The Dirty Little Secret (Screenwritng, Part 3)

by Alex

Sorry to everyone showing up expecting Guyot today, but that’s Hollywood for you – hurry up and wait! Tune in next week for his essay and insights on the TV business.

So I was going to write today summing up the differences between writing novels and doing film work as a career. Instead I ended up writing mostly about the one difference that ultimately drove me to novels. I didn’t even want to write about it because I find the whole idea so repellant, and just wrong, but it’s something a lot of people aren’t aware of about the process and reality of film writing and it’s something that novelists contemplating screen work need to know.

Well, what is the difference? Really?

In terms of the creative process – not all that much, really. A story is a story. There are many different ways to tell it. The format is different. Some emphases are different (screenwriting is very visual, novel writing is generally much more internal..). But dramatic structure, characters, dialogue, theme, subplots, action, pacing, business, sensory detail, the world of the story… the major building blocks are all there in both. Even, to some degree, voice. Much more noticeable in a novel but undeniably there in any good script as well, and, I would argue, just as crucial. Every script I’ve ever written could be a novel. With my scripts, I’ve had to leave out more of the story than I actually knew about it, going in. With my novels, I’m having to discover and work in more of the story than I actually knew about it, going in. But the story, in every case, is still the story.

But which should you do?

Well, the question is, what do you WANT?

No one can decide that for you.

If you find yourself going around saying “I just want to get PAID to write” (and I hear that constantly from aspiring writers) – then you probably want to think about screen or TV writing. Or technical writing, or journalism, or speechwriting, or nonfiction, or advertising (because, notice, that sentence doesn’t specify what KIND of writing you want to get paid for. When you make these kinds of life-altering wishes, you must be SPECIFIC.)

But odds are, if you’ve got the talent, and the drive (and that’s an enormous if), you can probably make more money in film or TV than in novels. I have no statistics to back me up about that, it’s completely and totally anecdotal. But I suspect the cold hard steel of truth in this quotation (if someone can provide the author, I’d be grateful): “You can’t make a living writing books – but you can make a killing.” This isn’t true of Hollywood. You can make a living, and you can make a killing.

If you do decide to go for the money in Hollywood, what you give up is creative power. What you give up is unique voice. What you give up is copyright. What you far too often give up is your soul.

Oh, right, I’m exaggerating.

No, really, I’m not.

I love film. I do. I love the form, I love the power of it. A great movie makes me want to drop to my knees in gratitude. When a movie actually hits that groove, it’s transcendent. But there are so many stupid, unnecessary complications ingrained in the business. I have seen so many great scripts mutilated, stripped of all power and individuality, ground into meaningless pablum… and I’m not even talking about my own, I really thank whatever gods are out there that the some of the scripts I’ve written HAVEN’T been made – I’m talking about the scripts of other writers I know, and writers I don’t know. When I think of all the brilliant movies that could have been made simply by shooting an even fair approximation of the original scripts, I just want to kill myself.

There are exceptions, of course – good movies do get made, and the exceptions are what keep passionate writers working. Sometimes miracles happen.

But less and less. I think – for two basic reasons.

One – the increasing vertical integration and corporatization of Hollywood. Novelists worry about, for example, Walmart’s increasing influence over what books get ordered, bought and sold, right? Well, that kind of thing has been happening in Hollywood for years, and it’s not pretty.

Two – is rewriting.

And I don’t mean rewriting as in “Writing is rewriting.” I don’t mean, rewriting your own work. I mean, rewriting other writers.

Rewriting is a concept that is alien to most novelists. After all – when JT turns ALL THE PRETTY GIRLS in to Mira, Mira doesn’t turn around and say, “Great story, has potential, we like it… but we don’t love it. Let’s get Lee Child in to do a pass to beef up the male characters, maybe bring in some international intrigue to help with foreign markets. Actually, female protagonists don’t do well in the foreign markets so let’s also have him switch the genders of the characters.” And JT is fired off her own book (her agent will deliver this news to her, because her editor (producers) and publishers (studio/executives) certainly won’t take the trouble to do it themselves. Then after Mr. Child has done his rewrite, the conversation might go like this: “International serial killer books are just not doing well right now, but medical thrillers are off the charts. Let’s make the detective a doctor and get Tess Gerritsen to do a pass. Oh, and also, 80% of books this year were bought by women so let’s make this doctor female.” And after Ms. Gerritsen has transformed this police thriller cum international serial spy actioner into a sexy medical thriller, the conversation might go something like this: “Stephanie Meyer’s fourth book has been #1 on the NYT bestseller list for a year and a half now, and Stephanie has a window. Let’s get her in to revision this puppy as a teenage vampire story, and get this – the vampire is in med school! You know, a protégé. Um, prodigy.”

Repeat two dozen times until the final version, whatever the hell that is, is slapped up on screen, or in this hypothetical, print – or (as in the vast majority of cases) until everyone is so sick of trying to make the story “work” that they just shelve it. And no, I’m not kidding.

I wish I were.

Now, I love all the authors I’ve mentioned above. But I love them for their unique voices. I don’t want to read their half-assed attempts at trying to “fix” someone else’s writing, which in all likelihood wasn’t even broken to begin with.

Can you imagine? Barry Eisler being hired to layer some martial arts into the Irish tragedies of Ken Bruen…. Dennis Lehane being hired to pump up the urban reality in Neil Gaiman’s mythic fantasies… Heather Graham to weave a paranormal subplot into PD James’ psychological mysteries…

You have to understand this, though. That’s the main money that’s out there to be made in screenwriting – rewriting other writers’ work, to studio specifications.

And then there’s another factor. I said before that only three writers (or writing teams) are allowed to be credited on a movie. But if three dozen writers have done a draft, or two or three, on this movie, who decides who gets credit? And how?

Well, that’s a huge subject, but basically, the Writers Guild of America (WGA) has the sole power to determine credits. Studios may submit who THEY would like to see credited on the movie (guess who they’d prefer – the brand new writer or the multimillion dollar writer?) but the WGA has that call, through a process called credit arbitration, in which writers submit their own drafts of the script and their arguments about why they should receive credit, and a panel of writer/arbiters reads all the drafts and makes the determination whose names go on the movie.

And here’s the really troubling thing. Back end compensation for writers, a huge part of the money you potentially receive for writing a movie, is completely tied to credit. No credit, no back end money. So a lot of the rewriting that gets done has nothing to do with what would be good for the story, but has to do with deliberate shifts in character and plot that will change the script enough for the rewriter to get credit. Writers go through and change all the names of characters, change characters’ professions, change locations, combine characters – and that’s just for starters.

(I won’t even go see a movie if I see more than two writers listed on the poster, because I know all too well the kind of mess that signifies.)

So screenwriters are not just in constant competition with each other for jobs – they’re often engaged in battles over credit.

I myself couldn’t do it. I think it degrades writers – both the rewriter and the writer being rewritten. I think it dilutes or outright destroys the original and unique power of the story. I think it’s the prime factor in the reality that feature writers have no power in Hollywood.

And I think it’s a major reason that movies are so bad, these days.

It’s something to think about.

So what am I saying? I guess my advice is, if you just want to make money, be an investment banker.

Well, no – I have no idea how to make money. I’ve done okay, but real money? I don’t have a clue. Investment banking might not be such a good way anymore. Real estate certainly seems to be tanking. The stock market – well, surely you’ve noticed. Truly, I’m not the one to ask. That’s not the point.

The point is, if you just want to make money writing – go to hell. Really. I absolutely believe authors should make a good living. But books and films and television and games are too precious a resource to be left in the hands of people who are only doing it for the money. These are dreams we’re dealing with, here. As writers, we dream for other people. And if you’re not passionate about your writing, your OWN writing, the dreams you dream, I have nothing to say to you.

In terms of working for Hollywood, though, in the present climate, this is what I will say, and this is just completely my own opinion.

I can’t remember the last time I saw a new movie that enthralled me as much as some recent television: DEADWOOD, THE WIRE, and my current obsession, ROME. (I was not a SOPRANOS junkie but yes, I understand, it was brilliant, too.) I believe that great television is happening right now, and if you want to work in moving pictures, that’s probably the place to go. The writer has power in television – the screenwriter does not have power in features. And HBO, in particular, has vision. I think it shows. And I believe television writing is a more honest and effective writing process because – at least – it’s collaborative up front. (But Guyot will certainly have his opinions on that, and I’ll leave it to him.)

Otherwise, if you care about what you do, and what you are putting out into the world, I hope you’ll keep writing novels.

No matter what – be very specific about what you are aspiring to. If your dream is to make a great movie, make sure you understand what that takes and consider how you might be able to do it in the present corporate climate. Can you do it as an independent, instead? Can you do it as a TV series? Can you do it as a novel? If this for some reason was your one shot, how could you bring your story to fruition and die satisfied with the result?

Know what you’re getting into – and go for it.

Good luck.


Part One of this series (The Job) is here.

Part Two of this series (The Craft) is here.

22 thoughts on “The Dirty Little Secret (Screenwritng, Part 3)

  1. billie

    Wow, Alex, amazing post. I was aware of the “dirty little secret” about film writing, but I had never thought to imagine what that would look like if applied to novel writing – it made me absolutely cringe to read the sequence of changes you played out.

    It’s interesting what you say about TV. I was in H’wood in the early nineties, and remember fondly going to some of the premieres that just blew me away – Thelma and Louise was one, Impromptu was another.

    Now though I rarely put movies in my Netflix queue. It’s all TV. Some of the series out now make me feel the same excitement I *used* to feel about writing a screenplay and seeing it made. Now I imagine what it would be like to sit at the table with the writers for West Wing or Firefly – and for me, imagining the process is part of enjoying the story.

    Love what you have to say about writing for money and dreams and being specific about one’s goals. It’s so true.

    This series has been great – something I’ve looked forward to on Saturdays! Thanks for putting it all together.

  2. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Billie, we go to movies less and less, too. Why risk another mediocre and expensive night out at a theater, when we can pop on a sure-to-be dazzling episode of ROME?

    The fact is, top feature screenwriters have been fleeing to TV for some time now, and I think it shows.

    I’m glad my hypothetical rewriting sequence made you cringe – that was my absolute intention. That’s the reality.

  3. Dave Zeltserman

    Alex, really great article. Eye-opening. Thanks so much for wirting it.

    Btw. I agree with you about Deadwood and Rome. Right now my favorite written shows are Big Love and The Shield–while also admiring the writing in Lost and Damages.

    I also go to movies far less. There was a time in the 80s when my wife and I were going 3-4 times a week, now we’re going more like 3-4 times a year.

  4. Alexandra Sokoloff

    At your service, Dave!

    I know, I’ve got to check out BIG LOVE. THE SHIIELD really is great.

    And we’re still going to about a movie a week, but I just keep wondering WHY? When I could be using that time to watch new ROMEs or old DEADWOODs or rent a Preston Sturges gem, or hey, you know, read a book?

  5. Naomi


    Just a fantastic series! I think this information is so helpful.

    I was just reading about how Eddie Muller adapted one of his short stories into a short film.

    What do you think of short films that don’t require all the flash of feature-length movies? These days so many experienced cinematographers, editors, etc. in California are always looking for small projects in the “in-between times.” I know that you can’t make money with these films, but they are relatively much easier to make. I know to get them out on the festival circuit takes a lot of effort, but it certainly seems fun.

  6. Guyot

    Yeah, yeah, I’m a lazy, lousy ass. I’ll toss out some worthless dribble next week.

    But X… she has said it all, better than anyone else ever could.

    Couple of things:

    The reason movies are so bad nowadays – and they are, regardless of box office – is because the studios are no longer movie studios. They are banks. Gigantic corporations that have moption pictures as one small part of a global balance sheet.

    Studios have no idea how to make a GOOD movie. They know only about opening weekends, and the movie making process within the studio system has very little to do with making a good movie. The process now has been infected with this virus of opening dollars.

    People often say the 70’s was the golden era of movie making. Well, look who ran the studios then compared to today.

    And TV… it’s no wonder the best stuff is coming from TV today. Because the writers are still in charge. Barely, but it’s still our flag flying. Look back at the history of movies and TV – when the creative people were in charge, the best stuff was being done.

    You can argue this, but you’d be wrong.

    Lastly, to X’s point about going to hell if you want to write for money. I agree. Go to hell and take your fucking laptop with you.

    If I hear one more person quote me Samuel whatsizname about “only a blockhead wrote for no mney” or whatever, I’ll take hostages in a Taco Bell. First of all, they take that quote out of context, secondly, most who quote it don’t have Sam’s talent, and thirdly, shut up.

    Writers – GOOD writers – write for one reason only. We have to. Yes, I called myself a good writer. And I write for a living because I am incapable of doing anything else. I would do it for free – I actually have, more on that next week.

    So many aspiring writers I meet want to get paid to write. They think because they wrote essays in school that writing is an easy way to make a few bucks.

    And another part of that mentality is the fact that most aspiring writers suck. Yeah, I said it. A lot of published writers suck, too. And hundreds of screenwriters suck. So, you can make a living without being good. But you know, what? You’ll have some money, but no respect. People will smile at you and say “Loved your latest” but when you’re gone, they’ll roll their eyes and talk about how you suck.

    Write for no other reason than because you absolutely love it, and absolutely can’t imagine doing anything else.

    Write because it’s painful when you’re not writing.

  7. Louise Ure

    Nice to see you here, Guyot. How about if it’s painful when you DO write, too?

    Great follow up to your series, X. I’m particularly stunned by the arbitrage committee at WGA. My God, what a Herculean task that must be.

    I met a guy this week — a hotshot creative director of an ad agency — and told him in conversation that if I ever sold a book to Hollywood, I would stay as far away from the project and process as possible.

    “Good idea,” he says, listening with only one ear. “You’re probably better off to keep writing books that nobody would ever be interested in filming.”

    Thanks, buddy.

  8. JT Ellison

    X, fascinating and troubling. I had no idea the level of bastardization with scripts.

    The whole sequence seems unsavory — no real thoughts of breaking new ground, just a way to pander. It would be like selling your soul — the flattery of having a high-caliber name work on your work might be quite intoxicating, but to be cast aside rather than allowed to have input would be crushing.

    Thank you for your continued dedication to demystifying this microcosm for us.

  9. Robin Burcell

    Wow. All my dreams and fantasies out in one fell essay.

    Thanks for the eye-opener. I’d heard the thing about the writer’s credits (probably read it on one of Paul’s or Lee’s blogs or something. I just had no idea how convoluted the WGA part of it was.

    So now that my dream of writing the blockbuster movie is out, and retiring off all my millions, I’ll have to come up with plan B.

    Reality, though, I still have a great idea for a TV series, along the Monk, Psych quirky type of thing with some police procedure. And one day I might just get to it. But for now, I should probably finish up the book I’m being paid to write.

  10. Rae

    Alex, it’s been fascinating to read your series on screenwriting, many thanks. It’s great, as a reader / viewer, to get a glimpse into the creative process, and the frustrations (and heartbreak, I’m guessing) that go along with the business side of it all. I’m thinking of that old description of Hollywood: “dream factory”. I guess there’s more factory and less dream these days.

    I’ve also noticed that the quality of TV series has been improving over the past couple of seasons. HBO is still the standard to which others aspire, but you can find decent stuff in all sorts of unusual places. I”ve been liking “Mad Men” – on AMC, for crying out loud. And “Burn Notice” on USA – I’ll sign up for anything with Bruce Campbell, and Sharon Gless just makes it more fun. Someone did some pretty smart casting on that show (in my opinion, anyway 😉

    I’m wondering if some of the people from HBO might have migrated over to other networks, taking HBO’s values and processes with them……

  11. Laura

    Alex, I’ve been reading your essays here with great interest — in part because I’m wrapping up a book in my series, which centers on a television show in production in Baltimore (a schlocky one, totally made up, trust me on this.) Because of that book, I’ve probably spent more time on the set of The Wire this year than I have in the previous four seasons total, combining “tours” with research.The Wire also has spent a lot of time filming in the soup kitchen where I volunteer, so I’ve been getting quite a bit from them about what it’s like to be an ongoing location.

    The thing that gets me is that so many people who THINK they want to write for television or film — talking about the real dreamers here, folks whose preparation is that a) they watch a lot of television and b) think most of it is crap — have no idea how hard it is. Granted, there are some writing gigs that aren’t quite as demanding as The Wire, but it’s still far harder than I wish to work. My people do what I want them to do, say what I want them to say and seldom wear the wrong clothes. (This happened on my last Wire visit, a continuity error that was picked up by my little band of visitors.)

    One small note — Mad Men was offered to HBO first, and they passed. One of the execs was quoted in the NY Times this week as having some regret over that.

    As for the line, “If you want to make money writing, go to hell” — that’s rather nifty.

  12. JT Ellison

    Hey, Alex, a question. Are there any blogs by screenwriters, directors or producers focused on this aspect of the business out there? (Everyone probably just groaned and rolled their eyes because there’s a famous screenwriting Muderati style blog that’s written up in all the movie mags and I’m clueless : ))

  13. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Sorry I was out for most of today, but you guys have been having a great conversation anyway. I do just love it when G. gets on a soapbox. Preach!

    Oh, Louise – that ad man is just jealous that you escaped. You’re living HIS dream, now.

  14. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Rae, as usual, nails it in one:

    “I’m thinking of that old description of Hollywood: “dream factory”. I guess there’s more factory and less dream these days.”


    And I am particularly pleased about the success of BURN NOTICE – the creator, Matt Nix, is one of my favorite young writers – WILDLY talented and a great guy and I am so happy to see him in charge of this.

  15. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Robin – books are better.

    Laura, I have to say THE WIRE is like crack for me – I hope it goes on forever. It is so rare that every single thing in a show works together that perfectly – and yeah, it IS the most grueling work imaginable – but that one’s also sheer magic.

    Can’t wait to read your take on the TV world.

  16. Alexandra Sokoloff

    JT, John August and Lee Goldberg have screenwriting/television writing blogs. There’s nothing like Murderati, that I’ve ever heard of. is a great screenwriting message board, but it’s mostly aspiring writers. And is for WGA members only.

  17. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Naomi, I’m a big fan of short films. You keep mentioning them and I think you should just DO IT.

    But if you haven’t seen Chris Nolan’s FOLLOWING, treat yourself and rent it. Nolan wrote that full-length indie in 3 parts, so he could film the first 30 minutes as a stand-alone short film and then raise the money for the full-length on the way. A great movie, either way, and a brilliant strategy for getting it made (this is the w/d of MEMENTO).

  18. Mark Terry

    “The point is, if you just want to make money writing – go to hell. Really. I absolutely believe authors should make a good living. But books and films and television and games are too precious a resource to be left in the hands of people who are only doing it for the money. These are dreams we’re dealing with, here. As writers, we dream for other people. And if you’re not passionate about your writing, your OWN writing, the dreams you dream, I have nothing to say to you.”

    Although I essentially agree with you, I’m both a novelist and a freelance writer. I do, actually, write for money. It’s what I do for a living and I not only SHOULD be compensated adequately for it, I HAVE to be compensated adequately for it or I can’t continue to do it in anything resembling a practical way. I would have to go back to working in a clinical genetics lab and that wouldn’t be good for me, my family, the lab or the patients who depend on having someone who, if not passionate about their work, as least wants to be there.

    That said, I’ve written plenty of fiction on spec. Because the stories have to be written. For me, if nobody else.

    From time to time I think I should write a script for TV or features simply because there’s so much money involved. But I often need to remind myself that, 1. I’m not really that into movies. I like them, but I’m not generally passionate about them. (Certainly not like I am about novels). And 2., the same goes double for TV. I have shows I enjoy, but even those tend to be a take-it-or-leave it. It’s not a knock against the quality of either. It’s just not where my passions lie.

    So what exactly are you saying here? Gee, I’ve made a bunch of money in this shitty job, but now I’m above it all? I’m a NOVELIST now, therefore I’m just an ARTISTE? You don’t do it for money? If your publisher had offered you $1000 advance instead of a much larger sum, would you still be able to write what you wrote above about the sanctity and creativity of novel-writing versus the crass commercialism of scriptwriting?

    Like many thing, it might depend where you’re standing at the moment.

  19. Elaine Flinn

    You may have burst a few bubbles out there, Alex – but you may have also prevented some real heartaches too. Great take on the inside of screen writing. Can’t wait to see what Guyot has to add now.

    A writer friend of mine likened ‘the writing game’ to ‘the crying game’ when addressing a group of ‘pre-published’print and screen writers.

    I’ve actually got these paragraphs backwards, but what the hell. I’m too lazy today to type this over.

  20. Alexandra Sokoloff

    “The point is, if you just want to make money writing – go to hell.”

    Mark, the operative word in that sentence is JUST.

    I’ll say it again to be clear – I absolutely believe that writers should be well compensated for the work we do. My point is, if you don’t love and believe in the work, you’re not any kind of writer I want to read.

    I don’t consider myself “above “screenwriting at all. I never considered it a shitty job. I always, always wrote in hope that that project would be one of the miracles.

    I’m sorry if you got that impression that I was saying either of those things – but I didn’t say either of those things. What it boils down to is that I think it’s harder and harder to do good work in that very challenging job and that’s why I’m writing novels now.

    A lot of people seem to have this dream that they can make a big score on a movie or TV deal without doing the grueling work it takes to get to a level that anyone would want to hire you to begin with. I wanted to address a few misconceptions like that about the reality of the work, and maybe convey to a few novelists who are looking wistfully over the fence that the grass may look greener, but from my personal point of view, it’s not.

  21. Mark Terry

    Alexandra,I’m not interested in any kind of a flame war. I understand your point. But I also can understand any writer who may at one or several points in their career be in need of income and be more than willing to “write just for money” in order to put food on their table, gas in their car or pay the mortgage.

    Every writer, whether in TV, novels, or freelance journalism is in a pretty precarious position financially. The work ebbs and flows, shit happens, etc.

    So I can understand, and even imagine myself in the situation, of someone saying to me, “Hey Mark, you’re pretty good at writing action. This script needs more action, can you have a go at it. We’ll pay you $20 grand.”

    I can envision situations where I would turn it down and situations where I would grab it like a drowning man going after a life preserver.

    I DO understand your point. Don’t write JUST for money. (Frankly, if you’re trying to write ANYTHING just for money, there are far easier ways to make money. As a friend of mine says, With a shotgun and a 7-Eleven, there’s always a regular paycheck. :))

    I just find the line, “if you’re writing JUST for money–go to hell” to be pretty strong and exclusive. Entertaining, funny, shocking, sure. But I have no doubt there’s at least one writer out there staring at their kid’s upcoming college tuition bill and thinking, “I really need to come up with some more money. I’d better talk to my agent about drumming up a good paying gig.”


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