Pictured above: Scene from film, “Jumanji”.
What I’ve Learned
By Jim Strain
Here are six things I’ve learned over the years as a screenwriter.
PERSISTENCE IS PARAMOUNT
The patron saint of all screenwriters should be Wile E. Coyote. Persistence is the most important element in forging a career. “No” is the most common word used in this business, and it takes grit to survive the rejection until you finally get a “Yes.” An actor friend helped me frame the challenge when I first came to Hollywood. He told me that his goal wasn’t to get a part, but to get fifty auditions. Maybe then, he would get a part. I applied his approach to screenwriting. My goal at the outset was to fill a two-foot-long shelf with screenplays and maybe one or two might open a door. Over the long haul, that method has served me well, and I continue to use shelf space, not sales, as my yardstick. It’s truly a numbers game, and it’s best to think of process as a marathon and not a sprint.
LUCK IS IMPORTANT
By luck, I mean when preparation meets opportunity. All you can control is preparation – doing the writing. When and where the opportunity arises is up to the fates, which is why productivity and persistence are your most valuable assets. Whatever happens to a script after it’s finished is out of your control. Why some screenplays sell and some do not, why some films are made and others are not, is anyone’s guess. The business is as capricious as the weather. You never know when or if lightning will strike, but you improve your chances with each additional screenplay you write.
PROCRASTINATION IS THE ENEMY
Beware of excessive research and incubation. If all you do is incubate, you can poach an idea to death. And too much research can be a sign of avoidance productivity. That’s why deadlines are our friends. When I was house painting to make ends meet, I recall an applicable admonition: “Quit stirring and start painting.”
THE FIRST DRAFT IS THE HARDEST
Some of my colleagues disagree, but first words on paper are always the toughest for me. Bless the writers whose words simply spill forth in a flood of inspiration, but I liken the process to digging ditches. Harlan Ellison referred to writing as “the holy chore.” Sounds right to me. The trip from an idea to a tangible intellectual property is a hard road, but it’s vital that you finish. You only learn what you need to know by completing the work. There’s nothing to be gained from an unfinished manuscript.
EACH SCREENPLAY TEACHES YOU HOW TO WRITE THAT PARTICULAR SCREENPLAY
This is why screenwriting doesn’t get any easier. Writing for me is like tangling with an interactive maze. While there may be structural similarities with other projects, there are no formulas or rigid templates to guide you. The journey through each maze is a process of discovery. What makes it doubly difficult is that the maze is malleable – a living thing. It is shaped and reshaped by your artistic choices and the characters you bring to life. You are the architect but also the explorer. One way to make the journey more manageable is to know where you’re ultimately headed. Most of our ideas suggest a beginning, but it is extremely helpful if you can determine the end of the story before you start writing, even if it changes as you proceed through the maze. Think of the ending as your exit light.
THE MOST IMPORTANT QUESTION YOU SHOULD ASK YOURSELF
How do you want the reader to FEEL at the end of the screenplay? Remember, film is ultimately an emotional experience.
A veteran screenwriter, Jim’s feature credits include “Jumanji.” His recently wrote three episodes of “Dolly Parton’s Heartstrings” for Netflix, including “These Old Bones,” which was nominated for an Emmy in the Outstanding Television Movie category. Jim is also a lecturer in UCLA’s graduate screenwriting program and an instructor in the university’s Professional Program.