a pro script reader ponders movies, reading, writing and the occasional personal flashback

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Screenwriting and Marathons

So this post is based on posts on two other blogs, which got me thinking.

The first was by Craig Mazin of The Artful Writer, a professional writer, who says that in his eyes the idea that "screenwriting is a marathon" is not true at all. Not only that, he goes on to say that if writing feels like a marathon to you, then either there's a major problem with your script, or you're not cut out for writing screenplays.

Mazin goes on to define what he is thinking about, talking about what it means when he gets antsy or bored or tired when he is writing a screenplay, and how it needs to be fun and exciting to write if it is to be fun or exciting to watch. Mazin says "If you repeatedly find yourself dreading the work, if you keep praying to find yourself at the end of the process, if you view the second act as some sort of Bataan Death March, then it’s time to hang it up. Screenwriting is hard enough to do when you want to do it. If you’re dealing with a lack of will at the same time, what’s the point of torturing yourself?"

Disagreeing with this is MaryAn Batchellor on her blog, Fencing With The Fog, who points out that her son is a runner, and he loves running -- it's not torture for him.

I think that the problem here is defining what a marathon is -- and in realizing that screenwriting is a lot more like a marathon than most people want to believe.

I think that Mazin is right, when he says that if you are bored and antsy or tired when writing, you need to ask yourself if there is a problem with your story and that maybe you should question what you are doing. And clearly, if Mazin sees marathon running as something that is torturous, then he shouldn't be a marathon runner. Because marathon running does take work, you need to get out there day after day, and train your body, and its often a lonely, internal life, pushing yourself, trying to keep the discipline.

But I guarantee that marathon runners love what they do. They don't see it as boring or torturous, because if they do, then why do it? Marathon running is certainly a lot less lucrative than screenwriting is.

But screenwriting is a hell of a lot like marathon running. Because it's about putting in the work, and intensively training yourself -- maybe not your body, but your mind. It's about discipline, and pushing yourself, and being willing to do it because you love it. Screenwriting is a lot like marathon writing, because you should only do it if you are called to it -- and if you are called to it, then "marathon running" isn't a negative idea at all.

So I think the metaphor is a very apt one, if you attack it from the right direction.

Unfortunately, too many screenwriters think they are in a sprint. If you go to Wordplayer or other online writing websites, you'll see many variations of the question "I finished my first script, how do I get it to an agent who will sell it for me?"

The honest answer? You don't. Write another script. Because if you've just written one screenplay, you're not even running the marathon yet. You are still training for it. Writing the first script is like finally taking your interval training up a notch; instead of running 5 miles a week, now you're running 10.

Real marathon runners run a lot of miles every week. 25, 50, 75, 100. For years and years.

Learning to write screenplays is a process. Every screenplay you write teaches you something. Every time you rewrite it, and refine it, you learn something else. It's training. It's learning.

And sure, some of the scripts that people write when they are training wind up selling. Some people have natural ability, or a great commercial idea that they execute well enough to sell it. It's nice when it happens. It doesn't happen all that often.

It's even almost sad that that's an option. Because it seems to offer a truncated goal. To bend and torture the marathon metaphor further (because it is a good metaphor), it's like telling a runner that they should train for the marathon, but if they are lucky they'll find a portal five miles in that will take them right to the finish line. So everyone is looking for the portal. Everyone expects a short cut.

The problem with screenwriting is that it's so undefined. If we were doctors, there's a certain amount of study and information that you need to learn; it's taken for granted. If you don't learn it (hell, if you don't want to learn it) then you're not a doctor.

The way marathon running ISN'T like screenwriting, is that it's a lot easier to know if you are good at marathon running or not, because there's a clock. You can't fool yourself into thinking that you are better than you are.

But sometimes screenwriting is sort of like the guy in the desert, who runs around without a watch. Even though sometimes he takes a day off, or knocks off at noon to play golf, he tells himself that he's ready for a marathon, because when he runs he hardly ever breathes hard any more, and never walks.

He doesn't realize that he'd still be coming in about two hours behind the leaders.

If you don't think that screenwriting takes as much work and discipline as being a marathon runner, than you are in the wrong business. If you don't love the work and the discipline, then you are in the wrong business. Craig is right about that.

But he's wrong about the metaphor. It's a good one.


At 9:01 AM, Anonymous Joshua said...

Amen Scott, I'm glad you wrote that - I was feeling the same thing when I read the post but wasn't sure how to articulate it as you did.

At 11:52 AM, Blogger Bill Cunningham said...

Good post.

I think most screenwriter/newbies today have the feeling that they want to be first across the finish line. That's all fine and good but it's much better to be a finisher in a marathon. Then, work harder to place in the lineup. Then work harder than that to be in the gold, silver or bronze categories.

I don't read many people's scripts because - to put it simply - it's too early for them to sell anything. They have to have written at least five scripts for me to consider it, and then you have to go through my whole process (which often sends the less dedicated packing).

Mazin is right, screenwriting should be a joy, but I don't think it should be easy either (and yes, I often lament that it's not easier myself, but then I always go back and find out what's wrong with the story and fix it). The two concepts are not mutually exclusive.

At 12:13 PM, Blogger Scoopy said...

Wonderful post, Scott. Very thoughtful.

I doubt that anyone who really loathes the screenwriting process would stick with it. You either keep plugging away come hell or high water, or you drift away and find something more rewarding.

"Rewarding" is the key word. I practically have to put a gun to my head to sit down for a writing session -- but I always feel rewarded for that initial effort. Same as exercising. Who wants to? But it's the endorphins and sense of accomplishment that enrich the whole process.

Maybe I'm not the best test case, though. I have to put a gun to my head to do anything besides eat candy and websurf. Every day can be a marathon.

At 12:44 PM, Blogger Scott the Reader said...

There's an article in today's L.A. Times about Steven Conrad, who sold his first script, "Wrestling Ernest Hemingway", when he was only 21, and it was made into a movie.

But even now he admits he hadn't hit his stride as a writer then, He wrote a few more scripts, which didn't sell, and then he finally decided to buckle down and get serious about the writing thing.

He finally sold another script, "The Weather Man", which opens this weekend.

He's now 36.

But he has sold several more scripts, that are in the pipeline.

Sometimes it isn't just about getting the quick lucky strike. Sometimes even after the quick strike, you have to go back and finish your screenwriting education.

At 2:24 PM, Blogger Danny Stack said...


I actually ran a marathon back in 1999 with the reasoning that if I could manage the six months' training, then I could discipline myself to become a writer...

At 2:58 PM, Blogger writebrother said...

My philosophy since my days as a young sprinter was that anything over 800m is not a race. Races are supposed to be fun, and for the life of me I will never see the enjoyment in running 26 miles. If screenwriting is not fun for you then like Mazin said, it's probably not or you. Not to say that if the going gets tough, then you shoudl bail out and give up, but even if you do hit a wall or some across soem probelsm with your writing, it should be fun to figure out the solutions. I'm a rookie so what do I know, but that's how I see it.

At 4:24 PM, Blogger Scoopy said...


>>if I could manage the six months' training, then I could discipline myself to become a writer...

Funny -- I do a lot of endurance work (though I too think Marathons are a nutty), and I use the same techniques when I "just can't go on" in a script.

Compartmentalization, diversion, carrots and sticks... those tools really help when you're a lazy perfectionist.

At 4:33 PM, Blogger Warren said...

Well, I think you're both right, because I think maybe you're talking about two different things: the process of writing a script. and the process of building a screenwriting career.

When I read Craig's post, I thought that he was referring only to the day-to-day script writing process. That, as he said, had better not feel like a marathon, or you're in big trouble. It doesn't have to seem easy, but I think we get in trouble with our projects often because we allow them to grow in size and scope. Once, I spent two weeks working on refining the theme of a script. Not a good thing. I know people that have been working on the same script for six month, a year, three years - with no end in sight. There's something to the idea of writing a script fast, three or four months max, and then moving on to the next one. Now, I've never run a marathon, but I have run ten miles, and I've got to say that if writing a script was as pain-inducing as that was, I'd definately be back at my old firm drafting financing agreements right now. If that's what Craig was getting at with the marathon analogy, then I completely agree.

Now there's also the issue of developing a screenwriting career, and there's where the marathon analogy fits perfectly. Everything you said in your post about this is dead on, Scott. Becoming a professional screenwriter is a much longer, more training-intensive, marathon-like process than we all think when we first get off that bus at Hollywood and Highland with stars in our eyes and (horrible) spec scripts under our arms.

So again, I'm thinking that you're both right. Thanks for the great post.

At 9:13 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I heard an interview with Noah Baumbach (SQUID & THE WHALE) where he was talking about the idea of writing as a combination of inspiration and craft.

Quoting Ingmar Bergman, he said that, initially, creating something is great and liberating, like shooting an arrow deep into the forest. The problem is, if you want to create something good, you then have to be willing to go hunting through the forest to see where your damn arrow went.


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