Right this very second, in the heart of every struggling, undiscovered screenwriter, in the dark, hidden corner deep within, there is a voice, a clear whisper, saying one thing:
You’re never gonna figure this out.
And this is not referring to the story with its gaping hole, the finale missing a payoff, the hit and miss humor, the flat title.
I’m talking about freedom. The freedom to work as a screenwriter. Compensation for a home for family and a life. The resources to wake up and ply your craft and pay the freight, without obstacle. The chance to see your writing made into pictures, to work with the industry’s best, to fulfill this goal of professional screenwriter. Hollywood success.
Behind this voice is the idea that somehow, some way, you’ll find the hero, or the hook, logline or pitch that will punch your golden ticket. If you could only figure out what the studio wants, if you can only get a solid bead to this game, you know you can write and execute. What is the script I should write to get an agent? What is the one that will sell? It’s not that I don’t know how to write, I know how to write screenplays, I just need to know what they want, even though I think I know what they want, but I don’t think I have the idea that they want. Yeah.
I’m not gonna figure this out, whispers the voice.
Why this uneasiness? Does it originate within ourselves? I don’t think so. But where does it come from? The daily obsession with box office grosses? The news of the seven figure deals to newbies? The endless procession of boneheadedly conceived franchises-in-waiting arriving in the theatres every Friday? People winning Academy Awards for movies you would not be caught dead writing? Recognizing an idea you came up with years ago on your couch, produced with a $130 million budget drowning in CGI?
All these things are but a few of the possible reasons why this seeds unhealthy doubt and confusion in the modern screenwriter. Tracking these forces outside us and beyond our control in an effort to trudge the path to a successful screenwriting career will prove to most to be unproductive and corrosive. Basically, trying to figure out what Hollywood wants will land us in a resentment that makes “giving up” a sane response to the very challenge which used to inspire us. In short, we cannot chase a perceived trend and remember our dreams.
You cannot look at the marketplace and find your voice. You can find ideas, trends, and inspiration there, perhaps, but you can find these things driving in traffic as well. But listening to your voice is the key to creating original, compelling stories.
Your life is your own story. You have a completely unique thread of experience. By allowing yourself to express these emotional experiences, your screenplay, your story, will be different from any other and powerful, as original as your fingerprint.
Why is it powerful? When we have the courage to be specific about what we know about living, we create an authentic world an audience recognizes as the life they are living on planet Earth. This connects your audience to your story. This connection is the foundation of the phenomena of story.
Why does story mean so much to us? We recognize the triumphs and tragedies of our lives, with all the hilarity and tears. By seeing it, we are validated and it underscores meaning and purpose to living.
If we don’t use what we’ve collected in life in our hearts and spirits, then our story loses its authenticity and the connection the audience should make fails. They do not see themselves, and when they leave the theater, they do not call their friends. When people do not call their friends after seeing a movie, the movie bombs.
When a writer opens their person to their work, when they allow themselves to be vulnerable, to risk exposure of the secrets of their life story, they take a huge step towards creating a screenplay of substantial value, a screenplay with a greater potential of a large number of tickets sold.
This is precisely why art and commerce have remained bedfellows for thousands of years. To look at the relationship between art and commerce as adversarial or incompatible is just plain foolish. Art happens when people invest their spirits in their work without fear, and story is artful when the writing is truthful and the writer is authentic.
And what do we have to be honest about? We can only lie about what we know, and we can only tell the truth about what we know. And that is what has happened to us, our life story. This is what we share.
This is not a pitch to write “what you know.” This is not about writing stories about where you work or where you live. This is about writing about what you felt. You can imagine characters and worlds and actions and speech you’ve never personally experienced, but if you remember to infuse your choices with your emotional and spiritual struggles and victories as a human being, your screenplay will be different in the very best sense of the word.
The question you have to answer is not what does Hollywood want today. The question is how honest of a writer do you want to be. I guarantee you can write a blockbuster, you can write a box office hit. This will happen when you find an audience. And the correct path to this crowd of people is listening to yourself. If you practice, you will develop an inner ear for who you are and what you know and you will become masterful in loading your work with your fingerprints. Writing is personal work. You are the guitar. You are the box of paint. Give of that and your audience will remember why life is good and they will talk of you.
by Gordy Hoffman
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Founded by writer Gordy Hoffman, the BlueCat Screenplay Competition has been discovering and developing writers for over twenty years. Each writer who enters BlueCat is guaranteed a written analysis by one of our talented readers, in the hopes of providing constructive feedback that will help you grow as a writer.