If you ask a professional screenwriter what they do, you’ll probably hear “rewrite” more than anything else. Many people mistakenly believe that writing a screenplay is easier than writing a novel because the average screenplay is 100-120 pages long. A good screenplay necessitates at least as much research and preparation as a novel, and if it is picked up for development, the screenwriter will put in even more effort.
Working with interesting, creative people and possibly seeing your name on the big screen, all for lucrative amounts of money, are some of the benefits of being a screenwriter. Working under extreme pressure to meet demanding, shifting, and costly production deadlines can result in periods of extremely long, unpredictable hours. A screenwriter working on a project in development or production typically rewrites or reworks a script dozens of times under the supervision of the director, whose job it is to keep all parties involved happy and the project on track and on budget.
Hollywood scripts that make it to the screen have taken a variety of routes to get there, and screenwriters find work in a variety of ways, but let’s take a look at some of the basic processes that a working screenwriter goes through on a daily basis.
Creating believable and interesting characters for a story idea. During this phase, the writer becomes fixated on a compelling concept and begins the “What if…” game. Characters are fleshed out with backstories, and the concept evolves into a causal storyline with a beginning, middle, and end that encompasses the major plot points of each act. The screenwriter should know each character like a best friend the end of the process, and be able to predict how they would react in any situation. The genre and theme should be obvious, and the story should be well-crafted.
This is the pitch. To pitch a story, tell it in 5-10 minutes with bard-like zeal, from beginning to end, hitting all major plot points and action along the way. To see if the story has the desired effect, the writer may first pitch it to friends, family, or coworkers. If necessary, he will rework the story, retelling it until it is flawless. It’s now ready to pitch to an agent, studio executive, director, or producer, with the hope of receiving a treatment request.
The method of treatment. A treatment is a 5-10 page synopsis of the story; a narrative outline written in such a way that the reader feels as if he is watching the story unfold in front of him. A seasoned screenwriter will usually wait until after the pitch meeting to write a treatment, as it is common for the interested party to suggest changes. A new screenwriter might bring a treatment with them in case one is requested instead of or in addition to a personal pitch meeting.
The playwright’s script If there is enough interest, a script will be requested. Produced screenwriters are paid on a union scale to write (and rewrite) requested treatments and scripts, but a new writer may work for free, with the understanding that they will be paid only if the script receives funding. At this point, there is no guarantee that the script will be produced.
If the script is optioned, the screenwriter is paid a fee that gives the interested party a set amount of time to secure funding before the rights revert to the screenwriter if the original party does not renew their option. Without ever seeing another project through to screen, a produced screenwriter earning union scale can make a nice living developing other people’s story ideas, writing treatments and scripts, or fixing other people’s scripts (known as a script doctor).
It is necessary to rewrite. When a project is approved, it frequently necessitates numerous rewrites throughout the development and production phases. The screenwriter may be forced to make changes that contradict the author’s original vision. To assuage studio backers’ concerns, executive producers frequently make demands on story or characters up front. The director has the authority to remove entire scenes, request new ones, and rewrite characters, subplots, and other plot elements. Cast members will point out weak dialog, pacing issues, or action that isn’t quite right during read-throughs.
Although the screenwriter may believe that certain changes weaken the story, he or she will have little to no say in the process unless the film is a huge success. Directors can rewrite scenes on the spot, bring in extra writers, and the original screenwriter may share screen credit with one or more writers in the end. When the project is completed, the process will hopefully begin again with a new project.
With few exceptions, a screenwriter’s job typically entails hard work, constant collaboration, a great deal of compromise, diplomacy, and humility, whether new or established. After a film is successfully produced, a screenwriter in the United States can join the Writers Guild of America (WGA), which offers a union salary and health benefits. As a WGA member, a screenwriter’s chances of getting work improve, assuming he or she has a good reputation. A successful screenwriter can easily earn six to seven figures per year, but long periods of unemployment are not uncommon.