What Screenwriters Can Learn from Blacksmiths

By: Carl T. Rogers

Mastering the craft of screenwriting requires hard work. There’s a ton of trial and error, and you’re often working alone with little to show for your efforts—but we keep going since we believe in the vision in our minds!

Do you know what this reminds me of? Blacksmiths.

Hard-Won Mastery!

Becoming a consummate visual storyteller is a lot like becoming a peerless blacksmith. Smiths have crafted metal for millennia, so we as storytellers can learn a lot from the areas in which we’re similar. Think about it.

  • In ancient times, blacksmiths often had to dig up and smelt their own ore. This is like how a screenwriter mines their everyday lives and even their subconscious for ideas, inspiration, and characters.
  • Just like blacksmiths use a variety of tools, screenwriters utilize an arsenal of literary techniques to tell stories: simile, metaphor, allegory, symbolism, juxtaposition, and even visual poetry.
  • Blacksmiths often train for years under more experienced craftsmen. While not all screenwriters have had personal teachers, most of us gleaned lessons from the myriad of movies and shows we’ve watched which were created by the writers we admire.
  • Blacksmiths come in all shapes, sizes, and personalities. Some do things old school (like outlining a feature using index cards and Sharpie) while others prefer to use modern technology (like outlining your series in a digital whiteboard).

Regardless of how you started or who you learned from, it still takes years of practice to truly get good at this mysterious craft we call screenwriting. That’s normal! So, if you feel like you’re trying to get better and it’s taking a long time, know that other crafts and art forms are the same: it takes time to become truly great.

Writing Forge

The most striking similarity to me, however, is just how hard blacksmiths work on each piece. The writing process is your forge. You’ve got to spend hours and hours hammering away, line by line, word by word. Every keystroke is a hammer blow!

You toil at the computer, meticulously rewriting so you can burn away the dross and beat the impurities out of your pages until you form the heart of the story in its burnished glory!

It’s hard work. You might get wrist or neck cramps instead of burns and rough calluses, but it’s tough nonetheless.

As you write more screenplays, your journey as a visual storyteller grows from your thinking of your work as the forge to realizing your career itself is a forge, and each challenge is a veritable crucible for your career.

All these parallels are the reasons I like to think of myself—and those I teach—as Scriptsmiths.

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Unforgiving Mistakes

Metal is an unforgiving material to work with. It takes tremendous heat to mold and meld, and you have to wear protective gear to avoid getting burned or blinded. It’s the same with stories; in such a complex craft with so many moving parts, sometimes things go wrong for blacksmiths (or screenwriters):

  • You started hammering before the metal was hot enough, so you made no progress. (You didn’t build the characters enough or outline properly and you hit a brick wall on page 16. Ouch.)
  • You got the stock too hot, so the metal broke when you struck it. (You added too many unmotivated characters who have nothing to do, grinding the story to a halt.)
  • The metal becomes brittle and cracks because you quenched it too soon. (You rushed your third act and now the story’s ending is abrupt and unsatisfying.)
  • You didn’t bother to brush the oxidized flakes off your piece while you were working, and now the finished product looks shoddy. (You wrote in a frenzy without bothering to go back and proofread or correct your formatting mistakes.)
  • You kept the doors and windows closed because you thought that the darker the light of the forge, the better you could see the color of the glowing metal. (You didn’t get feedback on your script from someone who knows what they’re doing.)
  • Worst of all, you constructed something for purely utilitarian reasons with no aesthetic sense at all. (You wrote a story with a solid plot structure but no visual artistry; the script is bland to read, leading to an emotionless experience for the reader.)

I know that sounds rough, but we have to face this as the blacksmiths do: mistakes are part of the learning process!

That means even when things go wrong, the hard work is worth it—especially if you’re proud of the eventual result.

”Okay, so I’m learning these lessons,” (you think to yourself) “but I’m still not happy with my script.”

I get you! When you put in the sweat equity and you’re still not satisfied with what you’ve made. How many times have you finished a draft you slaved over for months only to be disappointed when you re-read it?

Or, perhaps you think you’ve done quality work, but others with more experience see only its flaws. Your desire to become more skilled only burns hotter—and rightly so!

It’s one thing to be proud of what you’ve created—especially if you’re just starting out—but eventually, you’ve got to step up your game by paying attention to the minute details and how they affect how others experience what you’ve created.

True Mastery Requires New Tools

In the end, your script is not for you. It’s made for a reader, a film crew, and eventually, an audience. You’ve got to take your reader on a ride through your mind—and you can only do that by developing a knack for painting elaborate, emotional images with as few words as possible.

You’ve got to learn how to:

    • Use formatting to direct the mind’s eye of the reader.
    • Use grammar to set the tone and control your story’s pacing.
    • Use wordsmithing to convey pithy emotional depth.
    • Practice these techniques effectively so you can apply them without thinking.

All of these are like shiny new tools in your story smelting shop. These are the tricks the pros use but rarely discuss since they’ve taken years to master but have become second nature.

Just as smiths were revered in ancient times for their magical ability to turn lumpy rock into shining metal, we weave worlds with words. To do that, we’ve got to keep honing our craft and become the best we possibly can.

I’m not advocating for blind perfectionism. We’re artists. It’s natural to desire excellence, especially since the better your work, the more likely it is to be recognized—and celebrated.

So, when you’re feeling discouraged, think of the venerable blacksmith leaning over the hot forge: They’re molding metal, but we’re making myths. We’re doing just as difficult labor to create something arguably longer-lasting: stories.

Keep it up; you can do it!

Are you ready to put in the effort it takes to master the craft of screenwriting to become a true Scriptsmith? If so, grab this free guide called The 3 Visual Writing Hacks You Need to Be a Successful Screenwriter.

Carl T. Rogers, MFA is an award-winning writer and director who crafts stories at the intersection of philosophy, the otherworldly, and the uncanny. Carl also teaches screenwriting and storytelling on his YouTube channel and his blog, Storylosopher.com. He’s devoted to helping up-and-coming screenwriters level up their visual storytelling skills and build a career with entrepreneurial savvy. 

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