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What does a Screenwriter do?

By R. Kayne
Updated May 17, 2024
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If you ask professional screenwriters what they do, the answer you might get more often than any other is “rewrite.” Many people mistakenly believe that because the average screenplay is 100-120 pages in length, it is easier to write than a novel. A good screenplay requires at least as much preparation and work as a novel, and if it gets picked up for development, the screenwriter will invest much more work.

Advantages to being a screenwriter include working with interesting, creative people and possibly seeing your name on the big screen, all for lucrative amounts of money. Disadvantages can include periods of extremely long, unpredictable hours while working under great pressure to meet demanding, shifting, and costly production deadlines. A screenwriter whose work is in development or production typically rewrites or reworks a script countless times under the tutelage of the director, whose job it is to keep all invested parties happy and the project on track and on budget.

Hollywood scripts that make it to screen have traveled any number of paths to get there, and screenwriters come upon work in different ways, but let’s consider some basic processes that a working screenwriter goes through as a matter of course.

Developing a story idea with believable, interesting characters. In this initial phase the writer fixates on a compelling idea and begins the “What if…” game. Characters are developed with backstories to flesh them out, and the idea grows into a causal storyline with a beginning, middle and end that includes the major plot points of each act. At the end of this process the screenwriter should know each character as well as a best friend, able to quickly predict how the character would react in any situation. The genre and theme should be clear, the story, solid.

The pitch. To pitch the story is to tell it with bard-like enthusiasm in 5-10 minutes, from beginning to end, hitting all major plot points and action along the way. The writer might first pitch the story to friends, family or colleagues to see if it has the intended effect. He will rework the story if necessary, re-telling it until it is perfectly honed. Now it’s ready to pitch to an agent, studio executive, director or producer, and if lucky, a treatment will be requested.

The treatment. A treatment is generally a 5-10 page synopsis of the story; a narrative outline written in such a way that the reader feels he’s watching the story unfold. A seasoned screenwriter will not typically write a treatment until after the pitch meeting, as it’s common for the interested party to suggest changes, if interested. A new screenwriter might come prepared with a treatment in case one is requested in lieu of a personal pitch meeting, or in addition to it.

The script. If interest persists, a script will be requested. Produced screenwriters are paid union scale to write (and repeatedly re-write) requested treatments and scripts, but a new writer might work gratis, agreeing to get paid only if the script finds backing. There is no guarantee at this stage that the script will actually be produced.

If the script gets optioned, the writer receives a fee that gives the interested party a stated amount of time to find financial backing, after which the rights revert back to the screenwriter, providing the original party does not renew their option. A produced screenwriter receiving union scale can make a nice living developing other people’s story ideas, writing treatments and scripts, or fixing other people’s scripts (known as a script doctor), without ever seeing another project through to screen.

Rewriting. When a project is greenlighted the collaborative effort commonly necessitates countless rewrites throughout development and production phases. Changes demanded of the screenwriter might fly in the face of the author’s original vision. Executive producers often make demands up front on story or characters to assuage concerns of studio backers. The director can throw out entire scenes, ask for new ones, and rework characters, subplots and other aspects of the story. In read-throughs, cast members will expose weak dialog, pacing problems, or action that rings false.

The screenwriter might feel that certain changes weaken the story, but unless highly successful, will have little to no say in this process. Directors can rewrite scenes on the fly, bring in additional writers, and in the end the original screenwriter might share screen credit with one or more writers. When over, the process hopefully begins again with a new project.

With few exceptions, whether new or established, a screenwriter’s job typically entails hard work, constant collaboration, much compromise, diplomacy and humility. Once successfully produced, a US screenwriter can join the Writer’s Guild of America (WGA), receiving union scale and health benefits. As a WGA member it becomes easier for a screenwriter to get work, assuming a positive reputation. A successful screenwriter can easily make six to seven figures annually, but long periods without work can also be common.

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