The one thing I learned from playing Monopoly as a kid: unchecked capitalism leads to a lot of bankruptcy.
The TWO things I learned from Monopoly is that unchecked capitalism leads to a lot of bankruptcy and luck plays a huge factor in life.
The THREE things I learned are about unchecked capitalism, luck is a big factor, resiliency is necessary, and …
I’ll start again.
I learned a lot from playing games. Different things from board, roleplaying, and console and digital games. But learned nonetheless. Playing taught me a lot about life. Most of it is even applicable to screenwriting.
As a child, I played many of the games geared for kids and, later in my tween years, got into more adult-oriented board games. Was I good at those then? Not really. Did I win as a kid? Usually not. Playing against my ruthless older brother and our equally ruthless friend led to very few victories outside of the moral kind. Sometimes it wasn’t fun at all. Honestly, it could have turned me off playing games of any sort as I got older.
But a funny thing happened on the way to settling Catan. I learned to love many of the aspects of gaming, and by extension, life.
Losing taught me things like the importance of strategy, the priority of having fun no matter the outcome, and, of course, resilience.
What, you didn’t think children’s games like Connect 4 or Tic Tac Toe were strategic? If you don’t put your checker, X, or O in the right spot, then you have almost no chance of winning. If you’ve never thought about strategy for the adult-oriented games, my guess is that you haven’t won many of them.
Even luck-heavy games like Monopoly or Yahtzee have elements of strategy. Though you can’t control which dice are thrown, you can target which properties you want to buy in Monopoly, or which combinations to aim for in Yahtzee. Nobody has ever won by owning just the utilities or Mediterranean and Baltic. But owning only the Orange properties (St. James, Tennessee, and New York Avenue) could be a winning strategy. You can’t win at Yahtzee without aiming for a diverse set of combinations and knowing some basic probabilities about which dice will be rolled.
Again, winning isn't necessarily important. But strategy is. No matter what you are doing or want to do, having a strategy makes achieving it easier. Want to win a game? Study the board, ask questions about how to improve, look to do things differently.
One of the things I really loved about Queen’s Gambit was that it showed Beth constantly studying games and opponents. She worked with her friends and colleagues, asked questions, thought about alternatives, and pursued more knowledge. She was strategizing, always looking to get better. And she was playing a game. Writer Javier Grillo-Marxuach pointed this exact thing out recently.
If you want to break into screenwriting, you need a strategy. You can’t just write something, throw it in the middle of the street, and expect it to get made. No, you need to figure out what you write, figure out a way to get people to give notes on it, figure out a way to get it into the hands of the makers, and decide who to work with.
There are lots of other steps in the process. The point is, having a strategy about how to get there seems a good step.
Having an overall idea of your style and ultimate goals makes it much easier to achieve them. Do you want to write horror features? Cool, meet some other horror writers. Send some queries to agents who rep other horror writers. Maybe make your own horror film. Want to be a TV comedy writer? Then you shouldn’t spend all your time writing drama features—you’ll probably never get into a comedy room that way.
Can those plans and strategies change along the way? Yes. They probably should. Veteran showrunner Eric Kripke (Supernatural, The Boys) told Sera Gamble (The Magicians, You) that he had started off as a comedy writer. When he was hired to write a horror script, he pivoted, and it transformed his whole life.
Sometimes things change, and having a good strategy lets you change along with it.
Some strategies involve learning every rule and exploiting them for your advantage. That happens regularly in every profession (I’m looking at you, Bill Belichick). Some call it gamesmanship, some call it cheating, some call it plain old knowing the rules. But if you don’t know the rules, you can’t bend them to your advantage.
This is especially true in screenwriting. Not writing a feature in a traditional three-act structure can be a horrible mess if done wrong. Or a glorious, inventive revelation if done well. But if you don’t know why the structure exists in the first place (or other screenwriting “rules”), then you can’t break it in an original way. Screenwriter and script consultant Pilar Alessandra wrote an entire book on the issue.
Having fun is another important aspect of gaming. Obviously, you’ll never love every moment of every game. There are moments of frustration. Losing isn’t usually fun. But you’ll have a much better time playing games if they are fun. If you can find some semblance of fun in losing, even better. I usually just like to make sure everyone has a good time and feels involved, especially if I’m one of the most experienced players. It wouldn’t be fun to me to crush my opponents because they don’t understand the rules, or just haven’t developed a good strategy yet.
The same is true for screenwriting. If you’re not having fun writing your script, it'll show. Your writing will be dull and flat. It will feel like it’s taking ages to get anything down. Yes, writing can be a chore sometimes. There are times when you just don’t feel like writing. Plus, deadlines have a pesky way of creeping up on you unexpectedly, don’t they? But if you don’t like your script, if you’re not having fun with it, if you aren’t excited by it, who else will be?
Have fun with your script. It will be much better for it. If you can’t have fun while writing, perhaps this isn’t the right career choice for you.
Which brings us to resilience. You had to learn to walk as a baby. You had to learn to speak and write. You have to learn any skill you have. They all take time to develop and get better. Games are no different. The first time you play a game you probably won’t do very well. Sure, you might have “beginners luck,” but try repeating that or explaining why you did well. Even Beth in Queen’s Gambit didn’t realize how and why she understood chess. She had to learn. That doesn’t mean you should quit playing that game. The more you play, the better you’ll get. You’ll subtly learn the rules, the strategy (there’s that word again!), and the intricacies. It will usually become more fun, too. Amazing how that works out.
But imagine if you gave up something just because you didn’t do well the first time you tried it. I doubt you’d be walking very well. Or driving anywhere.
The same is true of screenwriting. Not only will you become a better screenwriter with every script you write, you’ll develop resilience along the way. There’s a lot of no’s in the business. You don’t advance in a contest. Agents and managers don’t respond to queries. The studio head passes on your pitch. That’s no reason to give up. All you need is one yes to suddenly “make it” in Hollywood.
Go lose a few games. It’ll be good for you.
*Feature photo by George Becker (Pexels)