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How to Write a Mainstream Screenplay that Sells?

Updated on September 3, 2020
Kenna McHugh profile image

I wrote and contributed to books on film and worked in the modeling and film industries. I like to share insights into both businesses.

David in Seoul
David in Seoul


David Freeman offers sound screenwriting tips on the business of film and working in film as a writer. His experience includes delving into writing episodes for the Internet, which is another avenue for writers.

We chatted over a cup of coffee discussing screenwriting because I started writing for a client who needed outlines, treatments, and scripts for an episodic Internet series. So we had something to share, and I asked him about screenwriting in general.

Screenwriting is Easy or Hard

We discussed the lack of decent scripts available for purchase by a production company and the problem of finding an exceptional screenplay. "Every Development Executive in Hollywood would like to know how to find great scripts," explained David. "I've found a few from my students and helped them sell their work. One guy got $200,000, with $200,000 more coming if and when the script gets produced. I'm working very actively with one of my students right now. I've got his script out all over town. Keep your fingers crossed."

Checklist for Success

Interested in the $200,000 script deal, we talked about how he knew it was a great script.

"I've got a mental checklist of about 40 things that contribute to a great script. Few scripts, including my own, are close to having all 40," explained David. "But when a script starts having about 20 of them, it starts looking pretty good."

They're not mysterious elements – like natural-sounding dialogue, unexpected plot twists, and so forth. I found that interesting, but David wanted to talk about his scriptwriting process.

"I have no typical day. I just sold a TV series to an Internet network, so I'm writing the 'webisodes.' A well-known manager/producer in town keeps me busy with script notes for his next cable movie. I'm outlining my following feature spec. And I'm always adding new techniques to Beyond Structure. This year I've had a lot of requests for script consulting as well. Of all these activities, my favorite is writing. But, I think I like the variety."

David wrote the book Beyond Structure to help writers develop a script and sell it.

Screenwriter Jason Schwartzman Interview

Jason Schwartzman's interview about writing for stop-motion and Wes Anderson is better than taking a screenwriting course. He talks about what it is like to write from basically nothing. He discusses the writing process and how it becomes magic.

"I've got a mental checklist of about 40 things that contribute to a great script. Few scripts, including my own, are close to having all 40. But when a script starts having about 20 of them, it starts looking pretty good."

— David Freeman

Writer's Schedule

With all his activities, David keeps a tight schedule. "I'm more alert at night and seem to do my best work then. I wish I were a morning person," says David.
He prefers writing features than the Internet but is willing to do things that are way off the map for traditional media. "I'm having a great time with Internet stuff."

Pitching a Script

David regular pitches scripts and his batting average is not bad. "The projects I set up at Columbia Pictures, Castle Rock, Paramount, Allies Stars (at Sony Pictures), Atlas Entertainment, David Kirschner Productions, and many other places were sold off pitches. I'm very comfortable in a pitch room, and I teach pitching on a somewhat regular basis. Writers have to realize that pitching has less to do with writing than it does to perform. I try and teach them how to make that transition."

Acting classes help, as well as a screenwriter's education, influences their writing career. "I studied cultural anthropology at U.C. Berkeley and even spent a year living in Africa," explains David.

"I think it all helped me hone my observational skills. For instance, the questions you've chosen to ask me, it says a lot about you."

I laughed and told him the coffee helps, too.

"Writers have to realize that pitching has less to do with writing than it does to perform. I try and teach them how to make that transition."

— David Freeman

Writing for Film is a Great Job

Let's hear it for those who lay their creativity on the line for everyone to see. That's courage. That is one of the reasons I admire screenwriters and those who are just beginning.

Writing for Hollywood requires structure and determination. You need to know the basics before you start writing. Continue reading and scrolling down this article. There are insightful, if not fantastic, interviews with professional screenwriters describing their process.

Artists Medium

"Artists struggle more than a lot of other folks, and this can wear down their pride in themselves. Writers, don't let this happen to you. If you remove artists from this world -- the architects, the painters, the writers, the landscape architects, the furniture designers, the clothing designers, the people who design our cars -- if you removed the whole lot -- the world would be a cold and bland place indeed. Artists bring beauty and insight. They make our lives worthwhile. There can be nothing nobler than to let your creativity shine forth, and to share with the world your personal take on the complexities, contradictions, and sometimes the humor of the human condition."

-- David Freeman

Workshops and Consulting

Over ten years, David created specific techniques to address all these areas and more. "I've been gratified to watch the class become the most popular screenwriting and development workshop in Los Angeles. We get about 150 people each time we offer it. It has also been gratifying to see that the workshop has been taken and appreciated by the writers, directors, producers, and key executives behind The Fugitive, Total Recall, Runaway Bride, The X-Files, Law & Order, Saturday Night Live, and all the Star Trek series, and many other well-known films and TV shows."

As for consulting, "I've set up my scripts, or projects I've developed, with Columbia Pictures, MGM, Paramount, Castle Rock, Atlas Entertainment, Buena Vista Television, and many other major films and television companies. Most script consultants I encounter can't even write scripts. Am I the only one who thinks something's wrong with that picture?" exclaims David.

Question for Writers

Do you write every single day?

See results

Screenwriting and Screenplay

David sounded busy and wondered how long it took him to complete a script. "It's hard to say...I'm always working on one thing or two things, pitching several others and so forth. Most people, when hired, are given twelve weeks to outline a script and turn in the first draft, and that feels about right. One of the shocking things about TV writing, which I haven't done, is that sometimes these writers will do a script for a one-hour episode in one to two weeks. And, some of these scripts come out great. It's pretty awe-inspiring."

He sold a sci-fi series for the Internet, where each episode is seven minutes. "I had to turn out five scripts in six days, and each script had to be a gem. Each script was rewritten about four times -- and each had to be a gem, like a complete short film with a beginning, middle, end. That was tough. Now it looks like those scripts are going to get me more Internetwork because they are good writing samples."

David made a strong point about how writers need to keep writing. Never go a day without writing because the more you write, the better you get at expressing your thoughts into words. The format and structure are important, but if you want to be a screenwriter, you need to write, write and write.

Script Consulting

David started Beyond Structure Workshops and consulting because of the problems he encountered in the first screenwriting classes he took. "I was always told there was no easy way to learn what all the critical aspects of screenwriting success were. For instance, I recurrently told you about having a kind of inborn 'knack' for pulling off things like writing natural-sounding dialogue with subtext or creating emotionally and psychologically complex characters or crafting memorable scenes, which operate on several levels simultaneously. But if you ever want to write a film as great as, for instance, American Beauty, As Good As It Gets, The Matrix, or Trainspotting, you've got to be able to do all of these."

Would you drop everything and write your screenplay if you were pretty certain it would sell?

See results

Agent for Screenwriting

David advises screenwriters to find an agent instead of hustling for themselves.

"Having an agent gives the writer credibility. Also, they're very useful, especially if you've got a 'high concept' script that you're trying to get out to every major company in town on the same day. Now that I think about it, perhaps I won't kill all the agents after all," laughs David.

Still, a writer needs to know when the script is ready to be submitted to an agent or producer. "That's a tough one. You get it as good as you can, and you get feedback from a variety of people who know scripts. Script consultants can help if the consultants are any good," explains David. "But, as you've seen from some of my earlier comments, I'm a pretty harsh critic of some consultants since they can't write. How can such a person guide you to improve your dialogue, for instance?"

Talking About Collaboration

Writing a screenplay is rewarding for any writer. A screenwriter needs to be willing to collaborate, as David confirms.

Below is an interview with the screenwriter and director Dan Gilroy with Denzel Washington. Gilroy wrote a fictitious story of a believable character and story. They talk about collaboration and the value of working together.

Beyond Structure

We talked some more about how we can see what's happening with the entertainment industry. That our computer is becoming a TV, the media saturation continues, and it will always be there. With that, don't forget to unplug yourself once in a while. You can hang out with friends and go on a walk.

"It's hard for me not to think that, among all the uses for the Internet, certainly one of the best is using it to check my website called Beyond Structure," adds Freeman.

Writing for Film, Television, and Internet

I continued my conversation with David Freeman. We talked about techniques and how a writer can create a character that is much more in-depth and appealing.

We also discussed the advantages of writing for film, television, and the Internet, which includes On-Demand like Netflix and Amazon.

Then we watched this interview with the late William Goldman. He is a true inspiration and a talented writer.

Characters Count

David and I discussed examples of characterization. He shared one example, "I know about a hundred ways to give a character 'depth.' Let's say, in high school, a boy invites a girl with low self-esteem to a dance. He's just doing it for the company; he doesn't care that much about her. But, as part of their date, he buys her some trinket -- maybe a stuffed turtle. Six months later, we find that she overly treasures that turtle -- it's a symbol of something that she emotionally desires (in this case, affection from a boy.) That's one of those hundred techniques. I saw a case of this exact technique done while watching a video of an old episode of My So-Called Life."

Character Development

We talked about the best professions a character can take on to make a story appealing. David mentioned there were about 50 ways to make a character appealing, and in turn, emotionally draw us into a story. "If you artfully use these techniques, you make audiences empathize with someone in any job -- a trashy woman like Erin Brockovich, a guy with the mental capacity of a yam such as Forest Gump, or any other profession. This statement is not meant to offend yams, by the way. I like them, and I liked Forest Gump. And, I'm sure this is the first interview you've done where the interviewee took the time and cared to let you know his feelings about underground tuberous vegetables," jokes David.

Example of Techniques

Some examples of "rooting interest" (techniques, which make us "root for," or empathize with a character):

  • One is to have the character with an artistic side like Bill Pullman in While You Were Sleeping.
  • Another is having the character with emotional problems or insecurities we can identify with like Ben Stiller in Something About Mary.

Have You Ever Written a Screenplay?

Have you finished a script?

See results

Hollywood Life

David likes living in Hollywood. "I get paid to write. And, let us not forget the weather. Or the sheer beauty of places like Wilshire Blvd., which is often compared to the Swiss Alps, or The Valley, which of course brings to mind Paris, or Hollywood Blvd., which is hard to think about without thinking of Yosemite."

Marketing Research

Writing a great script isn't the send, all according to David. "I won't minimize the importance of marketing yourself. At the same time, great scripts have a way of catching attention. The biggest mistake new writers make is that they don't read scripts by great writers. It's a great way of learning, and it also lets you see how good the competition is."

You need to be reading great scripts. Some websites offer them without charging. All you need to do is google "screenplays" or "TV Scripts," and you will find a plethora of scripts to read.

Learning How to Write

Sitting down and having a cup of coffee with David was an accelerating experience because his creative energy pumped me up to write. I went home and wrote several articles and a short story.

I summarize my talk with Freeman by pointing out that, no matter what happens, you keep writing. Keep writing is so important.

© 2007 Kenna McHugh


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    • Kenna McHugh profile imageAUTHOR

      Kenna McHugh 

      17 months ago from Northern California

      You are welcome. Do you have a script?

    • Robert Sacchi profile image

      Robert Sacchi 

      17 months ago

      Yes, it does. Thank you for the tips.

    • Kenna McHugh profile imageAUTHOR

      Kenna McHugh 

      17 months ago from Northern California

      It depends where you live or don't live. Freeman holds workshops and others in the LA area do as well. If you are not in the LA area, Meet Up helps screenwriting groups get the word out in other cities.

      I belonged to a pro-active group and we had guest speakers from Hollywood come up and speak or hold workshops. It didn't cost a lot of money. The main thing to do is to get a well-written script done.

      I worked with a guy who had a line to a well-known director through his brother-in-law. He didn't approach his brother-in-law on the matter until he knew his script was ready for the director to read.

      A person can spend $150.00 and get a lot out of the workshop by hustling and not being passive. It's what you put into it that makes the price worth it. I hope that helps.

    • Robert Sacchi profile image

      Robert Sacchi 

      17 months ago

      Workshops and networking. How much would that involve?

    • Kenna McHugh profile imageAUTHOR

      Kenna McHugh 

      17 months ago from Northern California

      Why do you say that? What is "large monetary investment?"

    • Robert Sacchi profile image

      Robert Sacchi 

      17 months ago

      It does seem to require a large monetary investment to get a script in front of someone who matters.

    • Kenna McHugh profile imageAUTHOR

      Kenna McHugh 

      17 months ago from Northern California

      You are welcome!

    • Robert Sacchi profile image

      Robert Sacchi 

      17 months ago

      Thank you for the information.

    • Kenna McHugh profile imageAUTHOR

      Kenna McHugh 

      17 months ago from Northern California


      Getting an agent requires having more than one script worth selling. It also requires lots and lots of networking, attending workshops, and meeting people like David Freeman.

      A screenwriting friend once told me, "You can't hide good writing." The cincher of getting an agent is writing a fantastic script.

    • Robert Sacchi profile image

      Robert Sacchi 

      17 months ago

      Thank you for posting. This seems to beg the question how to get an Agent?

    • Kenna McHugh profile imageAUTHOR

      Kenna McHugh 

      20 months ago from Northern California

      Marie, I am delighted to hear my article made the business of writing sound more enjoyable.

      Screenplays should not have camera direction, though some screenwriters may add camera direction. The screenplay contains where the scene takes place and the character's dialogue. It is a visual story.

      Directors are responsible for the direction of each scene, hence where the camera is placed and what type of shot the director of photography will do.

      Regarding your children's story, that sounds fascinating because I am on the final stages of my first children's storybook that adults will also enjoy.

    • Marie Flint profile image

      Marie Flint 

      20 months ago from Jacksonville, FL USA

      I really enjoyed this.

      At this phase of my life, I spend more time outdoors than I do with a laptop or paper and I'm working with ink and pastels to illustrate a children's story.

      I have vaguely thought about screen writing in the past, but thought it too complicated (aren't camera directions part of it?).

      You made the whole business of writing sound more enjoyable, at least for me.



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