Becoming a screenwriter

how to become a screenwriter

There is a golden age feeling to the TV industry at the moment. And sometimes it seems like everyone wants to know how to become a screenwriter.

The terrestrial channels we all know and love are still making shows.

There is also a mass of new production companies, and online drama is booming, with Netflix and Amazon producing some amazing work, and Apple getting going soon.

Overall there is a flood of new drama being commissioned. This really is a very exciting time for anyone who wants to live by writing a screenplay or two.

But getting in to actually do the work - that can feel like a real maze.

It's a battle in the first place to get anyone to read your screenplay. Screenwriting for a career is ultra-competitive. How DO you take part?

Classic screenwriter's career path

The classic advice on how to become a TV screenwriter looks like this:

Start writing. Screenplay two, three, four or eight, (the one that's really exciting) attracts attention. You get some script meetings.

You blag a gig on a half hour show such as Doctors, Eastenders and Emmerdale, and then spend a year or two getting some experience through the soaps.

Build relationships with the script editors and producers. Stand out, deliver good work, and then after a year or so get invited onto the hour long long-runnners, such as Holby, Casualty and Waterloo Road.

Do these shows for another year or so, prove you can deliver serious rewrites and deal with the demands of production, and step up into the slightly more “authored” shows such as Silent Witness, Death in Paradise, Midsomer Murders.

Around this time you’ll start being considered for even more individual shows such as Musketeers, Home Fires, Call the Midwife, Beowulf.

Finally your screenwriting/script development brain is deemed to be reliable enough that (though you’ve probably been pitching your own shows all the way through) you’re at the point where, when you pitch your own ideas, you get listened to.

You’re seen as interesting, because you’ve done some exciting work and there is a buzz about you. You’re “hot” in fact –

And then you finally get your own show commissioned…

And if that show does well then you’ve ‘made it’.

Now. Bear in mind that at any point you could be plucked off the ladder and boosted up a rung or two - or taken away to write a movie script. (Which is a completely different discussion: the movie industry is much more of a free-for-all, and it's rare there is serious cross-over.)

This classic route is still (very broadly) true, and can be seen in a lot of writers’ CVs.

It really is how to become a screenwriter, in essence.

But there is one problem. It's a very tricky ladder, with lots of surprises along the way, and getting in on those very bottom levels is harder than it ever was.

For one thing, new writers find it much harder to get onto the soaps these days. They employ some very skilled, very experienced writers.

career ladder for screenwriters

What's more, you really have to love these shows to do them well.

The cynical attitude of 'fake it and I'll get past it in a year or so and then I can write what I really want to write' will usually get rumbled, and get you thrown out pretty quickly.

Then, a lot of other landing spots are gone. The granddaddy of all nursery ramps, The Bill, is long dead. (We all had hopes that Cuffs would replace this, but sadly it was cancelled after series 1.) Waterloo Road is gone, Skins also.

Many, many others have fallen by the wayside, and many of the newer shows are being written by the same handful of extremely experienced writers. It's also common for one writer to write the entire series. (Sally Wainwright has recently illustrated how well this can work with the brilliant Happy Valley.)

All these shows were fantastic training grounds for the industry and without them there are far fewer doors.

So where does a new writer start?

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Specific Opportunities

Here is a very current list of where brand new British screenwriters could profitably concentrate.

Of course, the BBC, as a public funded broadcaster, has the budget and the desire to be a major player in this, but other chances and initiatives do come up elsewhere.

  • Overall there is still a strong intention to commission original material for the BBC iPlayer, so keep your eyes on that to see what sort of thing they are looking for. The shorter pieces are the sort of thing where new writers frequently get a look in.
  • Holby, Eastenders, Casualty and Doctors each regularly have their own shadow script scheme.

    There has been criticism about the pay being offered, and these schemes do mainly take writers from agents, but they do have close links with BBC Writersroom, so there is a path for unsolicited writers also.

    Here is an account of what it's like from a writer who went through the process.

    Not easy to get onto, and certainly no guarantee of a commission if you make it through, but you must do your own cost/benefit analysis. I've come across a lot of working writers in the last year who started out on one of the shadow schemes.
  • A key recommendation is to think about writing children's drama. (Read this if you want to know what that means these days - things have moved on and you may be surprised.)

    CBBC in general is doing some good work and producers there are more open to newer writers. Hetty Feather and the Worst Witch are worth monitoring, but one great CBBC show that usually has a long run of episodes and has a welcoming approach to new writers is The Dumping Ground.

    At the time of writing The Dumping Ground has around 24 episodes a year, so there is plenty of room for them to take chances on new writers.

    What's more, when it is being screened it can be the top drama on iPlayer, and the series that I script-edited was nominated for two BAFTAS and a National Television Society Award. But then again it always gets a stack of awards, and the fact that the show is so well-respected by the industry means a credit on here is a good addition to your CV.

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How to become a screenwriter: general strategies

Write for the theatre

The great thing about the theatre is you can always find some people to put a play on in a room over a pub. If it's any good, that can lead to working with people who have a bigger room over a bigger pub, or a bigger theatre altogether, and so on upwards, through small theatres to bigger theatres, and then into London.

Lionboy stage play

If you get a critical success at a London theatre, you can bet that a lot of script editors and development execs will know about it, and even more will be interested when you tell them that you got a five star review in the Evening Standard.

Having a successful play or two can catapult you many levels up that career ladder sketched out at the start of this post.

Become a script editor

This is the path I took. I started as a script reader for the BBC, reading unsolicited scripts. I then had five years working as a script editor, which was I think, one of the best training paths a screenwriter can have. Entry jobs exist, and be prepared to go into the script department of any established indie or broadcaster as a PA, script reader, researcher. You'll not be paid very much, but its very much the inside track, in that you'll learn an incredible amount about story-telling and how the industry works.

Think beyond ITV and BBC.

Compared to ten years ago there is a mass of new production companies - upwards of 100 companies that are hungry to commission new writers.

Every month our Open Door newsletter runs a profile of one of these companies, so that you can start getting a map of the landscape. ?

It truly is a new age in this regard, and you are in the terrific position of being able to create your own opportunities.

Be Your Own Producer

Script editors are drawn to people who are active. So be active.

What about staging your own rehearsed reading? You can invite a ton of script editors and agents' assistants (but be realistic - people in London simply won't get on a train and come to a reading in Carlisle - give yourself the best possible chance by staging it in Soho.)

Or you could make a short film and get it up on Vimeo or Youtube and use social media to draw attention to it.

It's a battle sometimes to get that kind of heat going, but if your work is good you'll build a following.

Notice that Amazon have just launched an initiative that could work very well for drama producers - they host your stuff, and you earn 50% of the revenue if you get an audience. Just like YouTube, but with far less competition right now, and (most importantly) aimed at 50 million Amazon Prime subscribers, who are an audience who want this kind of content.

shoot your own tv drama

This is a path that really showcases new directors more than writers, but as part of a package showing that you have determination, drive and initiative, it's all good.

Enter Script Competitions

I'm biased, as I founded the thing, but winning a good script competition like the Screenwriting Goldmine Awards can give you a massive boost.

Firstly winning any contest gives you tremendous affirmation. Your script beat all the rest - it must be pretty good!

And in the case of the Screenwriting Goldmine contest you get your work read by at least 30 senior industry people, all of whom can seriously advance your career.

We open the doors in October and accept scripts until early December. We also now run occasional short script contests throughout the year.

Find us at awards.screenwritinggoldmine.com

Other notable UK competitions include:

But do your due diligence when it comes to competitions in the wider world. Prize money is all very well, but it can be a bit of a distraction from the real business of making connections with the people who can hire you.

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Definitely google and IMDB.com the judges. Have they got enough of an industry track record to really help you?

These contests should give you the chance to get your work read by experienced producers, directors, script editors and development execs, who have a significant track record on IMDB.com. Winning competions run by people without this kind of judging panel is nice for the confidence, but doesn't really help you in your goal of getting on screen.

Research Your Targets

This is a people industry, and you need to build a network.

You can start building ideas of the people you want to be hired by, and work out how to reach them.

how to be a screenwriter - build a network

You need to know everything you can about script editors, producers, and executive producers.

Get used to browsing IMDB.com and seeing patterns. What people have worked on, what that implies about the drama that will interest them, and who they tend to work with.

A subscription to Broadcastnow.co.uk may be worth the money. They maintain a Greenlights database that contains a mass of information on shows that have been put into production.

Get an Agent

Finally, and there is no dodging the matter, getting an agent will give you an enormous boost.

That's not to say that an agent is going to change your life. You will always go on making your own job opportunites.

But many (not all) production companies now have a strict policy that they will only read scripts that come from an established literary agent.

They do for two reasons:

  • Reading time is precious. There are only so many scripts you can read in a month, and so having an agent filter out the ones that are of low quality is an enormous help.
  • It helps prevents them being subject to 'you stole my idea' claims from writers.

This works for them, of course, but it's one extra barrier for the new writer.

How do you get an agent?

Firstly, before you approach an agent, always have two or three great scripts finished. Agents want to know that their investment of time in you (it may be several years before you make them any money) stands some chance of being repaid - they need to be sure you have more than one story in you.

Then it's a matter of generating a buzz about yourself. The phrase I'm hearing a lot from agents at the moment is that writers need to get themselves 'ready' for an agent.

This is the sort of thing you could do to make yourself ready:

  • Place in the finalists of a couple of contests.
  • Get yourself on to a shadow scheme
  • Go to industry events and chat up producers and script execs and other working writers you meet there
  • Get a play on and make sure it gets some great reviews
  • Again, make a short film that goes viral on YouTube - enough likes and views is impressive
  • Finally, and this is absolutely key, connect with people who can recommend you to the reputable agents they know.

It can seem like a slow old process sometimes, but keep going. It all builds, and with enough heat behind you agents will come knocking - which is the absolute best time to hire an agent.

How to become a screenwriter - conclusion

Getting into this industry can be a battle. But that's because it's worth it.

I've been writing and editing in British TV for twenty years now, and it's never been less than a fantastic, fiercely engaging, massively enjoyable journey.

When you're a professional writer you commit with your heart and soul. You're daydreaming for a living, creating worlds. About how many jobs can you truly say that?

Keep writing and working on the steps listed above, and you shorten the odds considerably. And do yourself a favour, and take out a subscription to Open Door. I started it for new writers, but I'm getting incredible feedback from people within the industry, such as agents and producers. They all recognise how important this behind-the-scenes information is - and how hard it is to get hold of (for everyone!) in the normal run of things. Find out more about Open Door and get a free issue here.

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