This is not a trick question. Nor is it a time travel movie.
People are not static creatures. Neither are screenwriters. We evolve in terms of gaining a stronger grasp of our craft, tour tastes, interests, and influences, and how we are perceived in the industry. Being a working screenwriter is more than churning great material for the screen. You need to actively manage your career.
A practical way to start thinking of your screenwriting career is to make a list of the traits that define you as a screenwriter with respect to your evolution as previously described:
- 5 years ago
- in 5 years time
Where are you now? Where have been and where do you want to go?
This simple exercise demonstrates that screenwriters are living, breathing artists – works of constant progress. You are never a completed, finalized version of your screenwriter self. But you can define yourself at one point in time.
This level of self-awareness will activate your inner compass to lead you toward your North Star.
The world is changing at breakneck speed as should your answers to the above questions. Change is good. It allows you to shed the elements that no longer serve you to focus on your forward journey.
Divide your screenwriter identity into each of those three segments in terms of your traits, interests, and goals. Focus more on the differences between your answers than the answers themselves. If your output and aspirations don’t change over a ten year period, your screenwriting career might be in trouble. Don’t be a victim of stagnation.
Changes can be subtle or more overt. But changes are changes.
For instance, you might set a goal to write a minimum of three feature screenplays a year during your career. You can’t realistically keep raising this number indefinitely during the course of your career. Nobody can write a perfect screenplay over a weekend no matter what your typing speed.
You might want to add writing a TV pilot, a web-series, or an interactive narrative to the mix. If you want to continue writing three feature screenplays per year, write one in a different genre, a different locale, period, or characters. Even if you decide to return to your core competencies or interests, the mental act of considering alternatives is always beneficial.
Examine which elements of your screenwriting career are STATIC and which are DYNAMIC.
The state of the film and television industry is changing. Films and TV shows are now called content – and we are all content creators. How do you fit into this new paradigm?
If you want to be known as the quirky, high-school person comedy TV writer or a big-budget action-thriller writer, stick to that brand by all means. Put a pin in these static elements of your career.
The dynamic (or variable) elements of your career are more noticeable. They relate to your adaptability. Screenwriters need to contemplate how they will fit into the streaming landscape given that the studio system is changing. Given that a 26-episode sitcom television network model is fading, what is your place in a four or ten-part series on a streamer?
Labels can be liberating or restrictive
Some labels can be good for your career. They define you as a screenwriter and make it easier to pitch you around town. Others can be shackles and won’t let you grow because you will always be known for one thing.
Referring to our previous examples, think about whether terms like “quirky comedy” or “big-budget action-thriller” can help or hinder your professional growth. Strict adherence to a label may mean you never consider alternative writing avenues. Maybe you don’t want to? The key operative here is “consider.” Do not fall into the trap of believing a wrong accepted truth about who you are as a writer.
3) A Future Self
At the risk of sounding like a science-fiction movie, the future is not set – neither should your mindset. You may not know exactly what sort of writer you want to be in five years time. The next wave of entertainment will likely feature technological elements that have not yet been invented. Now is the time to write that epic novel you’ve been mulling over for years.
Visualize a version of your desired self in five years. Set short term tasks to keep you on track. These are different than your long term goals. Measure the gains you’ve made, not the gap to your end goal.
Tasks are small, deliberate steps taken in service to your screenwriting career goals. This mindset keeps you motivated and inspired. More importantly, it helps screenwriters view their perceived failures as obstacles rather than fatal career events. We are not only the sum of our pasts, but also the sum of our futures. The two are always connected even if they look vastly different.
If you are excited by the prospect of a bright future, your actions will reflect that. If you are stuck in the belief that you will never sell a screenplay, chances are, you won’t.
Don’t be eternally defined by the now.
4) Screenwriting Identity
This is a powerful term, often linked to the sort of screenplays you write. In many respects it is. Your identity can pigeon-hole you. On a wider scale, your identity is who you are both as a person and as a screenwriter.
Many career coaches ask their clients to write their IDENTITY NARRATIVE. This is the story you tell others about yourself – your past, present, and future. Basically, the exercise you participated in at the start of this article.
Make a public declaration of your screenwriting identity. Saying it out aloud will galvanize the idea in your head. More importantly, it will drive positive behavior.
A strong, well-articulated writing identity will help you better navigate the success and failures that a screenwriting career entails.