Tag Archives: scriptwriting

Script Formatting

Worries about screenplay formatting leave some screenwriters in a panic, terrified that one slip-up could see their precious script chucked in the bin. While most good readers are far more interested in the content of your story than your presentation, getting the basics right helps to make your script a more engaging read.

script format 3

The basic screenplay format has evolved to help you make your vision clear to the reader and in turn allow a production team to capture that vision on screen. Some rules are pretty hard and fast, while others have a degree of variation and flexibility.

Here are my tips on making script formatting work for you.

Let’s start at the beginning.

1) Front Page / Cover Page
This should contain the project title and your name centred, and your contact details, and/or your agent’s details, in the bottom left corner.

————————————————————————–

Desk Wars

By

Hayley McKenzie

 

 

Hayley McKenzie
Script Angel Towers
London NW1
myemail@myemail.com

————————————————————————–

Don’t add photos or images. Keep it simple.

Some screenwriting software has templates; if you’re using these be sure to delete unnecessary elements eg ‘based on, if any’.

Don’t add your WGA registration number, even if you’ve chosen to register it, unless it’s specifically asked for.

For tv scripts, I’d recommend the following layout:

Desk Wars

Episode One

By Hayley McKenzie

 2) Page Numbers
Essential. Top right is the most common position but bottom right is also sometimes used.

3) Scene Headers (aka Sluglines)
This tells us where the scene takes place.

These are always ALL CAPS. Underlining and/or bolding are ok but not necessary – again, the rule of thumb is keep it clean and simple.

It should contain the following information only:

a) Interior or Exterior
Written as INT. or EXT.

b) Location type
Stated as simply as possible.
EXT. COTTAGE.
You don’t need to preface with adjectives, like ‘Pretty Cottage’ or ‘Small Cottage’. You can use the action lines to give more detail if necessary, for example, that it’s pristine or dilapidated.

c) Time of day
You only need to define as either DAY or NIGHT.
EXT. COTTAGE. DAY
Some screenwriting software templates allow for multiple variations eg Dusk or Dawn or Late Afternoon but I wouldn’t recommend unless it’s absolutely essential for the reader’s understanding of the story.

The elements within a scene header are typically separated by a dot:
INT. COTTAGE. DAY

Or you can separate the DAY/NIGHT element with a dash ‘-‘
INT. COTTAGE – DAY

Areas within a location
Dealing with areas within a location, for example rooms within a house, can be done by defining the larger location first, followed by the area within it:

INT. JOANNE’S HOUSE. BEDROOM. DAY

I’ve also seen it done the other way around:

INT. BEDROOM. JOANNE’S HOUSE. DAY

Alternatively, you can merge the two elements to shorten it to:

INT. JOANNE’S BEDROOM. DAY

Whichever version you choose you must stick to that format and make sure every scene header is formatted the same way. Consistency is the key.

Later and Continuous
Indicating how this scene relates to the previous scene can be done by adding Later or Continuous to the end of the scene header:

EXT. COTTAGE. DAY

Mary runs to the front door. Fumbles for her key.

 
INT. COTTAGE. DAY – CONTINUOUS

Shaking, Mary slams the front door behind her and slumps to the floor.
 

Most readers don’t object to it, but to be honest it’s rarely necessary as we can guess that the action is continuous from the juxtaposition of the scenes and their content.

When your scene is set inside a moving car
I’ve seen professional writers, directors and script editors disagree about how best to convey this. Technically the car is not a location but a prop, so the scene header should just read:

EXT. COUNTRY ROAD. DAY

Mary grips the steering wheel of her car as she hurtles down the lane.

Although this is technically correct I find it harder to digest as a reader, because the scene header creates a visual image of a country road but then when I read the action lines after it I have to adjust the image I’ve just created by creating an image of your character in a car.

As a reader I find the clearest and most efficient way for me to visualise the scene is something like this:

INT/EXT. CAR. COUNTRY ROAD. DAY

This way I can easily create a visual image of your characters in a car and the car travelling in an exterior location.

4) Action Lines
These describe the action taking place.

Don’t forget to put your character’s name in ALL CAPS the first time we meet them and always indicate their age.

Avoid indicating camera angles or shot directions, e.g. CLOSE-UP.

For more information, check out my article on Writing Great Action Lines.

5) Dialogue
What a character says (their dialogue) is indicated under their character name:

MARY
You didn’t?!

The dialogue should be indented, not centred. I’ve struggled to replicate it here but just read any produced screenplay and you’ll see the correct position for the dialogue.

To indicate that we can hear a character speak but can’t see them you use V.O (Voice-Only / Voice-Over) or O.S (Out of Shot):

MARY (V.O)
You didn’t?!

To indicate a character’s action or attitude as they speak you can add a direction in parentheticals, though they should be used sparingly:

MARY
(shouting)
You didn’t?!

Characters speaking another language
There are no hard and fast rules for this but in my experience the following gives the clearest indication of your intention in the most efficient way possible.

Assuming that your screenplay is written in English, always write dialogue in English, even if it is to be spoken in another language.

If it’s just an occasional line then it’s best to indicate the language to be spoken in the parenthetical.

MARY
(in French)
You didn’t?!

If one or more characters speak in another language throughout a scene then you can continue to use the above method for every piece of dialogue, although this does start to feel quite cumbersome to read. Alternatively, I think it’s ok to simply indicate the language one or more character will be speaking in at the start of the scene in a note in the action lines: N.B Paul and Mary speak in French throughout the scene.

Phone calls – 1 sided and intercutting
To indicate that the character we’re watching is speaking into the phone simply add this as a direction within the parenthetical.

MARY
(into phone)
You didn’t?!

To cut between two sides of a phone conversation you need to indicate that we’re going to INTERCUT. I find that the clearest way to do this is to establish both locations and then indicate that you want to cut between the two:

INT. MARY’S HOUSE. DAY

Mary picks up the phone and dials.

INTERCUT WITH:

INT. JOANNE’S HOUSE. DAY

Joanne jumps at the ringing phone. She picks up.

JOANNE
Hello?

MARY
You ready?

6) Scene Transitions
This indicates how the scenes are edited together, for example CUT TO: or FADE TO: and they are placed on the right hand side of the page.

They are not needed in a spec script. If you decide that you really want to include them then you must include them after every scene – beware that it will add massively to your page count!

7) More and Cont’d
You can use More and Cont’d to indicate that a character’s dialogue continues on the next page.

Most screenwriting software does this automatically but don’t worry if yours doesn’t – it’s helpful but not a necessity.

8) Scene Numbers
These should not be included when writing on spec, although they are incredibly useful when in active development with a script editor and essential for production.

9) Flashbacks
As with many elements there are a few ways you can indicate flashbacks. My preference is the following:

INT. MARY’S HOUSE. DAY – FLASHBACK

Scene contents here, then at the end of the scene….

END FLASHBACK

10) On-Screen Captions
To identify an on-screen caption use the following:
SUPER: London, 1852
The ‘Super’ is an abbreviation of ‘super-imposed’. I’ve also seen the following which is fine:
CAPTION: London, 1852

11) File Format & Naming
Don’t forget that you are naming your file so that is makes sense for the recipient. When working in development on multiple drafts with a writer I always date each draft. However, when you are sending your script out to someone for the first time it’s better not to include a date or draft number:
Desk Wars by Hayley McKenzie – Episode 1 Script.pdf

Whatever software you’ve used to create your script you should always convert to PDF for sending it out.

12) Screenwriting Software
There is no denying that Final Draft is the industry-standard software for film and television, in both the UK and US. Script Angel offers a discount on Final Draft software here.

There are other screenwriting software providers, some of which are free; Movie Magic, Celtx, Writer Duet, Fade In, Scrivener, Adobe Story, Amazon Story Writer, to name just a few. And, given that you’ll be converting your script to PDF anyway, you just need to find a software that feels right for you.

In all script formatting, clarity and consistency are key so that the formatting doesn’t draw our attention away from the story.

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Why I’ve Learned to Love Story Structure – Part 2 by Xandria Horton

I mentioned in a previous post why I know first-hand that structure can feel for some like their script nemesis. This blog post outlines some more thoughts I’ve found useful of ways to think about structure:

orange is the new black script angel story structure

Structure: micro and macro

Structure is most often referred to in the macro – the number of ‘acts’ in your script and its shape as a whole. But structure is less often thought of in the micro; the way in which your story delivers a single scene. Each scene has a status quo which is interrupted by something (ideally) dramatic, where a unit of story is delivered to the audience (almost certainly) through conflict, and the result is a changed situation. It’s easy to forget that it is this level that can shape the clarity and tone of the script.

Structure: when is a problem the story, and when is it how it’s put together?

When there’s an issue in your script, one of the biggest questions is whether it’s the story or plot – which are usually intertwined in the writer’s head – that’s at fault. Is it something that doesn’t quite sit right in the dynamic of your character’s journey and what happens (content), or is it because of where a piece of information sits in the script and how it is delivered (context)?

I’d love to hear any tools that you have for this process, but for me it’s getting the writer to test it in different ways: if it’s a feature, what’s the overall message or theme of the script – and does this scene fit within that? If this scene were removed, what would be the result on the larger plot? What would the opposite outcome of this scene look like? It’s also often useful to see in its simplest form (cue cards, scene by scene outline). Other suggestions are welcome!

Structure’s Toolkit

Below are some common elements in scripts that relate to structure:

The circular narrative: this is frequently used in TV and feature specs alike (and particularly in comedy). The opening scene of a script presents a scenario, usually a tense/climactic situation, after which the narrative jumps back in time to present the events leading up to this moment.

  • This structural tool succeeds or fails on whether the scene you are ‘hooking’ the audience with is sufficiently extraordinary and creates enough narrative questions (not only “how did they get here?” but “how are they going to get out?”). Ideally, assumptions created by presenting this scene out of context are subverted as a result of experiencing the story as a whole. As I’ve already mentioned in my X Factor blog post however, this can be a way that writers who know there isn’t enough story in the first 30 pages of their script can inject some narrative questions. However, this can also be a legitimate way to present two disparate story elements side-by-side.

The flashback and montage:

  • Whilst many writing resources have now come around to the fact that flashbacks, montages, dream sequences are not just lazy storytelling, this doesn’t mean that writers don’t sometimes rely on them in a way that delivers lazy storytelling.
  • Flashbacks should create drama in their own right and move the plot forward in the present, despite dealing with something from a character’s past. Bang2write has a great post on this here, which also delves into other often misused storytelling tools such as voiceover and dream sequences.
  • The flashback has had a revamp of late: Orange Is the New Black uses flashbacks as an integral part of its structure, which both humanises the inmates by presenting them in a world we recognise and creates ironies between their past and present lives. It also provides the occasional pressure release from a claustrophobic story world. Other recent UK TV like Utopia and The Honourable Woman made some bold and – I think – successful choices by carrying out large portions or entire episodes in the past, which then constantly informed the storytelling in the present, rather than dipping back and forth.
  • And as for montages, whilst they’ve moved on somewhat from Rocky (Team America, anyone?), they often aid a script to deliver a character change, but should never be in lieu of scenes that chart a character’s emotional journey – the audience want to see these up close. A good example of this is Groundhog Day; we skip the hundreds of days in which Bill Murray’s character learns to ice sculpt, play the piano, learn about Andie McDowell and generally become a better person. However, it doesn’t montage the scenes in which his character is challenged or he develops a better emotional understanding.

Multiple storylines a.k.a. ‘plate spinning’

  • Whether this is for a feature with an ‘A’, ‘B’ and ‘C’ story, or an episode of Downton Abbey or Game of Thrones, structuring and interweaving multiple storylines is what allows you to keep your stories moving forward. The difference is whether the viewpoint you create revolves around a central protagonist or an ensemble cast of characters.

Twists vs. Dramatic Irony

  • Structure constantly negotiates whether to let the audience in on one a piece of information before a character in the script (dramatic irony) or hold back so the audience experiences it at the same time – or even after the protagonist (plot twist). When you learn information and how is important in any story, but particularly in genre stories, where the audience can feel involved at key moments of the storytelling, e.g. playing “armchair detective” in Crime. Far from holding back on the plot, the more thought-out clues the audience can invest and speculate in to create plot twists, the better.

Experiencing something first hand vs reported action

  • Generally, it’s more dramatic for the audience to witness first-hand an event in the story, although there are some caveats to this. I frequently see traumatic events in the protagonist’s backstory shown in flashback or in the prologue, when it is possible to show this in a less conventional way. Also, on some occasions, it can be very moving if the plot understates the importance of an event by not flashing back or showing first-hand: examples include Thomas J’s death in My Girl, the fate of the girl in the red coat in Schindler’s List and the famous climactic scene in Se7en.
Yeah Brad, we know  structure can sometimes be tricky...

Yeah Brad, we know structure can sometimes be tricky…

So this is just a few thoughts to steer clear of structure potholes, identify structure issues and be aware of some of the more popular structure shortcuts (and when you might not want to use them). Feel free to add them to your structure ‘toolkit’ – and post below your own suggestions, or how these concepts have worked (or not worked) in your own writing experience.

What Writers Can Learn from 4Screenwriting by Xandria Horton

One of the things that I love about Script Angel is its focus on opportunities for new writers, so the blog seemed an obvious place to summarise my recent experience as a Shadow Script Editor on Channel 4’s talent initiative 4Screenwriting – with some thoughts other writers can take from it.

4sw logoWhat is 4Screenwriting and why is it brilliant?

4Screenwriting is a broadcaster-affiliated talent scheme run by highly experienced script editor Philip Shelley, currently in its 4th year. For each year’s twelve selected writers, they are given six months to take an idea through two drafts of a commercial hour (46’) script, creating the first episode of a series or serial (ideally with Channel 4 in mind). The course also has a script editor training element; allowing shadow script editors a chance to develop their skills by working to industry-proven script editors.

The writers get a “sandbox” version of a script commission, with a small amount of funding, set deadlines and opportunities for notes from their script editor team at each stage – as close as you can get to a real script commission, without the production element.

Once the course is completed, writers can use their spec script as a calling card in the industry, creating a buzz with literary agents and production companies who are keen to be across talent coming through and hopefully resulting in meetings that further their careers. Success stories are numerous, most recently with alumni Anna Symon and Cat Jones, who have both gone on to write for primetime TV series.

So, with insights from me and my excellent fellow shadow script editors Carissa Hope Lynch, Harriet Davis and Joe Williams, I’ve pooled some tips writers can take from our 4Screenwriting experience:

Working with the professionals

The scheme introduces writers to the process of working with a script editor, which can be strange for writers used to working alone. It also introduces to writers the concept of the dreaded deadline!

What can you learn from this?: whilst you may have in place trusted feedback-givers, there’s really nothing like the impartial and constructive notes you will get from a good script editor or industry-proven consultant. In terms of meeting deadlines, it’s important that you make all and any writing deadlines you agree to. However, if something happens that is beyond your control, the best way to handle it is:

1/ to flag this as soon as possible to the appropriate person;

2/ tell them realistically what you can deliver and when; if one element is more urgent than the others, can you prioritise this and deliver within the original time frame?;

3/ agree a new deadline and move heaven and Earth to make it!

Network a.k.a. ‘it’s good to talk’

The scheme provides opportunities for writers to talk to others at similar points in their career, which can be greatly useful, both personally and professionally.

What can you learn from this?: Meet with your writer peers! Find or start a writer’s group on Meetup (they are all around the country) or attend events such as The London Screenwriter’s Festival or BAFTA Rocliffe and seek out friendly faces in the opportunities to mingle.

What’s in a TV idea?

Unsurprisingly, some ideas will only really reveal whether they will work in a series or serial format – if at all – after some exploration, so some writers had to use backup ideas or go back to the drawing board to find the right idea to progress to script stage.

What can you learn from this?: If you want to work in the industry, it’s essential you’re across British output; it’s as simple as that. Whilst it won’t ensure that every idea you come up with is a bona fide TV idea, you’ll get industry knowledge as to who is making what, and watching TV widely (UK, US, internationally) will develop your instincts on which stories intrinsically work in a TV format and which may be more suited to film or theatre. Even if it’s just the opening episode of every new series, it’s really useful to watch TV as broadly as you can.

Also, if you’re ever in a pitching situation (e.g. pitching to a producer for an episode commission on an existing series or pitching to a production company your own series ideas), however married you are to your favourite idea, it’s always useful to have a couple you’ve worked up a little as well in your back pocket, just in case you need them!

Writing to act breaks – a punctuation metaphor

For 4Screenwriting the brief was a script that would fit within a Channel 4 schedule, rather than a BBC full hour slot, so it was a new experience for many writers to write to ‘act breaks’.

What can you learn from this?: how this works this will vary depending on your story (and your broadcaster). However, we came up with a useful way of thinking about the shape of the story with act breaks:

If your story is a paragraph and each scene is a sentence, how you utilise punctuation is a great metaphor of writing to act breaks; ending those sentences before a break to ensure that the viewers’ interest is piqued. What’s the screenwriting equivalent of scene ending with a ‘?’, an ‘!’ or a ‘…’?

Many thanks again to the input from my fellow shadow script editors on this article; to the very brilliant and experienced script editor I worked to, Jamie Hewitt; to the three brilliant writers I was lucky to work with; and of course to Philip, for tirelessly working to make the course go as smoothly as it does each year. If you ever see him at a 4Screenwriting networking event, he won’t miss a moment to connect a writer to agents and production companies that might be useful to them. 4Screenwriting is a brilliant experience for writers and script editors coming through – long may it continue!

 

 

Investing In Your Screenwriting Career

We’ve all heard that it takes 10,000 of practice to become a virtuoso piano player or tennis champ. While the hours might be debatable there is little doubt about the principle behind it; to get better at something you have to actually do it, a LOT! Are you really investing enough of your time in your screenwriting to make the progress you want?

notepad and paperHere are some of the best ways to invest in yourself as a screenwriter:

1) Join A Writing Group (locally or online)

Pros: It’s probably free, you can use it to make commitments about how much writing you’ll do in between get-togethers and get your group to hold you to it, great for peer review of each other’s scripts.

Cons: You might be in a group of writers with less experience than you so might feel you’re not learning very much.

Tips: Be open to meeting new people.

2) Take A Class or Course

Pros: You can find courses running a few weekends or a year or more, it encourages you to make a time and financial commitment so you’re more likely to put the work in, good courses set homework which further encourages you to get the writing done.

Cons: Although many courses offer some feedback on what you’ve written, the time pressures on course leaders means the feedback can be very limited, teaching can be a bit generalised.

Tips: Figure out what you want to get out of the course and then find one that best suits your needs.

3) Go On A Writing Retreat

Pros: It forces you to invest a chunk of uninterrupted time you might struggle to achieve any other way, being in a different environment encourages new ways of thinking so you don’t keep repeating thought patterns, improving your chances of producing something new and different, chance to meet other writers.

Cons: It is essentially a holiday so it’s a relatively pricey way of getting quite a short chunk of writing time.

Tips: Decide what’s most important to you (location, retreat leader, feedback opportunities) and then research what’s out there.

4) Attend A Screenwriting ConferenceLondon Screenwriters’ Festival, Screenwriters World Conference (L.A or New York), Great American Pitch Fest

Pros: Most have great pitching opportunities, committing to it gives you a deadline to polish work you can pitch there, intensive, immersive, chance to meet lots of other writers and hear from industry experts.

Cons: Might feel a bit pricey for a few days, though LSF has a payment plan to spread the cost.

Tips: Commit early then plan a schedule to get work ready, building in time to get feedback on your scripts / pitches and rewrite accordingly before you go.

5) Get Professional Feedback On Your Script

Pros: Notes should inspire a constructive rewrite, screenwriting advice is tailored to you and your writing strengths and weaknesses.

Cons: Can be pricey and quality of feedback ranges enormously.

Tips: Get recommendations from fellow writers and check out the credentials of those offering feedback.

6) Find A Mentor / Coach

Pros: A good mentor will give you personalised script feedback on a portfolio of work, set goals and deadlines with you, offer support and advice, they are interested in helping you develop as a screenwriter.

Cons: Pricey, you need to put the writing in to make it worth your time and money.

Tips: Make sure you give yourself enough time every week to do the writing so your mentor regularly has work to respond to.

 

 

 

New Script Feedback Services

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Well, it’s been a busy old year for Script Angel. So busy in fact that I’ve expanded the team! I’m delighted to announce that Xandria Horton has joined the Script Angel team as a Script Analyst.  Check out Xandria’s bio here.

Xandria will be offering the following service through Script Angel:

Script Analysis Report – These notes provide constructive written feedback (2-3 pages) on your script. Xandria will assess the strengths and weaknesses of the story and writing execution. She will provide suggestions for developing the script, targeting key areas for improvement. If the script is part of a longer-form piece (television series or serial) you can submit a few pages outlining story ideas for subsequent episodes. This service usually has a relatively fast turnaround but does not offer any follow-up consultation to discuss the notes.

I’ve also expanded the range of feedback services I offer:

Development Notes – These detailed notes provide in-depth constructive written feedback (4-5 pages) on your script or treatment. In addition, I offer a follow-up meeting (via phone or Skype video) to discuss the notes. For scripts which are part of a longer form piece (television serial or series) I will also read supporting material, such as brief outlines for subsequent episodes, and provide feedback on the overall project.

Six-Month Script Editing and Mentoring Service – You can engage my script editing services for a six-month period. This flexible service offers Development Notes on multiple projects (be they scripts, treatments or outlines) over multiple drafts during that time. In addition to the Development Notes on your chosen individual projects, I will offer support and advice helping you to prioritise projects, target your development and produce a strong portfolio of work to advance your screenwriting career.

Ideas Review Service (Written Notes + Consultation)  – I will read up to five ideas (of up to 2 pages each) and provide written notes on their strengths and weaknesses, followed by a meeting (via phone or Skype video) to discuss the notes.

Ideas Review Service (Consultation Only) – I will read up to five ideas (of up to 2 pages each) and provide a consultation (via phone or Skype video) to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of each idea. This service doesn’t include written notes.

I’m currently fully booked until the end of March 2014 and am now taking bookings for next April. Xandria has availability right now.

If you want professional help to make your film or tv script the best it can possibly be, just email me hayley@scriptangel.co.uk and I can let you know rates and current turnaround times.

Here’s to a fantastic 2014!

Screenwriting Podcasts

Want to immerse yourself in the world of screenwriting? Listen to screenwriting chat and words of wisdom in these fab podcasts:

UK Scriptwriters Podcast – http://dannystack.blogspot.co.uk/p/uk-scriptwriters-podcast.html

Nerdist Writers’ Panel – http://www.nerdist.com/podcast/nerdist-writers-panel

What Are You Laughing At – http://www.comedy.co.uk/podcasts/british_comedy_podcast/

Script Magazine TV Writer Podcast – http://www.scriptmag.com/multimedia/podcasts/

John August Script Notes Podcast – http://johnaugust.com/podcast

Jeff Goldsmith Q&A – http://www.theqandapodcast.com/

BAFTA Podcast – http://www.bafta.org/

The Empire Film Podcast – http://www.empireonline.com/podcast/

On The Page Screenwriting Podcast – http://onthepagepodcast.com/

If you know of any others worth a listen share in the comments below.

Practise Makes Perfect

Watching the extraordinary achievements of the Olympic and Paralympic athletes this summer made me appreciate more than ever that if you want to be successful at something, you’ve got to knuckle down and practise.

For screenwriters of course that means practising your writing by simply writing – LOTS! But it also means studying your craft; analysing successful screenplays, reading books on screenwriting or attending seminars and talks by others who’ve analysed thousands of movies and screenplays. It means identifying areas of your craft that you’re not as strong on (story structure or character or dialogue) and finding techniques to help you get better at those elements.

But great writing alone rarely enables you to succeed and there are other aspects to being a successful writer that you’ll need to master. Perhaps you’re lousy at networking or pitching. If you hate pitching (and I know a LOT of writers who do) then practising is vital if you’re to get good at it – at the very least you want to be comfortable enough doing it that you don’t turn into a blubbering wreck when an Executive asks you about your new movie idea.  And who knows, you might discover you’ve got a real knack for it and find yourself desperate to go to a huge pitch festival and get on that stage to pitch with the best of them.

In an industry built so heavily on personal recommendation, networking is another aspect of the job that lots of writers dread. As with pitching, it requires practice so my advice is to get out there and get doing it!

The forthcoming London Screenwriters’ Festival is a great place to learn tips on your craft, practise your pitching and your networking.  I’ll be speaking there and, of course, networking too so come and say hello.  Don’t forget that if you use Discount Code ‘SCRIPTANGEL2012’ you can save £22 off the ticket price.  Let me know if you’re going and I hope to see you there.

Be honest with yourself, identify those areas that you’re really not so great at, and put the work in to get better at them. With hard graft in the right areas you’ve got a great chance of making it as a successful screenwriter.  Good luck!

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