From Author to Screenwriter: Six Unwritten Rules to Land Your First Deal

By Scott Kirkpatrick
Ever flirted with the idea of adapting one of your literary projects as a movie script? Maybe you’ve even taken a crack at screenwriting and aren’t quite sure what the next steps are to get your work seen by Hollywood decision makers. 

I can help you pivot from published author to paid screenwriter. But before we dive in, you should know that I’m neither a screenwriter nor a novelist. I’m a film and TV distribution executive that produces and then sells romance-themed TV movies to networks and streaming platforms (around the world). I’m a business guy. 

Although I’m not your best resource for story arcs or plot twists, I can offer you some pragmatic advice about starting, building and growing your career as a working screenwriter (because I’m one of the guys that actively hires them). 

Good News, Hollywood Loves Authors!

Entering the Hollywood game as a published author gives you a huge career advantage. Even though executives in the film/TV world receive countless spec scripts, we’re much more inclined to consider a script by a published and/or self-published novelist rather than an unknown. (The fact that a third party has already vetted your work gives us more trust in your command of story.) Also, in some aspects screenwriting is much easier than writing a novel: fewer pages, simpler format and far fewer words. Many author/screenwriters I know can knock out two separate film projects (including all associated script revisions, drafts and ‘polishes’) within the same time allotment that it’d take them to complete one average sized romance novel. So, hiring a writer with literary experience feels like a safer bet. 

But to make this pivot, your challenge isn’t the time commitment or the new format; it’s understanding the paradigm shift required to successfully move from novelist to screenwriter.

The Six Unwritten Rules

There are six unwritten rules you need to understand to showcase that your script (and your writing ability) are better than the competition. Unfortunately, these unwritten barriers to entry are rarely discussed. 

Everything I’m writing here I’ve witnessed from my own personal experience in selecting one screenwriter over another for a paid writing job. These are the insights you won’t find in screenwriting books or taught in most writing courses (because these are the things you only learn after you’ve been through the grinder a few times). 

Rule #1 – Write for a Producer (Not a Romance Fan) 

A screenplay is not a novel; it’s a blueprint for a production team. 

When writing a novel, you’re writing for the romance-loving reader (the end-user who actually purchased your book in exchange for being swept up in an emotional story). A script on the other hand is the polar opposite; it’s a rigid document designed to be skimmed by multiple production parties so they can quickly break it down into parts (locations, wardrobe, props and casting).

This in no way suggests that plot and/or emotional arcs aren’t important to producers; these elements are critical! However, producers simply assume—rightfully so—that as a professional screenwriter you’re able to construct a great story for the film format, all while weaving in fun dialogue, hitting the right genres while keeping your scene and character choices ‘production friendly’ (keep reading to find out how).

Rule #2 – Write with the Budget in Mind 

Many screenwriting books, blogs and university courses will tell you that you should never write thinking about a film’s budget. They’ll encourage you to ‘write from your heart’ and emphasize that it’s the studio or executive’s job to find the money to bring your script to life. Don’t listen to this; the budget is critical and you need to be mindful of expenses with every word. 

When writing a novel, there are no constraints regarding locations or scenarios. Words on paper don’t cost money in novel format. But in a screenplay, every word costs actual out of pocket cash to bring it to life on set. A seemingly simple dialogue scene while driving in a car feels common place in a novel (and in real life), but in a movie the cost of filming such a scene is steep—not to mention scenes with cars take additional time to stage that consequently yields fewer filmed pages on a given production day. And kid characters? Be careful… Kids in a romance novel are cute add-ons (especially twins). But to cast kid actors, not only must you find a talented performer, but producers are legally required to provide schooling for those young talents on set and rules/regulations have strict working schedules [rightfully] limiting the amount of time kids can work. 

Don’t take this to mean you should cram your entire film in a single interior location; movies do need visual variety (and producers are happy to budget accordingly), but write with a filter of reasonable budget in mind. 

Simple tricks: 

  • Avoid dialogue scenes in moving cars 
  • Avoid sunsets/sunrises (very tough to schedule); just make things either day or night
  • Heavily limit kids; one 8-10 year old character is perfectly fine (in limited scenes), but avoid multiple speaking-role child characters 
  • Beaches are hard (sand sucks with equipment!), so keep the romantic walk/talks on a boardwalk or nearby field (not walking through waves). 

Rule #3 -- Limit your Characters 

Similar to our above ‘budget’ rule, every character you write requires an actor to be cast (and paid at a ‘speaking role’ day rate). In a novel, casual banter with a bar-tender, Uber-driver or other one-off interaction is normal (and can be utilized to progress the story). But if these interactions are in a script, that small chit-chat moment requires a day rate for these bit parts (rather than a lower cost ‘extra’ pay scale) not to mention a different microphone configuration. There’s a financial incentive to keep the speaking roles to a minimum (and focused solely on dialogue that progresses the story forward); learn that and incorporate it into your script. 

By no means does this imply you cannot have small bit parts, but just avoid the one-to-two liner character interactions. And try to ensure that you’re really focusing on critical roles required for your story to flow (e.g., characters that have a meaningful impact on the protagonist’s journey). And as you work through your revisions, try to be objective and consider that perhaps two separate supporting roles might possibly serve your story just as well if they were blended into one single character. 

Rule #4 – Number of Pages (not Number of Words) 

With novels, writers and editors talk ‘word count’. But with screenplays, it’s all about ‘number of pages.’ That’s because one script page generally equals about one minute of screentime. A romantic screenplay should be more than 88 pages but less than 99 pages. That’s because a romantic film—with all beginning and end credits included—needs to run for a minimum of 86 minutes but shouldn’t exceed 100 minutes. Therefore 89-98 is just right. There’s enough content to fill a film, allow for a scene or two to be trimmed (without losing running time) and doesn’t feel like too much of a burden to read (something about that three-digit ‘100’ just makes producers want to skip it which stunts your opportunities before you’ve even started. 

Rule #5 – Be Mindful of your Locations 

Locations refers to where a particular scene is being shot. Are we inside, or are we outside? Is it daytime or night? Is the environment calm and quiet or very busy and urban? Movies are visual, so your choice as a screenwriter regarding where to set certain scenes (and in what visual order) is important. 

Although producers want interesting visual locations, screenwriters need to be mindful of our aforementioned unwritten rules: specifically those related to ‘budget’ and ‘limiting speaking characters’. 

To give you an example of film production logistics in action, we just wrapped a romance film where the interiors were shot in Boston, MA but the exteriors were shot in Santa Clarita, CA (just north of Los Angeles). Can you imagine that it made more financial sense to fly cast and crew from the East coast to the West coast due to locations expenses? These are the kinds of things producers are noodling through as they read scripts (and you must remember that as a screenwriter, you’re now writing for the producer and not just the audience). 

The way to balance this is to keep your exteriors simple. Avoid crowds and/or crowded places. A city street is fine, but have it take place right outside the building or location of interest (e.g., the doorway of a business or apartment building of the on-screen talent). Calm and quiet exteriors are great (tranquil environments that feel relaxing also work for film crews). Can you see how these calm and targeted locations are far more production friendly than crowded stadiums, amusement parks, street festivals? Producers cringe when they see complicated locations—and you don’t want them cringing when reading your script!

Rule #6 – Be Consistent with Scene Headers 

Incorrectly formatting your scene headers might not seem like a big deal, but it is a giveaway of a novice. Add in a typo or two and you might as well not even write the script! 

The scene header refers to the “INT./EXT. – LOCATION NAME – DAY/NIGHT” text at the start of every scene. Be consistent with your location names. For example, “Jill’s Office” should always be called “Jill’s Office”; it cannot be “Jill’s Office” for some pages and “Office Building” for other pages (depending on how you felt when writing). That’s because the script is a blueprint that several crew departments use to organize the production; consistent scene headers allow more clear organization. On that same token, never assume readers will simply know’ that Jill’s Office is an interior; write it clearly whether this scene is an interior or an exterior. And just to add to that point, never use words like ‘later’ or ‘continuous’ (even if Jill is in her office and we dissolve to Jill still at her desk hours later); write out the full scene header each and every time. Added to this, always write every scene header with a clear ‘day’ or ‘night’ because this has a major impact on lighting equipment (recall that above I mentioned to avoid sunrise and sunset). Crews can fake the soft orange hues of sunrise and sunset but they need to know that the sun is present; a simple ‘day’ or ‘night’ is all you need. 

Be clear and consistent with your scene headers and producers will know you’re a writer who ‘gets it’ (which is what puts your script above the competition).

Genres to Focus On 

Here are three specific romance genres that tend to gain more interest from distributors, networks and production companies: 

  • Christmas Romances; 
  • Royal Romances – especially when it’s a commoner girl who discovers her love interest is a prince travelling incognito; and 
  • Tween Girl Romances – family safe and ‘first love’ kind of films; add in a splash of ‘magic’ and then you’ve really got something fun. 

What About Valentine’s Day? 

No. Avoid Valentine’s Day. Contrary to the obvious ‘love’ connection the holiday provides, February is a dull month for advertising and the way to balance this is to keep your exteriors simple. Avoid crowds and/or crowded places. A city street is fine, but have it take place right outside the building or location of interest (e.g., therefore holds limited interest for distributors.

If you’re going to pick a Holiday aim for Christmas; the Christmas season provides 8-10 weeks of programming slots for a variety of platforms and broadcasters. With 172 Christmas themed films produced in North America in 2022, this season is ripe for screenwriting opportunities. 

Final Comments

  • You will need screenwriting software (Final Draft is the most commonly used). Although you’ll submit your scripts as .pdf files for review, production teams will always require a .fdx file format from a screenwriting software to schedule, revise and share amongst a variety of team members. 
  • Save the Cat! by the late Blake Snyder is the best common sense screenwriting book regarding structure, pacing and mechanics. You can skip most of the others. And you certainly don’t need to spend any cash on advanced writing courses. Also, this books is so popular you can likely get it from your public library for free (even if abroad). 
  • The hardest hurdle comes after you’ve written your screenplay. Just as there are rules for writing in a way that showcases you ‘get it’, there are unwritten rules about reaching out to media professionals. But don’t think you need an agent or manager for this process; you and you alone can initiate that process (but that’s an article for another day).

Now go get writing!