Los Angeles Chapter — California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists
Los Angeles Chapter — CAMFT
Zen and the Stages of Screenwriting Growth: The Novice Stage
The Novice Stage: Stage 1
I was there too. A novice. In my first couple of screenplays I was mainly trying to be funny. I know they were funny. However, they didn’t get me an agent or a manager. And I didn’t get them to people who could give me professional level feedback.
When you first start out, most writers don’t know a lot of the things they need to know to get a break. A lot of writer’s first attempts turn out to be lacking in one way or another. I understand it. When we all start writing we’re excited about our ideas, and we’re in a hurry to get them up on the screen, where everybody can see how talented we are.
Writers at this stage tend to be driven by their ego, and the excitement of creating something completely original. They’ve watched movies all their lives, they might have read a book or two about screenwriting. They may have even read a few produced screenplays. A good start.
You do have to start somewhere. And who wants to wait and go to film school, or take some UCLA extension courses, when they can take an online seminar and get started the next day? Quentin Tarantino didn’t go to film school. He just watched a lot of videos. So novices hear stories like that and tend to rush through their first screenplays.
Chances are, however, at this stage, most novices don’t really have a strong grip on what a three act structure means, how the protagonist is supposed to drive the action or even what good dialogue looks like. They have a general idea of how to tell a story. And they've seen enough films to kind of fill in the blanks.
Some rookie writers throw all the cool ideas they can think of into their first script. They may have a lot of cool ideas, too. But without a sense of how to string them together in a way that makes dramatic sense, they’re often left with a story that takes on an episodic feel. The stories don’t build.
Novice writers know a lot about movies, but not so much about writing, and not so much about the craft. They know the basics; that script is supposed to be around 100-120 pages, that their characters should tell a story, and they know something about structure, but they haven’t learned to think like a screenwriter yet.
One cool thing about the novice level is—it’s fun to write. It's new, it's cool, and it’s exciting. You watch movies to see how they did it. You study your favorite writers or directors and start incorporating ideas. This is the great thing about starting out.
Some examples of rookie mistakes; format errors, describing what a character is saying or thinking in the stage directions, telling too many stories, using filler scenes that don’t move the story. Writing long (7 page) talky scenes, with no movement or action, not knowing when to start and where to end a scene, writing way too many scenes before introducing the protagonist.
Much of the time these beginners tend to reject, or somehow avoid hearing criticism and feedback. If they do accept it, they don’t know how to fix it, and don't have the patience to ask how. Those that do ask, may not even know the right questions.
After long months of struggling with creative decisions, they get to the end of their script—and it’s hard for them to think about even changing a word. They don’t do the necessary rewrites, and instead, make superficial changes and push for something to happen with the script, as is.
This is one of the hardest lessons that novice screenwriters have to learn. They may not have the skills to improve a scene, or a story. They may not know how to make the necessary cuts. Even if they get solid feedback from a seasoned professional, they can’t implement them.
How long does this stage last? It’s different for everybody. Even the professional writers work for years before breaking in. You definitely have to have patience. If you’re in a hurry to make a film, there is something you can do that will be well worth your while.
Take some time away from your feature length screenplays, and write a short film. Get some actors, or some talented friends to help you film it. Even if you can only afford to shoot on an iPhone, people are doing it. Professionals even. You'll learn a lot about writing in the process.
It will help if you can read lots of screenplays, you can find them online—watch lots of movies and keep writing. Be open to feedback from writers you know are good—and ask questions.
David Silverman, LMFT, treats anxiety and depression, especially in highly sensitive individuals in his LA practice. Having experienced the rejection, stress, creative blocks, paralyzing perfectionism, and career reversals over a 25 year career as a Film/TV writer, he’s uniquely suited to work with gifted, creative, and sensitive clients experiencing anxiety, depression, and addiction. David received training at Stanford and Antioch, is fully EMDR certified, and works with programs treating Victims of Crime and Problem Gamblers. Visit www.DavidSilvermanLMFT.com.
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