Nearly everything you watch—that big blockbuster movie, your favorite television show, all the commercials that pop up in the middle—was written by someone. Before anything goes into production in Hollywood and beyond, it needs to have a structure in place so that the actors know what to do and say, the directors know what to film, and the producers know where their money is going. This is called screenwriting, and it’s an essential part of making any film or television show. If you have a story that you want to tell in a visual format, it’s time to dive into the screenwriting world. The good thing about it is that, with a little bit of knowledge and a lot of practice, anyone can develop this unique craft. Here’s how to become a screenwriter.
What Is Screenwriting?
Screenwriting is, quite literally, writing what will appear on screen. All the settings, the characters, the dialogue, and the action used to tell a story must be present in the text. The screenplay must paint a visual picture so that anyone who reads it—from the studio executive to the production assistant—will have a strong idea of what the final 90-minute film or 30-minute episode will look like upon completion.
Compared to a novel, the screenplay seems relatively straightforward. In a novel, the author is able to convey the complex thoughts and mental states of their characters on the page, whereas in a screenplay, the screenwriter doesn’t have the same luxury—they are just describing the action.
However, don’t let this fool you into thinking that screenwriting is simple. A screenplay can have the same emotional resonance of a novel, it just needs to do it through dialogue, character actions, and visual themes. It’s a different set of skills but one that is just as important in storytelling.
Additionally, the screenplay is not the final form of the story. A novel is static; a screenplay, due to the interpretation from page to screen and the collaborative nature of filmmaking, is a piece of art that can change and morph in many different ways.
What Does a Screenwriter Do?
The screenwriter job description is pretty obvious—writes the screenplay, simple as that! Well, not exactly.
The screenwriter’s responsibility is to create the plot, characters, and themes of a film or television show. They must be experts in humanity, understanding what compels characters to behave in a certain way and also what compels audiences to watch those characters. They must be intimately aware of their genre and its tropes so that they can both fulfill and subvert them to the audience’s delight. And they must write using the industry-standard screenplay format and utilize the basic three-act structure.
Above all else, a screenwriter must be passionate about storytelling and the visual media of film and television.
How to Become a Screenwriter
There are several ways to become a professional screenwriter, none of which are better than the others. However, one thing for certain is that it takes a lot of persistence and dedication to your craft—you should always be writing and consuming film and television.
The Education Route
Many American universities have film departments that offer screenwriting courses. A program like this would give you practical experience in both screenwriting and other elements of film and television production. You can also make some great connections here, not just with fellow classmates but with faculty who often have experience in the industry. Graduating with a screenwriting degree will hopefully attract an agent or manager who is interested in representing you and getting you work.
If you don’t have access to a reasonable film degree program, don’t worry. There are other degrees that are just as useful. An English degree is the closest comparable degree because it often involves heavy writing and story analysis. But degrees in creative writing, journalism, history, or other liberal arts can translate well to screenwriting.
The Experience Route
With today’s insane tuition costs, going to an elite film school is not an option for a lot of people. But there are plenty other ways to break into screenwriting. Working in other positions in the entertainment industry often opens a door to other potential work. Many television writers begin their careers as writer’s assistants—taking notes in a writer’s room and potentially pitching story elements. There are many lower-level positions like these that will connect you with people who can help you advance your career.
Theater is also a great entry point for screenwriting. For example, screenwriter Katie Dippold began performing at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater before penning the scripts for The Heat and 2016’s Ghostbusters, as well as being in the writer’s room for Parks and Recreation.
And don’t discount general life experience. Screenwriter Ashley Miller was a defense contractor for the United States military before switching careers and writing, among other things, Thor and X-Men: First Class. Zoanne Clack was a medical doctor who was brought on as a writer and eventual executive producer of Grey’s Anatomy. The path to a screenwriting career is not clearly defined, so keep your mind open.
Most screenwriters do not earn a salary in the traditional way you may expect. Most writing jobs in Hollywood are temporary and contract-based where the payments are dictated by the Writers Guild of America (WGA), the union that includes all film and television writers. Their schedule of minimums can be found on their website.
If, for example, you happen to write an original screenplay that someone reads and wants to buy, you could expect to make anywhere between $53,360 and $109,236, according to the most recent schedule.
Television writers are normally staffed in a writers room where a group of writers will collaborate on the episodes.. Depending on the scale of the show, you’ll receive a weekly salary for however long the room goes. In addition, you will also get payments, as determined by the schedule, if you write a teleplay for one of the episodes.
As you can see by the schedule of minimums, it’s hard to answer the question “how much does a screenwriter make?” Also, most writers have agents, managers, and lawyers that earn a certain percentage of your payments, so remember to factor that in when looking at your net earnings.
With how much entertainment we have access to, there are loads of screenwriting opportunities out there. But the first step to getting one of these jobs is to prove you can write a great screenplay. So work on that first.
Standard Screenwriting Jobs
In Hollywood television production, getting into a writer’s room usually involves writing an original pilot or spec script (an episode of a television show that is already on) that catches someone’s attention. On the strength of that script, you’ll hopefully get an interview and get staffed.
For film, you’ll usually get your foot in the door by writing “on spec.” That means you are writing an original screenplay without getting paid for it in the hopes that it is bought or that it leads to more work.
Sometimes, that spec script can get you a meeting to pitch on other projects a studio may be developing but hasn’t assigned writers to yet. A pitch would not involve writing the full script—you’d probably create a presentation on your take on the film and, based on that, the studio would decide if they want to pay you for a draft. You may even be brought in to do punch-up on a film—pitching dialogue or jokes on an already-existing screenplay that just needs a little tweak.
Freelance Screenwriting Jobs
Getting to the level of a network television writer’s room or a pitch meeting with a studio executive is a long journey. There are still plenty of opportunities out there to be a proverbial “gun for hire”—writing a script of someone else’s idea. There are lots of opportunities for something like this in the world of advertising. Getting acquainted with a marketing agency or a freelance production studio could provide many chances to pitch and write commercials.
The internet is also a great place to search for freelance screenwriter jobs. YouTube creators will often look for assistance in writing their videos. This is a great chance to stretch out of your comfort zone and write in someone else’s voice or on a topic with which you may not be fully familiar.
Always Be Writing
The most important thing to becoming a screenwriter is always to be writing. Keep a notebook for ideas, get a handle on the basics, try writing a scene five different ways, analyze the scripts of your favorite movies and television shows, master the art of visual storytelling. If screenwriting is something you love and you are truly diligent about improving your craft, you’ll be a screenwriter in no time.
Start Your Screenwriting Journey!
Screenwriting: Writing the 10-Minute Short