A Letter to Teen Screenwriters

March 29, 2023

Originally posted 2021 on r/Screenwriting

I had a few thoughts after Ep 502 of Scriptnotes on what it’s like being a teenager and trying your hand at narrative storytelling. The question in this case addressed the apparent lack of break-out screenwriting prodigies, as there are in music, chess, certain kinds of sports, etc.

Well, I was one of those kids who went for it. I’d been writing most of my young life, but when I decided to go to film school directly from high school, I had it in mind I was going to be a director… because I wanted to have the most creative control over my storytelling, and I didn’t really grasp that the discipline wasn’t aligned to my talents. Also, pro tip, it turns out that fellow students in the 20-50 age range don’t really look at an 18 year old as a creative prodigy. Go figure.

If you’re 14 years old, 18 might not seem that young, but if you’re in your 30s, you know that even a talented 18 year old is still missing so many of the pieces, no matter what her life experience up to that point. No one, absolutely no one, wants to be told “you’ll understand when you’re older” or “you just aren’t good enough/don’t know enough yet”.

I want to break this down for you, because there are so many of you now joining this forum who are in your mid to late teens, and this applies for some of you in your early twenties, too (it did for me). So here are some thoughts about how to make the most out of starting early.

When you introduce yourself, it’s always good to acknowledge when you’re new and inexperienced, because it signals that you know you have stuff to learn.

It’s also good to provide some unique insight about yourself and why this attracts you. But here’s the thing: no matter how good your high school creative writing teacher says you are, no matter how much effort you put into finishing that first draft, you aren’t a genius. You aren’t really ahead of the curve. You may have a very good grasp on voice, on pacing, how you convey your story, but there are life experiences ahead of you that you need in order to be able to do this. This is less about word-prettiness, and more about streamlining universal emotional themes.

Adversity breeds creativity

Many life experiences are traumatic. Early heartbreak, loss, disappointment — for those of us that are lucky. War and famine are whole other categories — I know of a writer my age who started life in a bunker under falling bombs, and who learned about film by sneaking into his parents’ VHS store upstairs and watching everything in it.

I would hope that you don’t experience that, or even the other more mundane difficulties, but that’s unrealistic. I hope especially that you won’t experience them prematurely, but again reality just doesn’t care. In fact, early trauma is one of the things that often puts us on the creative path. It is a coping mechanism to take feelings of despair, grief or pain and put them on a page or canvas, anywhere they can do us slightly less harm.

Unfortunately, at least in my experience, there is a tendency for us to get a lot of acknowledgement of the intensity of our creatively expressed pain, and for us to mistake that as an endorsement of our skill. Other people relate to pain, it’s the engine of storytelling, but that doesn’t make it brilliant or compelling.

Use your good taste to feed your talent.

Here’s the good news: for all of us, the gap between taste and talent is the starting point. All of us. We all decided we wanted to try this because we saw something we loved, and we wanted to make something that amazing. If you are young, between 14-18, you have a window of opportunity that closes as you get older and are burdened with the responsibilities of supporting yourself and others.

What you can do now, and what will absolutely make the difference for you in a few years’ time, is consume as much of what you love as possible, and be curious about things you don’t know. Scripts have never been easier to find, and reading TV and film scripts alongside their finished form will teach you how to bridge that gap between your taste and your talent. If you listen to the best writers and directors, so many of them had this formative time in their youth to absorb these stories, to really investigate what makes them good.

Look for free or low cost educational resources you can access right now

You also have time to take advantage of creative writing classes in your educational sphere that will, even if they’re not screenwriting focused, teach you about what makes the words on the page a pleasure for the reader. Once you know how to do that, you can control the intensity of those words, and shape them so that they do the work they need to in the screenplay format. Passion is visible on the page, even when it’s subtle.

This will also give you an idea of whether or not you want to continue including these kinds of classes into your further academic career. I won’t give you advice on whether or not to go to school for this or that discipline, but if you do go on to college or university, it’s never a bad thing to have a few writing workshops or film studies credits in your mix.

Go make some film

And yes, you’ve got one more tool that you have the time and energy to learn that many of us never had a chance to take advantage of: make film. You’ve still got a lot of flex in your bones, and you can bounce back from mistakes. You’ve got time and energy to volunteer to other more experienced creators, to learn early, and maybe set yourself up for a day job in the industry. It makes a huge difference in your ability to write a good screenplay if you know how that material is used. It gives you a chance to take your experience past the silent partnership between writers and actors, and it provides you with the ability to distinguish what is or isn’t necessary for your script. Even if you’re just using an iphone to film coverage of two actors talking to each other, you’ll slingshot yourself ahead when it comes to the root composition process.

Be curious about your world.

Life is weird. Life is painful. Life is, on some occasions, wonderful. Part of the reason other writers might be telling you that you “just aren’t there yet” isn’t that they have something you lack that gives them the right to judge — it’s that you are the chief source of your stories. If you want to tell screen stories about experiences you haven’t had your main inspiration is going to be… other people’s screen stories about experiences you haven’t had.

“Write what you know” isn’t a rule. It’s a forgone conclusion. You’re going to do this no matter what, which means you actively need to seek out experiences in order to increase your knowledge. That doesn’t mean you can’t be imaginative, or that you can’t be sensitive to the problems of taking stories away from others, but it does mean it is your job to be curious about the real world, about real experiences, about human stories happening right now. If you want to write imaginatively in a way that’s compelling and honest, you have to listen to the lives of other people.

That’s pretty much it — all the stuff I wish someone had told me as a teenage writer. It’s not a pass into the industry, or a guarantee of anything. Talent and voice aren’t really something that can be taught, because it is a never ending process of self-instruction — but I do believe that instruction comes from the practice of every day recognition, and appreciation. Whether you do that actively or passively will make a difference, but as with any discipline, it’s like a muscle. If you’ve got 4-6 extra years out in front, you’ll have a stronger voice by the time you’ve got the ability to actively pursue your ambitions.