When we discuss television, we usually talk about directors and actors, but there wouldn’t be any TV shows without Screenwriters! They are the storytellers behind-the-scenes, either coming up with the characters and plots or adapting them from novels or other formats. Screenwriters must not only craft the story in a TV-friendly way, with instructions built in about how a scene should visually play out in front of the camera. Writers must be masters of dialogue, churning out compelling lines that sound authentic yet dramatic enough to hold the audience’s attention.
- Working in one of the largest creative arts industries in the world
- Crafting new characters, storylines, and even whole new fictional worlds
- Collaborating with directors, actors, stakeholders, and other writers
- Participating in projects that millions of people might view
- Potentially helping to make a cultural impact
- Lucrative salaries are possible for in-demand Screenwriters
- The life of a Screenwriter is not always predictable, and neither are the hours. Professional writers who work for a studio can expect full-time employment. During production, they might be called upon to make revisions or to rework someone else’s material.
- Creating new characters, plots, and in some cases new fictional worlds for films, television shows, video games, and other video content
- Writing complete biographies of main characters to use as references about traits, psychological makeups, motivations, and backstory elements
- Using scriptwriting software to plan out story beats
- Shopping manuscripts around to agents, producers, and directors
- Editing, revising, or rewriting scripts based on feedback or guidance
- Adapting existing novels, plays, comics, or other material for film or TV
- Writing scripts on spec, meaning writers weren’t paid upfront to write them but will be paid later (if the work sells)
- Working with talent agents to find suitable projects
- Additional Responsibilities
- Conducting research to ensure stories feature accurate details
- Consulting with subject matter experts when writing about a specialized topic or story element
- Being on call to do rewrites during production. In some cases, being physically present on the set to consult with directors
- Attention to detail
- Fiction and non-fiction writing skills
- Patience and resilience
- Research skills
- Time management skills
- Understanding of psychology
- Familiarity with psychological traits
- General familiarity with computers (PC or Apple)
- Grammar checking software like Grammarly
- Knowledge of historical events, current news, cultural references, and trivia
- Basic understanding of a broad range of career types, such as law enforcement, attorneys, medical doctors, and military roles
- Knowledge of myth and story structures such as the Hero’s Journey
- Knowledge of printers, scanners, and photocopy equipment
- Microsoft Office, Google apps, Macintosh software
- Online research databases
- Scriptwriting software like Final Draft, Movie Magic, and StudioBinder
- Broadcast networks
- Cable TV
- TV studios
- Video game developers
It can take years to break into Screenwriting for those who ever do (Script notes that the number of paid, working writers in the Writers Guild of America numbers less than 5,000). Because of the creative aspects of the work, this job is not like most careers where one can learn a specific skill set then hop to it. Most of what writers do springs from their imaginations, creating stories then fleshing them out with research to provide relevant details that will lend the writing authenticity.
That said, there are time-honored archetypes and story structures related to plots and arcs and how to plan them out. The structure varies for a 2-hour film versus a season of TV episodes, but the basic ideas are tried-and-true and can be learned on one’s own or by taking classes. Screenwriters are expected to craft compelling characters and put them on dramatic rollercoaster rides that weave in and out of the story arcs of other characters. Though fictional, these characters should possess complex motivations and characteristics that are not too cliche but also not so radical that the viewer can’t empathize on some level.
Screenwriters have to walk a tightrope between fulfilling their own creative desires and appeasing teams of editors, marketers, producers, and executives. The ability to please so many stakeholders is a creative skill set of its own!
Every decade, audience tastes change, and every generation, the audiences themselves change. Meanwhile, the technology used to release video content is also evolving. With all this constant disruption, where does that leave Screenwriters? Since their scripts are the basis of every production, it’s incumbent upon the writers to keep up with the times and roll with the changes!
Streaming video content was already altering the film industry when the COVID-19 pandemic caused cinemas to shutter their doors. This double whammy created a ramp-up in the production of smaller-scale releases for Netflix, Amazon, Disney+, and other content providers. In turn, new opportunities opened for TV show writers and lesser-known (i.e. more affordable) film scriptwriters.
Content made for TV has subtle differences from big-budget blockbusters. Scenes are different, dialogue is different, and the paycheck to write those scripts is also different. Meanwhile, audiences are demanding increasingly sophisticated approaches to storytelling, where there is more “trust” that they’ll catch on and less “boring” exposition. Writers need to get straight to the action, with tighter scenes, more conflict, and more cultural awareness.
It’s a brave new world and those with the most flexibility and diverse writing credentials are likely to thrive as the industry continues to transform.
Screenwriters are storytellers and likely always loved to read or hear a good story! They might have been bookworms or avid film buffs with a natural ability to remember details and trivia about their favorite tales and characters. No matter whether they were sucking down novels and comics or gobbling up movies and TV shows, they probably always paid close attention to the characters’ dialogue and motivations. After, they might have loved pouring over (or obsessing about) the finer points of the story with their friends or even with strangers in online forums. They could be introverts or extroverts; there is no pigeonholing when it comes to Screenwriter personality types. But one thing they all have in common—a passion for what they do!
- There are no hard educational requirements to be a Screenwriter
- Earning a bachelor’s or master’s degree can be useful because it exposes students to a wide range of subjects and gives additional credibility
- Many universities offer degrees in Screenwriting or Film Studies
- A degree in English literature may seem like a natural fit, but remember that Screenwriters must think visually. They aren’t writing novels!
- Reading books on screenwriting, carefully reading scripts, taking notes during films and TV shows, and practicing the craft of screenwriting are all great ways to learn by doing!
- Community college or online short courses (like those offered by Udemy or MasterClass) are another alternative for those who do want some formal training but don’t want to bother with a full degree
- Though a degree isn’t required, a relevant college major will certainly help! Look for schools offering degrees specifically in Screenwriting
- Try to find schools that have a reputation for their links to the film industry
- If not doing a degree directly in Screenwriting, sign up for classes related to film studies and writing
- Review the program’s faculty bios to see what things they’ve written; also peek at their alumni roster to learn what types of careers grads got into (and what levels of success they’ve reached!)
- Seek out film-related student clubs or organizations that can help you grow and network
- Take plenty of English and writing courses, as well as history, psychology, and audiovisual classes
- Join your school’s AV club or theater group; participate in relevant productions or activities
- Write! There’s no reason to wait; grab a notebook or laptop and start practicing as soon as you realize you want to become a Screenwriter
- Try to visualize scenes in your head as you write them. Consider recording yourself speaking lines of dialogue after you write them
- Read comics! They are a great way to discover how visual images tie into concise dialogue, similar to how movie scenes function
- Carry a little notebook or use an app on your phone to capture ideas during the day
- Listen to how people talk. Take notes when you hear a good expression or joke you want to recycle later
- Buy books related to the art of screenwriting (see our Books section below, under Resources). Build your own resource library and highlight information that stands out
- Order or download scripts for films and television shows, and closely study the screen directions and dialogue
- When you’re ready to get serious, download a Screenwriting software program
- If you go to college, decide if you want to major in Screenwriting, or simply take a few courses in it (perhaps earn a minor, if offered)
- Find your local filmmaking community to collaborate with on projects
- Advertise yourself online so you can join independent filmmaking crews
- Learn as much as you can by asking questions of teachers, fellow students, and anyone you can reach out to in the business
- Polish your manuscript and enter some (legitimate) writing contests
- Find freelance work that allows you to get paid while you practice your skills!
- Finish at least 2 scripts: 1 pilot script (an original script of a new show) and 1 spec (a writer’s sample script of an existing TV show)
- Move to LA or NYC
- Finding work as a Screenwriter is sometimes very different from landing other jobs. There are a few ways “in”:
- Get a writer’s assistant job. Through this job, you will meet established screenwriters, development executives and agents. Be prepared to show them your work when you get the chance.
- Apply for a screenwriter fellowship.
- Get an assistant job to a development executive or agent.
- Take control and start growing your reputation! Get all the practical experience you can, try to get some publication credits under your belt, and work on indie scripts
- Ideally, try to find an agent willing to represent your work. Agents are experts who know the practical side of the business, have the necessary connections, and can negotiate deals when selling your work
- Finding an agent is a task of its own, but you can contact them via query letters, phone calls, or by meeting them at conferences and festivals. Many also serve as competition judges
- Grow your network and ask them to let you know about opportunities
- Sign up for job alerts, read industry magazines that might list opportunities for work
- Always be writing and producing new material.
- Always be networking - meeting directors, actors, development executives, agents.
- Many writers work in a freelance capacity, but if you’re hired for a full-time gig at a company, ask about advancement potential early on
- Do your job to the best of your ability and always meet deadlines
- Stay flexible when it comes to doing edits and revisions! If you’re paid to write, then you have to find a balance between your artistic integrity and keeping your employer happy
- When a problem arises, be ready with an innovative solution instead of a complaint
- Continue to master your craft by studying scripts from the best writers in the industry
- Learn everything you can about plot structure, how to flesh out engaging and complex characters, and how to add conflict and raise the stakes
- Study trends in audience demographics and tastes; keep in-tune with cultural topics and references but be able to use them authentically
- Know your memes and pop trivia that can embellish dialogue for modern audiences
- If using an agent, discuss career paths with them and set up goals for yourself
- Don’t be a diva! Be a team player with a reputation for collaboration and getting things done without ruffling feathers
- Make yourself available as needed when emergency revisions come up, even if you have to travel to a set or location to offer aid in-person
- You can’t please everyone but in the screenwriting trade you have to understand the roles and responsibilities of major players, such as celebrities, directors, executives, and producers
- Writers can theoretically work from anywhere, but there may be advantages to living where the action is. New York and Los Angeles are two of the biggest entertainment hubs!
- Engage in the writing community! Attend or speak at events, participate in professional organizations, and contribute to the field-at-large
- Get involved with your guild and advocate for workers’ rights
- Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences
- Academy of Television Arts & Sciences
- American Film Institute (AFI)
- Austin Film Festival and Conference
- Authors Guild
- Cannes Film Festival
- Confederation Internationale des Societes d'Auteurs et Compositeurs
- Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF)
- Film Independent
- Filmmakers Alliance
- IGDA (International Game Developers Association)
- Independent Film & Television Alliance
- International Academy of Web Television
- International Affiliation of Writers Guilds
- International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, Moving Picture Technicians, Artists and Allied Crafts of the United States and Canada (IATSE)
- Motion Picture Association of America
- Organization of Black Screenwriters (OBS)
- PEN American Center
- SAG - AFTRA
- Scriptwriters Network
- Sundance Institute
- The Ad Council
- The Entertainment Industry Foundation
- The Film Foundation
- The Motion Picture and Television Fund
- The National Coalition Against Censorship
- The Society of Internet Professionals (SIP)
- World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO)
- Writers Guild of America, East
- Writers Guild of America West
- How to Write a Movie in 21 Days, by Viki King
- Save The Cat, by Blake Snyder
- Screenplay, by Syd Field
- Story, by Robert McKee
- The Hero with A Thousand Faces, by Joseph Campbell
- The Screenwriter’s Bible, by David Trottier
- Three Uses of the Knife, by David Mamet
- Writing Movies for Fun and Profit, by Thomas Lennon and Ben Gara
It can be quite an uphill battle to burst into the world of Screenwriting. Many toil for years before ever getting a “lucky” break, working other jobs as they spend their nights or weekends sweating over their manuscripts. If you’re looking for a more traditional career in the entertainment industry, the Bureau of Labor Statistics offers some more traditional routes to think about. No matter what job you take, nothing stops you from working on the next Hollywood blockbuster in your spare time!
- Broadcast, Sound, and Video Technicians
- Producers and Directors
- Reporters, Correspondents, and Broadcast News Analysts
- Special Effects Artists and Animators
If you want to find a job related to writing and isn’t necessarily in the entertainment sector, check out these other options:
- Public Relations and Fundraising Managers
- Public Relations Specialists
- Reporters, Correspondents, and Broadcast News Analysts
- Technical Writers