Thinking Like A Screenwriting Pro

Browsing the menu of existing articles on screenwriting to see what had already been served up, I found to my great chagrin, that the really juicy appetizers, entrees, and desserts were all spoken for. Which left me with… the broccoli, the Brussels sprouts, chard.

by Ron Osborn

Something rarely discussed online, well… like teaching sex education, it couldn’t be less sexy: the proper attitude of a professional screenwriter (insert sound of scraping chairs and footsteps quickly padding from rooms), the proper mindset one must adopt before even beginning to write Word One (apnea-like snorts as foreheads face-plant on keyboards), an outlook that can only be honed from years of swimming upstream in a business that is not called show art (crickets…).

For those of you still with me, the most important attitude a screenwriter must start with is also the least pleasant: n1087620_leaning_tower___o one wants to read your script.

It’s nothing against you. No one wants to read my script. It’s the default position of those in a business where every year (to use numbers from the American industry) around 75,000 scripts, treatments, etc. get registered but less than 500 films get made.

You and I have to make them want to read it. Anyone in this business who can move a script up the food chain is always five, ten, twenty scripts behind in a stack that only seems to keep growing hydra-like. Readers are looking for any excuse to quit reading, to say no, to move on to the next script that they can reject as soon as possible.

You have to grab them by the neck with your first ten pages, then keep grabbing them in the next ten, the ten after that, all the way to the last page; you have to write in such a way that dares them to stop reading at their own peril.

What is it about your script – the originality of the concept, the compelling characters, the scintillating dialogue – that makes it stand out from the stack? It’s a question you must always be asking yourself… and if you can’t honestly answer it, you had better start over.

You have to grab them by the neck.

Which means that just because you’ve written a script, you are not entitled to a careful and attentive read. The world is not anxiously awaiting your (or my) next magnum opus. That script is not breathlessly brought home in the trembling hands of someone who can’t wait to sit back in the comfy chair of a convent-quiet study with a snifter of brandy and tamped pipe to pore over your every word.

Again, in a business where readers are inundated and always behind, these things are read on the elliptical trainer in the gym., at kids’ soccer games, in five and ten-page chunks between phone calls.

DrivingA few years ago for a seminar I was conducting, I interviewed a number of professional readers who do coverage for two major agencies, for one major studio, and for a number of managers and producers. These are the foot soldiers who are the first line of defense between us and a sale, whose job it is to protect their bosses from mediocrity, who can’t say yes to a script but who in their coverage can certainly say no. Two of the readers admitted – this being Los Angeles with our infamously gridlocked morning and evening rush hours – that they actually read scripts in traffic if it was moving slow enough. Imagine that… the masterwork you’ve put six months, a year or longer into, only to have it read in part and in spurts by someone who’s trying not to rear-end the car ahead.

Which means what? That you can’t write scenes that go nowhere, move sideways or meander, that if it’s a comedy it had better be funny, if it’s a thriller it had better read thrillingly, that it must always be moving forward, that your first act must be absolutely clear in protagonist, goal, and conflict, the second act must always be building, and the third act must satisfy and surprise in its payoff. You want that reader to be so engrossed that he or she hits the car ahead. Hard.

you can’t write scenes that go nowhere, move sideways or meander.

Then there is the economics of this business. Why is your script worthy of $80 million? A few years ago that’s what the MPAA – to use American metrics – estimated that the average U.S. film cost… $55 million to produce, $25 million to promote. Sure, that number is skewed upwards by high-priced superhero franchises and blockbusters, there are plenty of Little Miss Sunshines and Paranormal Activities to anchor the lower end of the register.

But that number’s as good as any. If there were a screenwriting deity who could dispense 500 such checks a year… why should yours qualify? What is promotable, noteworthy, and audience enticing about it in a business that is a for-profit enterprise designed to self-perpetuate off the success of previous such endeavors?

And lastly… if you’ve written a script that you can honestly and objectively say is as good as anything out there, you have fallen short. The vast majority of films miss the bull’s eye or miss their target entirely. What you see on the screen is not the bar you want to aim for. No one sets out to make a bad film but they can end up that way for reasons too myriad to enumerate. (Trust me, I know. One of my favorite scripts was Radioland Murders for George Lucas, and I wish I’d taken my name off the finished product.)

If you fail in your script it shouldn’t be because you succeeded in capturing what you’ve seen, but because you aimed for what you haven’t.

There’s more, but that’s enough broccoli, sprouts, and chard for now.

And don’t forget to floss.

-Ron Osborn


Ron_OsbornRon has worked in half-hour comedy, animation, hour-long comedy and drama, on such series as Mork & Mindy, Moonlighting, Duckman, Cupid, and The West Wing, as well as features such as Meet Joe Black and The Flintstones. He has been nominated for 8 Emmys, 3 Cable Ace Awards, 2 Writers Guild Awards, and a Humanitas. He has his own consulting website and his religious thriller comedy, The Lost Ark of the Sacred Movement, is available on

Ron is a member of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, the WGA, as well as the DGA.

Photo Credits: Stock XChng, Ron Osborn

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