Screenwriters are an unsortable, surly lot. There are as many different flavors of us as there are soldiers in the Terracotta Army, or bricks in the Great Wall of China, and frankly, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
But sometimes, we like to have an idea of where the heck we stand within our dojo, and/or how far we need to go to reach our “black belt” of screenwriting mastery, if you don’t mind me haphazardly mixing my folklore.
Yet gauging how far away that black belt is, while being steeped within the film industry – an industry jam-packed with unique, precious snowflakes – can be as difficult as punching your tiger-crane fist through a block of solid wood, grasshopper. “What are the mileposts?” “How far have I come?” “How far do I have left to go?” “What exactly does it mean to have ‘made it’ as a screenwriter?” “Why is the rice cold, zen master?” etc.
I attempt to answer that below with a subjective framework in order to get the badly-overdubbed conversation started.
It’s what I call “The Five Screenwriting Skill Levels,” a completely arbitrary, step-by-step guide to becoming a master screenwriter by accomplishing a series of completely arbitrary tasks and/or experiences that I’ve laid out in the style of some bearded kung-fu master from a Sonny Chiba (or Quentin Tarantino) movie.
How it works: all screenwriters start at the bottom: Level 1, and, with experience and hard work, progress to the final level, Level 5, or Master Screenwriter.
Think of it merely as a fun, sake-soaked thought experiment. Better yet, improve upon it by creating your own.
And finally, as a caveat: know that we happy, zen-seeking typists, we would-be screenwriting samurai, have before us a vast, vast panoply of different paths to screenwriting mastery, so please don’t take any of my fun rubric as the words of Confucius, or as Sun Tzu’s two cents.
With all that in mind, and without further disclaiming or lamentation, I offer the 5 Screenwriting Skill Levels:
Screenwriting Skill Level 1
aka Playful Dancing Wolf Cub
Watch these films: Citizen Kane, Jaws, Network, Chinatown, Casablanca. The main goal is to take your first step towards what makes a good film by studying several great films.
Read 10 screenplays. It doesn’t matter where you find ’em. It doesn’t matter how good or bad they are. You can learn from both.
Acquire two different screenwriting software packages. Free or paid, installed software or online – it doesn’t matter. Just get two.
Write two short films, one in each software package. 40 pages each, maximum. 3 characters in each, maximum.
Have a table read for one of the scripts with some friends and/or family. Include someone that reads the sluglines, action/description lines, and transitions. Listen to your words coming out of other peoples’ mouths. Watch faces as they read from the page. Do they squint? Do they grimace? Do they yawn? Do they have trouble deciphering or pronouncing what you’ve written? Are they stopping every line to ask you to explain something?
The emotional reaction from these people is your first emotional reaction from an audience. This emotional reaction is at the core of all screenwriting. It’s what everything to follow, everything you’ll learn, is all aiming towards. All format, mechanics, spelling, act breaks, rising action, dialogue, and all those other things are all in service of the emotional reaction of the audience. Understand this on at least some level, and complete the previous tasks, and you will be a Level 1 Screenwriter.
Screenwriting Skill Level 2
aka Sturdy Grinning Typing Bear
Read 50 more screenplays. Again, it doesn’t matter what kind or how good they are.
Watch these films: Easy Rider, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, Sunrise, City Lights, Taxi Driver, The Conversation, Sunset Boulevard, Reservoir Dogs, Rear Window, It’s A Wonderful Life, Die Hard, The Last Picture Show, Nashville. The main idea is to steep yourself in what most of the filmmaking and filmgoing world at large considers to be strong, good, and/or marketable feature films, across a wide variety of voices, genres, directorial styles, and audience orientation.
Write 1 short film (5 pages minimum, 40 pages maximum). Don’t use your old short film from earlier. Write this film to be produced. Don’t include anything in the script that you don’t have access to or can’t make happen on film within your time and budget constraints.
Make the film. Find a filmmaker (producer / director / whoever) or make it yourself. Preproduction, production, postproduction, the works. Release it on YouTube or Vimeo. Get some feedback from peers and ponder upon every note you get, no matter how bad you might think the note is.
Write 2 feature film screenplays or 2 TV pilots (one-hour, sitcom, whatever). 5 drafts of each, minimum.
Pitch one of your scripts or concepts to any producer or filmmaker. It can be a practice pitch. That is, not a real-life buying situation, but just an academic exercise to get the feel of pitching.
Join a writers group. (We’re moving on from “friends and family” table reads now.) Get your scripts table read or read by your group in whatever way they do it. Get feedback from them. On one of the scripts, apply every single note your writers group gave you, no matter if you have to move heaven and earth to do so. On the other script, use your best judgment and follow your gut with regards to what notes you adopt and what notes you don’t.
When finished, get the new drafts of those two scripts re-read by your writers group. Or by whoever you can. Have 5 people read each script, the one you applied all their notes to and the one you followed your gut on. Gauge their opinion.
When in your table read, again, watch your “audience’s” faces. Gauge their emotional response to your words. Do you lose them when you get bogged down in detail? Do they yawn when your characters are talking? Do they have to stop and ask you for clarity because it’s not on the page?
When you have done all the previous tasks, and have the ability to accept notes, written or spoken, without arguing back or explaining or getting defensive, and understand that while some notes might be dumb, but that the power of many brains giving you notes on your script not only lets you see things you might not be seeing, but also offers you insight into what the real-world audience experience might be like, then, and not before, have you reached Level 2.
Screenwriting Skill Level 3
aka Clever Writing Monkey
Read 75 more screenplays. Again, it doesn’t matter if they’re bad scripts from bad screenwriters or if they’re Reservoir Dogs or Chinatown. Absorb them all. Observe the differences. By this point, you should be able to tell within the first 10 pages if the script will be enjoyable and easy to get from page to page.
Watch these films or similar: Down By Law, A Woman Under The Influence, Do The Right Thing, The Royal Tenenbaums, 8-1/2, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, A Clockwork Orange, The Disappearance of Alice Creed, Fight Club, Blood Simple, The Toxic Avenger, Catch 22, Pi, There Will Be Blood. The idea is to significantly broaden your idea of what the art and commerce of the feature film is capable of.
For 10 of the 75 scripts read above, write 10 script coverages. Coverages are similar to script notes (details for new script readers here), but they’re more brief and stay focused on the large stuff, their general purpose being to give agents and producers the overall “skinny” on a script without having to read it themselves. It might seem counter-intuitive to do script coverage after tackling script notes, but keep in mind that it’s generally more difficult to write with focus and brevity – the two key aspects of script coverage – than it is to write with the long-form flexibility that script notes generally allow.
Write 5 more feature film screenplays or 5 original TV pilots or episodes (one-hour, sitcom, it doesn’t matter). 20 drafts of each, minimum.
Get one of those 5 feature film scripts optioned, sold, or produced, either by yourself or a third party, whether it’s for $1, net points, or even $10,000.
Do 10 third-party-mandated rewrites of any script or draft going into production or going through the development process. “Rewrites” can be quick polishes or complete overhauls. By “third-party-mandated,” I mean a producer, agent, name talent, or other person asking you to do rewrites on your script or anyone else’s.
Give script notes to 3 screenwriter friends (minimum 10 pages each set of script notes). Make sure the notes aren’t being written as if talking to the person. That is, be as objective as possible. Don’t write a letter, and don’t write a movie review. Write what’s not working, write what you think would make it better, write what you think would make it more marketable or artistically interesting.
Engage with the writers you’ve provided script notes for. Get their feedback on your feedback. Hone your style of giving feedback until it’s focused as much as possible on objectivity and as little as possible on personal taste / subjectivity.
Pitch any of your scripts to two different producers in a real-world buying situation. That is, pitch for real, not just academically or for practice. It doesn’t matter if you sell a pitch or don’t. After you’ve completed all of these tasks, you will have reached Level 3 as a screenwriter.
Screenwriting Skill Level 4
aka Fierce Tiger Script-Fixer
Read 100 more screenplays. Before you begin, at this point, you should be able to tell by the first page if the script will be enjoyable, and whether or not the script or script’s concept will be appealing to producers or other buyers within the first 5 pages. In each of these 100 screenplays, find at least one commercially or artistically awesome thing. If you have to “spin” it a little, do it.
Why? Because once you reach Level 4, the terrible in a script is plainly, plainly obvious. The good, the commercial, the potential – that’s much harder to see. But it’s a vital skill to have, especially if you’re going to be a screenwriter that the industry can depend upon to deliver across a wide variety of genres, styles, and artistic or market parameters.
Even a bad, ugly script with a terrible writer, believe it or not, can be spun into gold by a good producer and a good screenwriter or screenwriting team as long as it has something going for it. That something can be the root concept, an idea the original writer glossed over or executed poorly, a name actor attached, a franchise behind it, or any number of things.
Watch these films or similar: Irreversible, The Fog of War, Eraserhead, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Koyaanisqatsi, Feeders 2: Slay Bells, Troll 2, The Act of Killing, Days of Heaven. The goal here is to get “dirt” under your fingernails, feel completely out of your element, confused, amazed, repulsed, indignant at how bad the film is. Study what moves you when watching these films, even if it’s a negative emotion. Challenge yourself to imbue your own writing with the magnitude of these emotions, even if they’re completely different emotions. Emotion is what makes a film work. Be able to draw from the darkest black and the brightest white on your color palette.
Write 10 more feature film screenplays or 5 more TV pilots / episodes / sitcoms, etc. 10 drafts of each, minimum. Of those ten, get one made, even if it goes nowhere and makes no money, and even if you have to make it yourself. And of the remaining nine, write 3 scripts in a genre you absolutely despise, or would never think of writing in. This is to widen your skillset, if not your palette, and to hone your versatility. Versatility is essential.
Fix another writer’s script. Complete overhaul or just a polish. Make the script better, or the best you can make it. Sit down with the writer and talk about the changes you made and why you made them. It’s okay if they don’t use any of your changes.
Spend 20 additional days on the set of at least one feature film. If you’ve reached Level 3, you’ve been on film sets, but if you haven’t spent 20 or more days with a single film crew, you haven’t really experienced the odd, wonderful rhythm that’s created by a team of humans coming together to make a movie. The fights, the romances, the backstabbing, the egos, the laughs, the drinks, the headaches, the explosions, the last minute saves, the out-of-the-blue heartbreaks: these are the only true things that forge filmmakers, whether you’re the writer or the craft service guy. These are what yank the screenwriter out of her lone craft and bind her to the soul and tradition of filmmaking. If you don’t experience all of it, good and bad, and in depth, your screenwriting journey will be significantly less rich.
Once you complete all the above, you’ll be a Level 4 screenwriter.
Screenwriting Skill Level 5
aka Wise Screenwriting Zen Master
Read 200 more screenplays. By the time you reach Level 4, you’ve read so many scripts, you know what a bad script’s going to do 50 pages before it does it. And a good script is a breeze to read. So technically, by this point in your leveling up, reading screenplays should no longer be that much of a chore, because it’s either going to be a bad script, in which case it should be skimmable, or a good script, in which case it’ll be fast and fun to read. But nonetheless, 200 scripts read is your requirement. As in your previous tasks, learn from even the bad scripts.
Watch every single film from the following filmmakers or similar: Martin Scorcese, D.W. Griffith, Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, Wim Wenders, Kevin Smith, Frank Capra, Lloyd Kaufman, Joel and Ethan Coen, Sam Raimi, Stanley Kubrick, Quentin Tarantino, Jim Jarmusch, PT Anderson, Alfred Hitchcock, Akira Kurosawa, Orson Welles, Woody Allen, Billy Wilder, Roger Corman, William Wyler, John Huston, John Ford, Roman Polanski, David Lean. Only a screenwriter who has submerged herself in the perspectives and/or lore of all of the cinematic masters is worthy of attaining Level 5.
Write 5 more feature films or 5 more pilots / episodes.
Have 2 new feature film scripts produced, either by yourself, or by another entity. It doesn’t matter if they make money or get seen.
Collaborate. Work with one or more co-writers on 2 or more scripts, from concept to delivery. It can be in the same room, typing over each others’ shoulders, or it can be passing a draft back and forth over the internet. Learn how to collaborate for real, not just in name. Collaboration isn’t simply listening to someone’s ideas and then discarding them in favor of your own. It means sharing. It means sacrificing your ideas in favor of your co-writer’s, from time to time.
I know that’s anathema to many of us. Why most of us are writers to begin with is because the art of writing gives us total control of the story. But if you can’t share, if you can’t sacrifice, if you can’t allow the other writer to be right from time to time, you’re (a) probably being too precious about your material, (Screenwriting isn’t life-or-death. Nobody’s going to die if the scene doesn’t work the way you like it.) and/or (b) you’re probably coming off as a jerk. Do I need to point out that very few people prefer to work with jerks?
Codify your screenwriting knowledge. As an e-book, or on a blog, or podcast, or as a screenwriting course. It doesn’t matter if any of it is read, or popular, or makes any money. By putting down on paper or making available to others what you’ve learned over the course of your screenwriting journey, you cement your learning and further the craft of screenwriting for future generations.
Mentor a screenwriter who’s at a lower level than you for 1 year. Read her scripts, provide feedback, career guidance, and pass on the skills you’ve learned.
Complete all of these tasks and you will have reached Level 5 as a screenwriter. Congratulations! Take us all out for some sushi. And since you’re Level 5, you buy.
Instant Leveling Power-Ups
These things below, in my opinion, generally propel your screenwriting kung-fu into a place where you’re forced to sink or swim. It doesn’t matter if it lasts, it doesn’t matter if you wash out or sell a script for $1 million. Just the act of being put in any of these positions is a hugely beneficial experience, even if it has a fleeting or even negative outcome. That’s why I consider them to be instant “boosters” to your screenwriting kung-fu leveling experience.
At whatever level you are as a screenwriter, whether it’s 1, 2, 3, or 4, for each of these things below you achieve, you’re entitled to scratch one item off the task list required to reach the next level up. The task you scratch off has to be what you consider to be the easiest task for that level.
* If your work enables you to become WGA eligible and/or you join the WGA.
* If one of your scripts causes a check to be written to you in the sum of $5,000 or more.
* If you sign with a major agent or manager.
* If you sign with a minor agent or manager, or get a name actor or producer to read and respond to your material, even if it’s a no.
In closing, grasshopper:
Without doubt, the 1,000 steps to screenwriting zen is fraught with many challenges, but may my humble, subjective guide serve as a candle should you find yourself surrounded by the dark of screenwriter doubt or confusion.
And with that cheesy last thought, I bid you a fond seppuku. Or whatever the word is. (I’m still leveling up myself.)