open door for writers to inquire and raise issues with the coverage they receive. And have a fair and consistent policy regarding redress and organizational learning.

To support our goals, we have signed up for the Women Of Color Unite Screenwriting Contest Transparency Call To Action initiative. The WOCU initiative requires contests to publish a Transparency and Accountability report each year so that writers can make informed decisions regarding which competitions to enter and services to use.

We plan to publish our first report in January 2023.

Delivering on the Promise of the Premise

So, if the reader must understand the premise to provide the best possible coverage and critique, how can a reader tell what the premise is? And, just as importantly, how can they tell whether the writer’s current draft delivers on “the promise of the premise?”

Our Head of Education, Lee Hamilton, sums it up as follows;

“Readers will be looking to see if the narrative described in the logline has occurred by the time they get to the end of Act 1. If this narrative development isn’t clear at that point, then you haven’t delivered the promise of your “premise” quickly enough, and you risk receiving negative feedback.” – Lee Hamilton

The key takeaway for aspiring screenwriters, then, is that an essential ingredient for a successful screenplay and to receive an objective appraisal of that screenplay is to have a truly gripping and original Act One.

Act One of a screenplay is where the story is all laid out. It is where we are introduced to the characters and the journey they will embark on. The writer’s intentions must come across in this introduction – thereby enabling them to hit the nail on the head when it comes to the original story they want to tell.

Breaking down the elements of Act One, the general advice is that screenwriters need to hit several “beats” as the act progresses. These essential beats (narrative events) can be summarized as follows:

  • After being introduced to our protagonist, we must see their flaw in relation to the antagonist and the stakes.
  • The protagonist must be thrust onto their journey in the call-to-action, and by the end of the act, is committed to a path to achieve their goal.

Broadly speaking, realizing these narrative beats within Act One is good advice for an aspiring screenwriter. By doing so they will produce a story that is understandable from the outset. There are, however, some very good examples of successful screenwriters and stories that eschew this conventional advice; like Charlie Kaufman and Werner Herzog, so there are exceptions to the rule. And a “good” reader will be aware of these examples and always try to assess a script holistically based on the kind of story that the writer is trying to tell.

But however the first act is constructed, what is most important is that it is strongly written, so that the reader can understand the story from the start, and so that they can respond to the writer within the context of the story mythology, and hopefully not fall back on inappropriate cultural assumptions.

In conclusion, then, what do we believe a writer needs to do to meet the challenge of writing a great original story and make your way towards becoming a professional screenwriter? You need to:

  1. write a script,
  2. write a great Act One,
  3. do your research and share your work with those who are looking for your kind of story,
  4. engage and challenge those who are there to judge you,
  5. and most importantly, learn from your experience and never give up.

Keep writing!

Justine Owens has been fascinated by the movie business since childhood and studied Film History at college. Justine joined Shore Scripts as a reader after working on Slated’s innovative online film financing platform and later, for American Zoetrope Studios. Now as Director of Contests, she enjoys creating opportunities for emerging screenwriters and filmmakers who aspire to tell their stories in an industry that makes magic. 

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