Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Why Learning Screenwriting Takes 10,000 Hours

In his latest book Outliers Malcolm Gladwell debunks the myth that very successful people are merely more talented than the rest of humanity. He shows that in all walks of life, from sports to science, technology and the arts, success is the result of a combination of fortuitous circumstances which enable some talented, hard-working people to make it. Other equally gifted and diligent people don’t succeed, for reasons other than their level of innate talent.

The popular rags to riches narrative holds that successful people are different because they work their way up from nothing by sheer determination and by dint of their inherent and superior talents. They don’t have to work as hard as others because they have a dispositional advantage, so goes the erroneous reasoning.

Malcolm gives numerous examples, and here's one I would add: Miles Davis. Someone once told Miles Davis he had it easy because jazz music was “in his blood.” The suggestion being that because he was black, he didn’t have to practise as much as a white musician would. Davis responded by explaining that he’d studied for years at the Julliard School of Music, while simultaneously playing nights in New York’s jazz clubs. Not to mention the years of practice it took him to reach the level required to even get into the prestigious music college in the first place.

But as Gladwell shows, it’s not merely raw talent and perseverance that sets successful people apart from their less successful but equally brilliant and determined peers. It’s a set of serendipitous circumstances, often combined with a supportive and stimulating home environment.

In the case of Miles Davis: His father bought him a trumpet at age 13 and found him a good teacher. Then Miles happened to get a lucky break. For a couple of weeks he substituted for the third trumpeter in the Billy Eckstine Band who were playing his home town of St. Louis. That’s where he met and was inspired by the likes of Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. After which his parents encouraged him to continue studying music.

So talent, yes. Lucky breaks, yes. Supportive environment, yes. But what’s perhaps most interesting for aspiring screenwriters, is that all the successful people Gladwell examines, started out by working, studying or practising the magical number of 10,000 hours in order to master their m├ętier. According to Gladwell, this is the norm in whatever field of expertise you look at, from rocket science to rock music.

It might take you seven years (think what 1,428 hours a year of screenwriting really means), it could take longer or shorter, but the number of hours is a constant.

The notion that screenwriting is a profession that can somehow be more easily learned than others, e.g., simply by watching lots of movies, is a nonsense. As is the idea that there are some people who, out of nowhere, just “know” how to write great screenplays. Take a look at any sample of successful screenwriters. They all spent years learning to write, whether in TV, the theatre, as novelists, at film school, and so on.

In fact, after reading Outliers, I think the standard answer to anyone who asks how long it takes to become a good screenwriter should be: At least 10,000 hours of writing.

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