Don’t Get It Right, Get It Written:
The Only Real Rule of Scriptwriting
Written by Matthew Cooper
If you want to be a scriptwriter, you need to write a lot of rubbish scripts, and all scriptwriters starting out will write a LOT of rubbish scripts. It’s the only way to learn.
You can sit the classes, you can read as many books on scriptwriting as you can find, you can study published screenplays by great scriptwriters, you can watch and analyse your favourite films from a writing point of view all your like. But, when it comes down to you actually writing a script, you will write a lot of rubbish, before you write anything even half good.
It’s the same for every scriptwriter. There is no way to avoid it.
You will have two figurative script piles. The first pile of completed scripts is quite high; the second pile has only a few scripts on it. The high pile will be scripts that don’t work (for various reasons) the second pile is the stuff that’s good. And that pile is much smaller, and will grow at a much slower rate, and will only grow after you’ve got quite a few scripts on the rubbish pile first.
Starting out, you have to write a lot of rubbish scripts before you get to the good stuff. There’s not really much way around it, it’s how you learn, it’s how all scriptwriters learn. You can’t dodge or escape writing material that doesn’t work, and that isn’t up to scratch; there is no way around it.
As a rookie scriptwriter, you need to accept and feel encouraged that a lot of your scripts won’t reach the required standard. Of course, you won’t realise they won’t or aren’t working when you’re writing them, you’ll believe they’re great (all scriptwriters do this), but we’ve all written tons of stuff that isn’t great. We’ve all written a lot of stuff that is not up to standard.
There isn’t a scriptwriter alive, who hasn’t been through this process. They used to say you needed to write ten full-length screenplays, before you even get the hang of the medium. I’m not sure it’s exact as that, but I would say that the writer, who has written ten feature-length scripts that don’t work, is closer to cracking the medium than the scriptwriter who hasn’t completed a single feature script yet.
So, that’s the key, if you want to be a screenwriter. You need to write. A LOT. You need to write tons of scripts. When you’re starting out especially, you to need to be prolific. Don’t worry about making mistakes or writing scripts that don’t work. Just write. Find stories or characters than inspire you. Tell those stories. Chase your passion. Write. You will fail, and you need to accept it.
You can’t be frozen in fear. You need to write up a storm. Your first script might not work, but you might be lucky and your second or third script will work. You can’t worry about writing things that aren’t perfect. You don’t need to get every script right, but you do need to get every script WRITTEN.
A producer or a director or script consultant can’t help or critique a blank page. You can’t fix or rewrite something that’s not written in the first place.
So, Don’t GET IT RIGHT. GET IT WRITTEN.
On every script, you will believe that you have something special. On EVERY SCRIPT you will invest SO MUCH of yourself. Every script that you write, you will believe that what you’re writing is worthwhile and great. That this script will be the script that gets picked up and made. This script is your breakthrough script. But it probably won’t be. But that doesn’t matter. Each script that doesn’t work is one step closer to the one that does. The script that really starts your career.
And you can only get to that great ‘breakout’ script by writing a lot of rubbish scripts first.
So, proceed knowing that nobody is great from the start. Don’t worry too much about that. Just write and write. That’s all you can do. It’s the only way to learn.
So, don’t get it RIGHT, get it WRITTEN. That’s the only actual rule of scriptwriting.
Matthew Cooper has been a scriptwriter for hire and UK script consultant for over 20 years. He’s written for most of the UK soaps, including writing award-winning episodes of Emmerdale, EastEnders, Hollyoaks and Family Affairs and he has been BAFTA shortlisted and Royal Television Society nominated as a script writer.
Matthew won the first ever Lloyds Bank / Channel Four Film Challenge in 1993, a ground-breaking competition for young scriptwriters and directors. His script, ‘Family Style’, was broadcast on prime time on Channel Four in the UK. The short film starred Ewan McGregor and was directed by Justin Chadwick.
Matthew also won the first ever Oscar Moore Screenplay award and has been placed in various competitions run by the BBC. He was the youngest ever core writer on ITVs ‘Emmerdale’ and was the writer of the iconic ‘Eastenders’ episode where ‘Alfie’ told ‘Kat’ he loved her for the first time.
His directorial debut, the rubber reality horror thriller, ‘Markham’, was released in 2020. His second feature film as director, ‘At the Mountains Of Madness’, will be released in 2021. You can find out more about Matthew’s work as a director (here). You can also find some of his broadcast credits on the IMDb.