Sue the Screenwriter gives advice on what questions not to ask

Posted in Blogs, Theater and Dance

SUZANNE KELMAN,  Nov. 2, 2012

Sometimes I find myself thinking that everyone else has a much more glamorous life than my own. I find this to be true of others when I tell them what I do.

I’m a screenwriter. People think that’s glamorous, and I suppose, compared to a proctologist, it is. But it still always surprises me how eyes light up when I tell somebody what I do. The reaction is nearly always followed by one of these three questions:

“Have I seen any of your movies?”

or …

“How about getting me a part in your next movie?”

And, my all-time favorite …

“I have this great idea for a movie. Why don’t I tell you about it, then you can write it and we can split the money?”

Let me answer those three questions here, so the next time you meet a screenwriter, you will be all the wiser.

1.  The majority of screenplays that are written never get out of what is known as “development hell.” Getting a movie made is a delicate balance. It’s like juggling broken glass while walking a tightrope over a bubbling volcano. All the stars have to align for a picture to be made. That means all the investors need to get onboard and all the producers, actors and crew have to be available at exactly the same time and same place to make it all happen.

It takes just one tiny slip, one misalignment of the stars, and your work is toast – or more like ash.

But, hey, screenwriters don’t really mind because you know what? They often get paid anyway.

Robert McKee, master teacher and “Lord of the Screenwriting World,” tells a story about how he managed to pay off his first mortgage with a script that has been sold six times since the 1970s, and yet still hasn’t been made into anything other than paper airplanes.

2.  As much as I would love to cast you, me and Erma’s dog in a movie, that comes down to the director’s choice and screenwriters rarely have a say in casting. I know all about this from my own experience as an actor.)

3.  Let’s see if what you suggest is fair. You offer me the idea, perhaps it’s the story of your life, but you haven’t written any of it down and haven’t created any of the dialogue, or even though about a beginning, middle and end to the story. Considering how much time it takes the screenwriter to organize, research, write, rewrite and pitch a script, I don’t think this sounds like a great deal to me. So folks, don’t bother a writer with unrealistic pipe dreams. She’s got plenty of her own.”

So now we’ve done away with all the misconceptions of screenwriting. Here are what I believe to be some the truths.  If you’re looking for the most invisible way to have a writing career, screenwriting is for you.

I mean, if you’re doing it right no one will even know you exist, right? Heck, even I walk away from the TV to get a cup of tea when the winning screenwriter is announced at the Academy Awards. And, is it my imagination, or do screenwriters get the shortest amount of time for their thank you speeches?

I know why that is; because on the whole, screenwriters are not part of the glamorous set in Hollywood. They’re normally packing a few pounds into a badly fitted suit, and their teeth aren’t quite as white and straight as everyone else’s. But that’s OK because screenwriters are typically in the business of telling stories, and are blessed that they don’t have to worry about what they look like on camera.

A good screenwriter’s passion is creating stories that are clever, witty, and breathtakingly beautiful and memorable. So the reality is, that the majority of our time is spent underground talking, arguing and relating to a bunch of make-believe characters that fill our days and nights. There just isn’t much time to get our teeth straightened.

Here’s some advice for the next time you meet a screenwriter: Look them in the eye and ask them about characters, plots, their new log line and treatment. Ask them about what excites them about the screenplay on which they are currently at work.

Trust me – they will give you a smile with all those yellowing teeth and tell you all about it.

And you will have just made their day.


Suzanne Kelman is a multi-award winning screenwriter. Two of her screenplays have been optioned and are in development, while another is in pre-production and due to begin filming in Europe in 2013. Kelman teaches a basic screenwriting class for beginners who want to learn how to craft a professional standard script to show to producers. The class meets one Saturday per month at her Bayview home writing studio. If interested, email for details.

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