First, the vast majority of screenwriters don’t have sufficient training to create a professional-level script. Sure, they’ve read a couple of screenwriting books, probably taken a few courses. But storytelling, in whatever medium, is the most complex craft in the world. Imagine any other profession in the world where you can be successful just by reading a couple of books or taking a few of courses.
A second reason for such terrible odds is lack of representation. The big studios won’t even open your script, much less send it out to a reader, without an agent, and the vast majority of screenwriters don’t have one. Nor do they know how to get one.
Third is that all-powerful creature known as a reader. Even if a professional reader is properly trained, and many aren’t, he or she has to read and evaluate five to ten scripts per week. This is mind-numbing, depressing work, because only one out of a hundred scripts is even good enough for a “consider.” And those are just scripts with agents. This means that the reader is programmed to say NO. Day after day, week after week, year after year.
Let’s say your script miraculously gets past the reader to a story executive. It must be a damn good script, right? Sure, but that probably won’t matter, and it’s not because executives hate reading scripts (they do). They don’t like original material. That has to do with the business strategy by which the studios operate. And that’s why far more adaptations are bought and made than originals.
The strategy is known as branding, and all the top studios use it. King of branding is the top Hollywood studio, Disney. That’s why Disney bought Marvel, with its well-known stable of characters. That’s why Disney bought Star Wars. Star Wars began as an original voice in the mind of its writer, George Lucas. But Disney bought it only after that original voice proved to be a massive success at the box office. Star Wars had become a brand, and a great one at that.
The reason that writing a script to sell to Hollywood is a big mistake is that you are using the wrong currency. The currency in this business isn’t money. It’s voice. It’s your unique brand as an original storyteller that the studios can’t get from anyone else but you. And that means above all that you have to get your voice out there, get it heard, to prove to the studios that people want it.
As we’ve seen, that won’t happen if you write your original story as a script.
So what is the #1 screenwriting strategy today? Write your original story as a novel first. It’s a lot easier to get a novel published than it is to get a script sold and made. And even if you don’t get an established publisher, the internet allows you to publish it yourself. You begin the process of getting your original voice heard in the world. You begin the process of managing and selling your brand.
If the book gets a following, you can build it. If it has real success as a novel, your chances of selling it as a film are much higher.
Andy Weir published The Martian as a novel in serial form on his own website. Then he put out an Amazon Kindle version for 99 cents. It sold 35,000 copies in three months and that got him a publishing deal with Crown Books (Random House). 20th Century Fox optioned the film rights and it’s now a blockbuster movie with Oscar potential.
An example of a writer who is managing her brand is Leslie Lehr, award-winning novelist and novel consultant at Truby’s Writers Studio. She just got back the rights to her novel, 66 Laps, which won the Pirates Alley Faulkner Society Gold Medal. She’s republished it through Amazon for its initial release, with other formats soon, and through her own imprint, GoodPressBooks, at www.leslielehr.com/66-laps. The book is now getting a whole new life, and more importantly Leslie is extending her brand of powerful, original storytelling into the world.
66 Laps is the story of a wife and mother of a toddler who comes to suspect her husband is having an affair. But is he really? And if he is, what should she do about it? I guarantee you will not figure out what happens. And the ending will hit you hard.
This book is beautifully written at every level of the storytelling process, from character to plot to dazzling prose. Only Leslie Lehr could have written it. Had she written it first as a script it would never have seen the light of day. Now it will live on forever, read by thousands, and it’s something she can point to and proudly say, “I did that.”
The reason Leslie and I recently taught our Story for Novelists class is that we believe so strongly that for the vast majority of screenwriters out there, the novel is the ticket to breakthrough. If you want to start creating and building your brand as a storyteller, write a novel. Don’t let the powerful, unseen forces of the Hollywood entertainment business control your creativity ever again.