How to be a screenwriter


Being a gun for hire.

The writer in the TV and Film industry is writing within an industrial set up requiring the organization and the payment of a large number of skilled technicians and artists. Consequently a production company aims to do what it can do, and leaves those dream projects that are beyond its capacity to others.

 This means that the earlier in the production process that the writer is involved, the better. This is why speculative scripts are so rarely produced. They might advertise that the writer can write, but often as not, they do not have the kind of ingredients that are considered bankable and will require production skills the producers do not have or can afford to buy.

 This does not mean that all production is a compromise, but rather that part of the job of the creative writer is to work within the constraints of any situation. Some would argue that this is the true test of the creative imagination. Is the idea original, enthralling and appropriate? Score on all three of those and everybody is happy.

 Initially when briefed, the writer is assured of their greatness. Writers are often more interested in an appreciation of their work, than anything else, and so if anyone wants one to work for them they usually start off the proceedings by affirming their faith in the ability of the writer. There is a fine line between affirmation and persuading a writer that they could get away with charging a lot more money, so producers often run hot and cold, switching from ego massaging to picky criticism of a writer’s works and hints of other writers also being asked to submit ideas.

 This tricky negotiation is made all the more difficult by the need for an incubation period in all creative tasks. A writer needs to know a lot about a project, needs to think about it, research it, and thoroughly digest what is required before they can begin coming up with useful ideas.

 Once the fear of losing a job sets in because others may well have started thinking about the project earlier, or have some experience of this kind of material, or are just more intimate with the producers, the writer can be beset by paralysis or worse, begin throwing out lots of half-baked inappropriate ideas. 

 Nothing steadies a writer’s nerve more than a cheque arriving in the post. Upfront affirmation of that nature is rare in Asia, but even a token amount can work wonders. Trust is at the heart of this relationship and so often the preliminary stages of the briefing are given over to building trust and the quickest way to this is to put money in someone’s pocket.

 Before that happens the producer is keeping their options open and a writer should not think otherwise. This is a very vulnerable position to be in and it is where agents and other professional relationships and understandings can influence how seriously a writer should take approaches from any producer.

 Assuming that the producers are honorable or even the contract is signed, the briefing should be defining the problem and outlining common terminology for discussing it. The writer should be told, and if not, should be enquiring what the producer wants to achieve with this particular project. The producer should be explaining whether there are taboo areas that under no circumstances can they touch. Often as not this means a clear definition of the audience. And the better the definition of the audience, the better then final fit of the product.

 One of the key parameters often overlooked are budget restraints. For some reason producers love to say there are no restraints and that the writer should write whatever they want and it is up to the director how to interpret it within the budget constraints. There is a tacit assumption that the writer will not stray too far from a standard TV budget. However, there is no such thing and writers often work on widely different types of projects and need to be fully briefed on every project.

 However, there are some rules of thumb that a writer can sensibly apply so that they do not need to pin anyone down on that often-contentious item, money! Producers as a rule like to keep their budgets quiet as large budgets make people greedy, and small budgets can make them nervous, especially when it seems like the producer is dragging their feet with the second draft payment!

 The basic rules are that sets, locations, people, stunts, and exotic or period costumes all cost money. The more you have of these, the more expensive the show. On an on-going TV show you can sit down and count everything and take an average. With some screenwriting software you can run an analysis on a script and it will tell you the number of locations, speaking parts, non-speaking parts and props. If you go as far as doing a full production mark up, then you really can begin to understand where money will go.

 Viewing a few shows will quickly demonstrate that soap operas are usually cheap and use the same sets all the time, sitcoms rarely have more than six actors, cop shows usually have one stunt per episode, one car chase, and a basic set from where all operations are planned. And one can easily research right down to the mini-budgeted Web-Series where one sees the use of straight to camera exposition, keyed in backgrounds and voice -overs!

 These briefings should be continuous, refining the ideas, and looking at details as they arise, though the practicality of this and often the ineptness of the producers in handling it, can cause a breakdown in creative trust and the withdrawal of the writer from the process. This is never a good situation as the end result can be disastrously inappropriate or worse, flat and boring. Leaving the artist to his or her own devises may be the safest way of guarding against destroying creativity, but on the other hand it can lead to a parting of creative ways.

 Those doing the briefing should see themselves less in a critical roll and more in an assisting role. They should supply information about the audience, about the production facilities and hoped for creative personnel and skill sets, and they should also aid the writer in research. Producers should draw the line at actually co-writing the script, but it should be a creative partnership rather than an adversarial one, as often becomes the case.

 If the writers raise valid issues regarding a brief then it should be changed. One may disagree about what constitutes a faulty brief, but if something depends upon faulty research then obviously it should be corrected. And if something depends upon a faulty conception of a project, as might be the case when the task of dealing with a writer is assigned to inexperienced assistants who have to report back to their bosses, then the writer has to be very diplomatic but nonetheless adamant that they wish to gain clarification and make changes.

 The initial brief is often quite a wide ranging one that as the writer settles into the task, becomes narrowed down and a plan of approach agreed. The more this is a dialogue and the less it is merely a collection of vague statements like, “It should be funnier!” the better. Overt criticism can undermine confidence and bring to end the commitment of the writer to the project. A good manager of creative people can enthuse a writer about more comic potential and areas of a script where there are more opportunities, often with a tweak of character traits, where a bad one merely floods them with notes about things they do not like. Speaking the language of the writer is a great help, which is why producers who are writers, produce most of the better TV dramas and comedies.

 All this takes time and a demand for an instant script risks skipping important steps in the creative process. However, writers experienced in particular genres can often turn around scripts in surprisingly short time scales.  So a producer of something like a TV cop show needs to know their writing staff and their previous experience. Even so, rapid turnarounds are usually synonymous with the production of generic filler material. Both the writer and the producer, to avoid this, should negotiate realistic timetables.

 In most writing contracts there are cut off points established in the process just in case the relationship sours or the project fails to find finance. There is usually a down payment, then payment for a treatment, then further payment for a first draft script. Things get messy with payments for the second and third draft. The writer complains that their second draft payment is being withheld because the producer keeps forcing more, un-contracted re-writes. They are particular incensed when their first draft has been accepted that they are now being forced to completely re-write everything and complain the brief has shifted to something else.

 Producers on new shows are notoriously fickle and often, after establishing a brief, change their minds the more they dig into the project. They get nervous. They see other shows making headway and think their show should have similar elements and they get conflicting information from their bosses. And as they confuse their writers, they lose faith in them. It all stems from their not engaging fully in the creative process and not understanding the need for gestation periods, for limits testing and just plain trial and error. They misunderstand what are merely rough drafts for finished items and begin deepening the confusion rather than enabling a steady progress towards an agreed goal.

 Such a downward spiral can be hard for a writer to rescue themselves from, especially in more bureaucratic institutions with many layers of authority. It is best not to allow this to happen by both sides maintaining an easy communication where they can exchange information about the shifting parameters that have to be worked within, and the imaginative leaps that a writer needs to make. 
If involved in such a mess, the writer can best cope if they understand that the second draft is meant to be a working draft for others, beyond the editors that they know, to read. And other people are not a party to creative debates that the writer might be having and what the present document actually represents in the progression of the development.

 Producers are best advised to manage these periods tactfully. A good tactic here is to pay the writer for the second draft as a show of good faith and then get them to do the radical changes suddenly foisted upon them. Though this is not always an option and a writer has to make a judgment about whether to disengage from the process or continue.  Similarly, it may be the case that the producer, in light of a new direction for the show, wants to end the relationship.

 By the time one has got into the third draft period one is clarifying locations, making sure on-going characters are fully used, and eliminating items beyond the budget, or even boosting it up to take advantage of a budget. One might also be altering a script in response to production schedules and personnel changes on the show. This is all part of the polish that can turn a good script into a good production.  The third draft is delivered and the writer paid. The writer usually gets a bonus if the script is actually used.

 This payment schedule is usual in the US and the UK but less usual in Asia where the development process is notoriously haphazard and payments low and often on delivery only. One can expect that as the desire to compete on the international stage increases so will the sophistication of this process. But whether the process is punctuated by the cut off stages or not, the creative stages and the briefing relationship can still be properly followed through.

 Briefing writers and taking those briefs is an art and both sides need to take responsibility for managing the relationship. The writer needs to understand the production parameters and the essence of the brief at a fundamental level and so needs to be given the assurances that enable them to devote their energies to this, otherwise time will be wasted producing material of no use to anyone.  But mere assurances are never enough, for the writer needs to be given both the right information and inspiration to enable good writing. It can never be a matter of allowing the writer to brief themselves, for the producer is often party to special information regarding audience expectations, budget constraints, technical limitations and show history and background, that a writer has little opportunity to know and even less time to acquire and assimilate.

 To sum up, writers and producers need to listen to each other carefully and recognize that there is a process involved in creating scripts and that productions are about what can be done with the resources available.