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How To Behave Like A Screenwriter: Seven Secrets To Better Stories

By Jim Jennewein

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Becoming a successful screenwriter—or any kind of professional storyteller—is as much about attitude, a commitment to a kind of behavior, as it is about learning the elements of story craft. A disciplined way of thinking and behaving—on paper and off—that determines your ability to develop the stories you want to tell. Here are a few keys I’ve acquired along the way—as both a writer and a teacher of writers—that perhaps will help to open doors for you.   A few principles worth incorporating into your own work philosophy.

1. IT ISN’T A STORY UNTIL YOU WRITE IT

Yes, we writers live in our heads. It’s an occupational hazard; we have to spend time there to dream up what we do. But we externalize these dream-thoughts only by taking action on the page. By writing them down. In other words, it is only through the difficult word-selection and decision-making process—also called “writing”— that we discover the nature of our story.

A former mentor of mine put it this way (you might want to write this down and put it above your desk): The worst thing you actually do put on paper is always better than the ‘great masterpiece’ you keep in your head and never write at all. Meaning: No matter how vividly you can see the story in your head, it’s not fully real until it’s words on a page.  When it’s in your head it’s still just an unformed fantasy. So get it out of your head and onto paper. Let go of the fear that it won't be perfect. No first draft ever is. However crude and clunky your first effort might be, it’s now alive and breathing on the page. You can see it more clearly now, with all its failures and flaws, which enables you to more easily begin the real work of rewriting.

2. LISTEN TO YOUR INNER VOICE -- THAT IS YOUR TALENT SPEAKING

Producer Robert Evans famously said, “Success is betting on your instincts.” In other words, your own instincts. Not someone else’s. So bet on yourself. When in doubt, double down. Yes, you must be open to the opinions and ideas of others. Good writers always are. But don’t be so slavish to others that you tune out yourself.  If you have done the work of becoming a disciplined storyteller, acquired enough tools of craft, then chances are your instincts about the story you are writing are accurate. Let them guide you. If you do comedy, write what you think is funny. Learn to listen to your inner voice. That is your talent speaking. Because if you don’t listen to it, who will? In fact, I have a theory that if you stop listening to that voice, your creative subconscious, the creative intelligence at work in that voice knows that no one is listening and eventually stops speaking.

3. THE SCRIPT IS ALWAYS BIGGER THAN THE WRITER

Some people think you need a big ego to be a successful writer. Nope. You just need to be willing to do the work.  To be so emotionally engaged with your material, so lit from within by the need to create it, that you successfully muster the passion to write as many drafts as necessary to bring the story to its fullest expression. Focus on serving the material, not on making it serve you.  I’ve seen what happens when writers lose their sense of humility and begin to fall in love with the gigantitude of their talent. It isn’t pretty. In short, build an attitude of service toward the story. Make the story bigger and your ego smaller. Devote yourself to the act of creation, not self-glorification, and you will be in a far better frame of mind—and heart—to shepherd and shape your story. As Paddy Chayevsky, the writer of classics such as “Network” and “Marty,” wisely once said, “Focus on mastering the craft. Let others decide if it’s art.” Amen, brother.

4. MEASURE SUCCESS CREATIVELY, NOT FINANCIALLY

We all know the road to success is loaded with obstacles. Crushing rejection. Crippling self-doubt. Whims of the marketplace.  Movie star egos. The list goes on. Unfortunately, there is no correlation between the time spent on a script and your chances of selling it. What you can’t control is what people think of it or whether it sells. Those outcomes are beyond your command. What you can control—the only thing—is the work itself. The quality of your story, the richness and vitality of your characters, and the time and energy you spend on bringing it all to life on the page. What happens to your work when it goes out into the world is anyone’s guess. Even having representation is no guarantee of a sale.

If you are lucky enough to someday sell a script—or two or three—go ahead and celebrate. You deserve it. But then get right back to work, creating a new and better story. Keep focused on the process of writing, on outdoing your last effort. Measure success by how well you nailed your story—by the emotional responses you receive from the people who read it.  A writer’s life by its very nature is an up and down journey. Don’t judge yourself by the money you make—or don’t make. Focus on the quality of your ideas, not the quantity of zeroes on your paycheck, and you’ll be in a far better frame of mind to continue your creative journey.
         
5. DON'T WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW. WRITE WHAT YOU'RE PASSIONATE ABOUT

The truism to “write what you know” is often overused and far too limiting. Yes, this advice can help the newbie writer find familiar subject matter to jumpstart him on his journey. But to really grow and develop as a writer, to put down roots into the soil of your you-ness, you must move beyond the limits of your own direct experience and into the realm of imagination.  Let yourself go. Write about what you can't stop thinking about. Write from your heart. From the gut. Don't try to chase market trends; get in touch with what you know to be true, with your own dreams and obsessions, and then your work will truly be your own. You'll do the work and write the stories only you can write. You'll find your unique style, the thing that makes you you.  Put a real piece of yourself into it. And chances are, if you care about it, others will too.

6.  FAILURE IS SOMETHING YOU DO TO YOURSELF

Learn to accept failure as a necessary part of the learning process, not an end to your dreams.  Henry Ford said, "Failure is only the opportunity to begin again, only this time more wisely." Nothing could be more true, especially in the creative arts. I know so many people far more talented than I who did not succeed merely because they gave up too easily. They failed to persist. They felt they were so amazingly talented and so blazingly brilliant that nothing they created could be ever be faulted or criticized. In truth, they were simply undisciplined and unable to live with the idea that they had to actually work harder than they wanted to.

In effect, they beat themselves. But for a writer there are no shortcuts; there is no substitute for painstaking hard work. And remember this: you have power. You have the power to do what no actor, no director, no studio executive can do.  You can create something from nothing. You possess the awesome ability to lay down a vision on paper and make it real for others. To be the seminal creator of a movie or television show.  This—the strength of your ideas joined with the skill of your craft—is the only real power that you have. So keep choosing to use it and good things can happen.

7. TRUTH RULES

In my days as a working screenwriter, I’ve had the good fortune to receive credit on several produced movies. One of these—released way back in the Stone Age of 1994—was the Universal comedy, “The Flintstones.” Exec produced by Steven Spielberg—in the credits they called him “Steven Spielrock” —it starred John Goodman, Rick Moranis, Elizabeth Perkins, Rosie O’Donnell, and the breathtakingly beautiful Halle Berry. When I learned I was to get to spend a few days on the set watching them film, it may surprise you to know that it wasn’t Halle Berry I was most excited to meet. It was someone far sexier, the legendary Elizabeth Taylor, who was cast in the role of Wilma Flintstone's mother.

When she stepped out on the set dressed in Stone Age furs, she drew a standing ovation from the cast and crew. I was probably clapping louder than anyone else.  After she did her scene, playing opposite John Goodman as Fred, I saw Liz conferring with the director but thought nothing of it.  I was surprised when a few moments later the 1st A.D.  came over and told me that Ms. Taylor had a problem with the dialog and wanted to talk to the writer and I was supposed to wait for her in her trailer. I’m supposed to meet Liz Taylor… in her trailer? Most writers hate to change their dialog, but in this case, I couldn’t wait!

So I’m waiting in her trailer, when finally in she came, still wrapped in her gorgeous fake fur, and plopped down on the sofa beside me. An assistant instantly gave her an iced tea and left, and there I was, alone with Liz Taylor, staring into her famous blue-violet eyes. I was mesmerized.  I said, “Ms. Taylor, what would you like me to do?” And batting her eyelashes, she said, “Please call me Liz.” As it turned out, in all of a minute, I was done fixing her lines and realized my audience was over. It was time to go. But I didn’t want to go. I was sitting with one of the greatest movie actresses ever and wanted the moment to last. I wanted to make some kind of personal connection.

So I said, “Ms. Taylor—I mean, Liz—you’ve lived such an amazing life and had one of the longest acting careers ever. I just have to ask you. What’s your secret? What do you attribute your success to?”
 
She put down her iced tea and closed her eyes, pausing to think. Then her eyes flew open and she reached out and put her hand on mine—our skin actually touched!    She squeezed my hand and said, “Truth.” 
“Truth?” I said.

“Yes,” she said. “I tell the truth. In my life and in my work. The truth is my secret – and my secret weapon!”  She gave me another big smile and that was it. It was time to go. I stood up, thanked her and left.
 
So I’ll let Liz’s lesson be a reminder to us all. In art and in life, there is real power in the truth. Take time to pay attention to the truths of life, both big and small—the deep, abiding everlasting truths of human nature—and put them into your work.  The more you traffic in truth, as you experience it, the greater your stories will resonate with others. And telling stories that make people feel something is what it's all about.

About Jim Jennewein

Jim Jennewein has written such movies as The Flintstones, Richie Rich, and Major League II, and currently is the Chair of Screenwriting at the Burbank campus of the New York Film Academy.

Screenwriting Article by Jim Jennewein

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