Scriptwriter  What They Do

Just the Facts

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dotScriptwriters are in demand in a wide variety of industries. Every show you see on TV -- from kids' cartoons to nature documentaries -- has used scriptwriters.

Even commercials need scriptwriters. There are scriptwriters who do the work for short film and feature-length movie productions. Finally, there are scriptwriters whose job it is to rework other writers' scripts.

dotScriptwriting has changed from the days when the writer acted like a stage director, inserting camera angles and acting direction into the script.

"People think that writing a movie is easy, but a well-written script is very hard," says Bill Johnson, a scriptwriter based in Oregon who has written plays picked up for full theater production on stage and radio. He's currently rewriting a feature-length movie script.

"You simply don't tell the director what to do. That's not the writer's job. Spielberg doesn't want my advice on how to stage a scene and neither do the actors."

dotRewriting scripts is the bread and butter of most scriptwriters. That means they get paid to rework someone else's script.

dotA director, producer or other writers may hone a scriptwriter's work, so scriptwriters can't be too attached to their words. Someone else is bound to change them.

"Everybody that gets involved in a movie wants to do something with the script," says Johnson. The trick is to give the studio what they're looking for.

dotThe aim of a good screenplay is to keep the viewer glued to the screen, so each scene has some kind of dramatic element, whether that means developing the emotion of a character or inserting action and plot twists.

dotIn this industry, who you know can mean the difference between success and failure. A self-described outsider of the frantic scriptwriting scene, Johnson says he could have broken in much faster if he'd attended one of the prestigious film schools.

"Success as a scriptwriter depends on three things -- contacts, your writing and the experience with your mentor or agent. You can't make it by just sitting at home and writing a query letter. You have to talk to people and make contacts -- you have to do that to continue to work and network."

dotLinda Theodosakis, whose short films have been nominated for national awards, says persistence is right up there too. "Tenacity is almost more important than talent," she says. "The tenacious writer may not be that great, but if they just keep slogging, they'll get there."

dotTheodosakis recommends students take advantage of the available technology and film their own work on video. A group of amateur actors might be willing to act out your script. That'll give you valuable insights into your own work.

You could also draw on the local cable company for volunteers to film it. Once it's done, spend time with your finger on the pause button reviewing the scenes. The ones that don't work usually jump out in a flash.

dotScriptwriter Leila Basen also recommends that students take a video camera out and bring their stories to life. That will provide the portfolio needed to attend a good film school.

dotOnce out, don't expect to get a job right away. You'll need to write a few spec scripts -- detailed outlines of your stories -- first. "Nobody would give you a job on a show if you've never written before. It's too much work for the story department," Basen says.

dotJohnson offers this list of pitfalls new scriptwriters should avoid:

  • Long scenes with too much dialog
  • Scenes that read like they came from a novel
  • Stereotyping of frequently used characters, such as detectives
  • Lack of visual language

dotAnd you might as well resign yourself to living in Los Angeles. With very few exceptions, almost all of the work for movies, television and the new electronic media is done in California, primarily in the Los Angeles area.

dotThe many challenges in this career can appear daunting. Basen advises aspiring scriptwriters to stay positive and not be discouraged.

"The truth of the industry is, if you have talent and you're really good, people will want you," she says. "There's always a market for good material. But you have to be a good writer with great faith in yourself and the time to get out there and shop it."

At a Glance

Write, rewrite or adapt scripts for a variety of venues

  • Tenacity is important
  • Scripts are often rewritten before production
  • Develop contacts in the field by going to film school