The Biggest Tragedy Of All

By Corey Mandell • February 8, 2021

Why are some writers able to achieve careers while most aren’t?

After three decades of research into what separates those who are able to achieve creative success from those who aren’t, Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck believes the answer is rooted in a person’s mind set.

According to Dweck, those who believe they were born with all the talent they’re ever going to have approach life with a “fixed-mind set.” Those who believe their abilities can expand over time have a “growth-mind set.”

And it’s the people with a growth-mind set who go on to success.

“Society is obsessed with the idea of talent and genius and people who are ‘naturals’ with innate ability,” says Dweck, who is known for research crossing the boundaries of personal, social and developmental psychology.  “People who believe in the power of talent tend not to fulfill their potential because they’re so concerned with looking smart and not making mistakes. But people who believe that talent can be developed are the ones who really push, stretch, confront their own mistakes and learn from them.”

The fundamental weakness with the conventional approach to teaching screenwriting is that it is generally rooted in this fixed-mind set, focusing on product.   Students bring in their work and are told what’s working and what isn’t and given suggestions.  But if a writer doesn’t yet possess the required skills, this is an exercise in futility.  These writers won’t be able to go home and write at a professional level, and no amount of class notes or suggestions will change this.  These writers are being set up to fail.

I recently did a script coaching for someone I’ll call Joe.  Joe moved his family from the East Coast to L.A. to become a professional screenwriter.  He had written 11 scripts in eight years with no success.  He wrote his 12th script and hired me to give him feedback.  I found it to have an interesting premise and some good character work, but it didn’t contain professional-level conflict and so had no real chance to succeed.

I asked Joe if I could take a quick glance at his other scripts and he sent them to me.  They all suffered from the same problem.

Which means Joe had been basically wasting his time.  None of his scripts had the professional level of conflict required to engage readers and make them want to keep reading.  None of his scripts had a shot at success.

I told Joe this.  He stared at me, wanting to know what the hell professional-level conflict is.  I explained it to him. He stared at me again, wanting to know why no one else had ever told him this.  He was pissed-off that this was the first time in eight years anyone had told him he didn’t write in professional-level conflict and therefore had no real shot.  Especially since he has an MFA in screenwriting.

That’s the real tragedy.

Most screenwriting classes do a terrible job of training students to write to their full potential.  I know this isn’t exactly a popular position to take, but it is the truth.

I graduated with an MFA from UCLA film school without having one single instructor explain how to write in compelling cinematic conflict.  I was lucky, I naturally write in strong conflict.  Some people write this way without having to learn it, but most do not, and unless they are taught how to do it, they won’t make it.

A student of mine was accepted into the AFI graduate screenwriting program and texted me the following: “Just got done sitting in on a class.  Very nice teacher.  But he just analyzed an entire first act of someone’s work without ever once mentioning that it had almost no conflict.  I wanted to hang myself.”

Writers who aren’t trained how to write at a professional level go on to write script after script with no success.  When they finally throw in the towel and quit, they do so with the conclusion that they just didn’t have enough talent when the truth is they never learned and developed the essential skill sets.

If they had, who knows what they could have achieved?

And every time a writer unnecessarily quits, we are all deprived of the amazing, powerful, original stories that only he or she could tell.  How many American Beautys, Hurt Lockers and Pulp Fictions are we not getting to experience because of this?

That is the greatest tragedy of all.

Corey Mandell

Corey Mandell is an award-winning playwright and screenwriter who has written projects for Ridley Scott, Wolfgang Petersen, Harrison Ford, John Travolta, Meg Ryan, Warner Brothers, Universal, 20th Century Fox, Fox 2000, Fox Family, Working Title, Paramount, Live Planet, Beacon Films, Touchstone, Trilogy, Radiant, Kopelson Entertainment and Walt Disney Pictures.  Corey is a distinguished instructor at UCLA, where he earned his MFA. He is also a mentor for Film Independent's Screenwriting Lab.  His students have gone on to sell or option scripts to...