July 24, 2021

Be a Screenplay Writer

A screenplay writer (also called screenwriter for short), scriptwriter or scenarist, is a writer who practices the craft of screenwriting, writing screenplays on which mass media, such as films, television programs and video games, are based.

Be a Screenplay Writer…

Screenwriters and TV Writers build the worlds we see onscreen. They create the characters we love, keep us on the edge of our seats, and write moments that we think about for days (and even years) after seeing a film or TV show that resonates. They’re responsible for writing the screenplays and TV scripts that Directors and their crews shoot for the screen.

So how do you break into the industry as a Writer? To learn how to build a career as a TV Writer or Screenwriter, we spoke to several professionals who’ve written and created award-winning series and penned screenplays for acclaimed films.

Screenplay Writer Profession

Screenplay Writer
Screenplay Writer

Screenwriting is a freelance profession. No education is required to be a professional screenwriter, just good storytelling abilities and imagination. Screenwriters are not hired employees but contracted freelancers. Most, if not all, screenwriters start their careers writing on speculation (spec) and so write without being hired or paid for it. If such a script is sold, it is called a spec script. What separates a professional screenwriter from an amateur screenwriter is that professional screenwriters are usually represented by a talent agency. Also, professional screenwriters do not often work for free, but amateur screenwriters will often work for free and are considered “writers in training.” Spec scripts are usually penned by unknown professional screenwriters and amateur screenwriters.

There are a legion of would-be screenwriters who attempt to enter the film industry, but it often takes years of trial-and-error, failure, and gritty persistence to achieve success. In Writing Screenplays that Sell, Michael Hague writes, “Screenplays have become, for the last half of [the twentieth] century, what the Great American Novel was for the first half. Closet writers who used to dream of the glory of getting into print now dream of seeing their story on the big or small screen.”

Pete Goldfinger (Spiral, Jigsaw, Piranha 3D)

According to Pete Goldfinger (Spiral, Jigsaw, Piranha 3D)

Screenwriting encompasses all aspects: TV, movies, some would even say video games. That’s writing for the screen. Technically though, there are TV Writers, and then there are Feature Film Writers. A Screenwriter is usually thought of as somebody who writes feature films. So, to answer your question, “What does a Screenwriter do?” I write movies, and I write a little bit of TV.

The first thing you should know about Screenwriters is they spend a lot of the day in their sweatpants and pajamas. That’s the best part of being a Screenwriter. But everybody’s got their own schedule.

It’s funny you asked this because I had a writing partner named Josh Stolberg. We always work together. He’s a late owl so he sometimes works ‘til as late as three or four in the morning, and I often start as early as six in the morning, but then I’m usually done by about 1:30 p.m. I don’t spend a whole day [mimics typing sounds]. There are only so many hours you can do that. We joke that we’re sometimes writing 20 hours a day when we’re in a pinch, because we have to hand off to each other. But a Screenwriter spends a lot of his day thinking.

My writing partner is more of a sit-down-at-your-computer-and-start-working kind of guy, but I spend every morning usually going for a walk for about an hour-and-a-half after I drop my kids off at school, just going through, in my head, what it is that I want to write. If you really get something in your head then you can write six pages, because screenplay pages are much shorter than when you write prose.

The saying is, if you took a 110-page screenplay and just wrote it in prose as if you were writing a book, it would only be about 32 pages. You can write [screenplays] much faster. So I try to put aside some time to think about what I’m going to write because there’s nothing worse than sitting in front of a blank page.

I don’t know too many Screenwriters who work all day. We love to procrastinate. We love to think of reasons not to write, but that’s why I really try to get into a habit. My family knows that, even when the kids are on vacation, or when they’re in COVID, when my wife is setting meetings for me: I don’t do anything before 1:30 p.m. because that’s my locked-in time to just write.

But then after that, there’s a lot of the business side of writing, which is correspondence with Agents, proofreading, things like that. It’s less of the creative process. The great thing is … I don’t have to write all of the time. But I have to write some of the time. That’s how that works.

Screenplay Writer’s Salary

According to The Hollywood Reporter,2 Staff Writers on TV shows can look forward to $37,368 for an hour-long script or $25,408 for a half-hour script. They may also earn $7,000 to $15,000 an episode in weekly fees.

For Film Writers, StudioBinder1 says WGA spec script prices ranged from $72,600 to $136,000, with the average spec script sale hovering around $110,000.

WGA minimum rates vary based on the type of content and Writers must also pay the percentage fees for their Agents, Managers, and Lawyers.

How do you become a screenplay writer?

Pete Goldfinger (Spiral, Jigsaw, Piranha 3D)

I get asked this question so many times but particularly by young Writers who have stuff written, and they just don’t know how to get it into somebody’s hands. And it’s the hardest thing to sort of tell people because what you need to do is you need to write stuff and get people to see it. That’s what you gotta do. And believe me, getting people to see it is as hard as the writing part of it.
Everybody has a different way that they broke in. My way is so unusual. One of my best friends is Lauren Graham who was on Gilmore Girls. Keep in mind, at the time she wasn’t “Lauren Graham from Gilmore Girls,” she was just Lauren Graham, and she was a friend of mine.
And so, she got on that show, and they gave her what’s called a vanity deal. They give their stars sort of a pod producing deal where they can produce a few TV shows, and I was the only Writer she knew. So she was like, “Alright Pete, come on in and pick something.” So that’s how I got my WGA [Writers Guild of America] card.
For most people, that’s how the story goes. They knew somebody and they got their script into that person’s hands. But what you can’t do is write something, have somebody read it that’s like an Accountant—say your dad went to college with the Accountant for Johnny Depp—who doesn’t know anything about the business, reads it, and doesn’t do anything with it.
You gotta keep getting it out there. The hardest thing is keeping your chin up until your script finds the right audience; until it lands on the right desk. I just said those words, but I wrote a script about a year ago that I showed to my Agent and he didn’t love it, and I was like, “I don’t really wanna go out with it.” So you gotta be stronger than I am. You gotta keep believing in yourself and keep getting it out there.

What skills do you need to be a TV Writer or Screenplay writer?

Pete Goldfinger (Spiral, Jigsaw, Piranha 3D)

Just be a good storyteller. That’s it. That’s the only skill you have to have. No degree. I’ve never been to a meeting where someone has asked me where I went to college or what my degree was in. Nobody cares. It doesn’t matter.
There’s a guy named Greg Malins. He was the Showrunner on Friends, which means he ran that show. He must have been in his thirties, maybe mid-thirties. He took over for the Showrunner, but he didn’t go to college. He graduated from high school. He was an Assistant on a show called Dream On on HBO … and then he just worked his way up because he’s a great storyteller.
If you can tell a good story out loud, if people say, “Gosh, you tell good stories,” you would probably make a great Screenplay Writer because it’s active. It’s an active story. That’s a good way to look at it.
Now some (and that doesn’t mean all) Screenwriters are good storytellers. In fact, Screenwriters are known for being kind of lame in a room because they’re always thinking about the page. But if you tell a good story, you could probably be a Screenwriter. What you don’t need to have is prose; don’t worry about your penmanship. So many good Writers get sunk believing that they can’t write because they’re bad spellers. That’s just crazy.