Most professional acting academies do not allow students to perform on stage until their second year. They mandate that their students spend the first year learning and mastering the skills and techniques required for proficiency in the art form. The same is true of most playwriting, dancing, sculpture, painting and professional sports programs. In just about all artistic and athletic training, students develop the essential skill sets before being allowed to perform or compete.
Because this is what allows them the best chance at long-term success.
Most screenwriting classes do not operate like this. In most classes, students bring in their work and are told what is and isn’t working and given suggestions. But if a writer doesn’t yet possess the required skill sets, this is basically a waste of time. These students will not be able to go home and write at a professional level, and no amount of class notes or suggestions will change this. These writers are being set up to fail.
The essential screenwriting skill sets are listed below. Learning and developing them is the single most valuable investment a writer can make to improve his or her chances of success.
In his must-read book, Adventures in the Screen Trade, William Goldman says, “Yes, nifty dialogue helps one hell of a lot; sure, it’s nice if you can bring your characters to life. But you can have terrific characters spouting just swell talk to each other, and if the structure is unsound, forget it.”
And of course, the opposite is also true. Having a well-executed structure helps one hell of a lot. But if you can’t bring your characters fully to life, and they walk around spouting flat dialogue, forget it.
Because your script is only as strong as its weakest link.
Which explains why there is such a huge failure rate among writers trying to break into the business. Many find themselves able to get only half of the equation right. They can come up with big concepts and a solid enough story, but are forever told their characters are flat and one-dimensional. Or they can nail characters and dialogue, but always come up lacking in the structure department.
Most writers know which part they excel at and which part is holding them back. But they don’t know what to do about it. They read the books and take the seminars, but it never seems to help. In fact, it often ends up hurting their writing because a bunch of rules and formulas is never the answer.
The real solution comes from understanding how to identify your weaknesses and turn them into strengths through a process known as creative integration.
COMPELLING CINEMATIC CONFLICT
Everyone understands conflict is important. But most people don’t understand what is required to write compelling cinematic conflict that truly engages a reader and makes them want to keep reading. As David Mamet stated in his memo to The Unit writers, “This is a new skill. No one does it naturally. You can train yourself to do it.”
There are specific exercises and tools writers can use to develop and master this absolutely essential ability. Anyone serious about writing needs to do this.
ORGANIC STORY DESIGN
Whenever I bring in an agent, manager or producer to speak to one of my classes, they always say they can immediately spot a script written to one of the this-must-happen-by-this-page, paint-by-the-numbers structure formulas, and these scripts never succeed.
In order to have the best possible chance at success a writer needs to develop tools and techniques to create a flexible, non-formulaic structure that supports and enhances, instead of destroys, what is unique and original about their story, characters and writing.
I’ve heard many professional writers say they know people far more talented than themselves who do not have careers and never will have careers because of their process.
Process is how we write, how we create our work. Too many people unknowingly use a way of writing that prevents them from creating their strongest material. Through guided assignments, writers can try different writing processes in order to discover which ones allow them to genuinely create their most compelling characters and stories.
Too many writers spend enormous amounts of time and energy rewriting their material without really improving it. Which is why one of the main things separating professionals from amateurs is the ability to effectively rewrite. There are tools and methods writers can learn to allow them to strategically rewrite at a professional level.