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How to Break In and Succeed as a Screenwriter
By: Brian Konradt

How to Break In and Succeed as a Screenwriter
by Brian Konradt

Screenwriting is a competitive trade. To distinguish yourself as a
prize-winning writer you need to master organizational skills, take
creative risks, and learn how best to present your final product.
For the aspiring screenwriter, Tom Lazarus' book, "Secrets of Film
Writing" is one of the best. An exceptional screenwriter with five
produced screenplays, Lazarus developed this book for beginning
writers enrolled in his classes at UCLA.

This article examines a few of the many techniques outlined
in "Secrets of Film Writing" and provides examples of screenwriters
who succeeded with Tom Lazarus' guidelines.

Master organization and you're closer to producing a stellar
screenplay, not a mediocre one. Ask yourself these questions:

1) Does the screenplay have a clear beginning, middle and end?

2) Does the story drift aimlessly or does it make its point

These may seem like basic questions, yet many screenwriters grapple
with organizational problems.

Lazarus addresses this issue in his book; he recommends writers use
one of four organizational methods to ensure their screenplays flow
smoothly: outlines, treatments, index cards, and scene lists. All
four of these tools are equally effective. Writers need to be
discreet to decide which organizational crutch best suits their

In writing the screenplay for the Hollywood feature film "Stigmata,"
Lazarus chose to use a scene list for organizational support since
he already had specific ideas about the chronology and action
details of his story. To writers who have difficult organizing and
prefer a different method, Lazarus says, "Go for it, because no one
is going to see it. It's a process. There is no wrong way."

Writing is a process. Great screenwriters take creative risks.
Without an interesting story, even the most organized screenplay
will be unmarketable. The goal should never be to copy another
writer's style; instead exercise your own imagination and experiment
with different ways to spark your story.

When Warner Brothers hired Tim McCanlies to adapt Ted Hughes' famous
English novel "The Iron Man" for the screen, he struggled with
whether he should remain true to Hughes' vision or develop a new
story based loosely on the original book's events. McCanlies chose
to do something risky and wildly creative; he Americanized "The Iron
Man" by setting the story in the 1950s during the Cold War terror
and renamed it "The Iron Giant." His calculated risk proved
worthwhile. American audiences related to the film and appreciated
its examination of an unusual time in their nation's history. Also,
English audiences embraced "The Iron Giant" despite its variation
from the original English text and awarded it the 2000 BAFTA Award
for best feature film.

McCanlies' success lends a valuable lesson: when you risk nothing,
you gain nothing. McCanlies, Lazarus, and other successful
screenwriters embroil themselves in chances, write creatively,
experiment with different ideas, and raise their characters' stakes.

Once you have written an interesting, well-organized screenplay you
need to submit your script neatly and according to studio standards.
Lazarus warns his UCLA students about several technical errors in
script presentation that annoy studio readers. Follow these

1) A feature length screenplay should be longer than 95 pages and
shorter than 125 pages when you submit it for studio consideration.

2) Don't include a synopsis or character biographies with your
script as it gives studio readers an excuse not to review the whole

3) Don't put scene numbers on your script until it is sold. This is
a rule of the game; readers find scene numbers distracting and use
them as an excuse to dub a screenplay "amateur" and unworthy of
further consideration.

4) Studio readers prefer to receive scripts bound with circular
metal brads. Using folders and binders hog office space and interns
may discard scripts unintentionally during spring cleaning.

5) Finally, use one of the many screenwriting programs to help
format your script, such as Movie Magic Screenwriter, Final Draft
or Script Wizard. You can find discounted deals at (, (, and

Make sure you proofread your script several times before submitting
a script for Hollywood review. Busy studio readers will not peruse
screenplays riddled with basic errors like confusing "it's"
with "its" and using "are" when you mean "our." Use a program like
Style Writer (found at to remedy
such embarrassing grammar mistakes. When you're ready to submit your
script, grab a Hollywood Creative Directory (found at to find markets for your

Remember to take risks with plot and character development, and
follow studio standards for script submissions. Studying resources
like "Secrets of Film Writing" by Tom Lazarus, "How Not to Write a
Screenplay" by Denny Martin Flinn, "Crafty Screenwriting" by Alex
Epstein, and "Alternative Scriptwriting" by Ken Dancyger and Jeff
Rush can be helpful for aspiring writers. Developing strong writing
skills takes time, a willingness to learn, and perseverance. Writers
who constantly improve their skills and experiment with new ideas
will succeed.

Brian Konradt is a freelance writer and founder of (, a free web
site to help writers master the business and creative sides of
freelance writing; he also is founder of
(, a free website to help authors promote
their books.

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