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How To Make A Living As A Storyteller



I hear it all the time.


“I’ve got a really great story idea for a film. I’m excited to write it. But everyone says it’s nearly impossible to get my script seen, never mind sold. Should I bother?”


Ah yes, the mother of all existential questions for a writer. What if it doesn't go anywhere? Or put another way (and at the risk of butchering a popular Zen koan), “If a script is written in the forest and nobody reads it, what's the point?”  


Those of us who breathe, eat, walk, and dream in terms of story couldn't stop if we tried. It's what we do, it's who we are, and we're going to keep doing it whether or not we ever win an Oscar or Pullitzer. But we've got to eat, too. And it's a special kind of torture to hear people suggest we cannot write and make a living at the same time.

 

So we're always in search of the Sweet Spot. That perfectly-balanced position atop the proverbial tightrope, tied at one end to making dreams come true and to making a living at the other. That place where art and commerce meet, kiss, and make out, ideally for a very long (and very prolific) time.


Too often, though, and not without some evidence, the impression is given by well-intentioned family members, friends, teachers and even other writers that trying to become a successful (i.e. money-making) creative writer is akin to the maddening fate of Sisyphus, endlessly pushing a boulder uphill only to watch it roll back down and start all over again. You'll still need a regular job, they say, and they may not be wrong. But you worry that a job will suffocate and threaten to kill your whole creative life. Sound a bit dramatic? Not when all you want to do is tell stories and you see people all around you making a living doing it. (Okay, maybe it was little dramatic. I am a writer, after all.)


Let me cut right to the chase: despite what everyone thinks, and I'm speaking from experience here, making a living as a creative writer doesn't have to be hard at all. If.


You know there had to be an "if". Ready for it?


Making a living as a creative writer doesn't have to be hard if you are willing to write what you never expected to. What do I mean by that?


A lot of writers and content creators I work with at WriterJump, many of whom have gone on to be successful, award-winning, revenue-generating professionals, start with one goal: they wanted to be screenwriters. Some of them also wanted to be directors, actors, or producers. But the majority of them understood that, to be have long-term success in film and television, they needed to be prepared to write their own material. They were absolutely correct, and to be commended for their wisdom.


However, they and other aspiring screenwriters I talk to every day often express their deep frustration at not finding paid work. They're creative as hell, they have great story ideas, they're even easy to work with, but they can't get a script picked up to save their life, and they're ready to throw in the towel wondering what ever made them decide to be a screenwriter in the first place.


Here's what I tell them, based on a lot of observation and even more first-hand experience: that wall they're staring at isn't there because they chose to write screenplays; it's there because they chose to only write screenplays.


Screenwriting accounts for a relatively small portion of paid writing gigs, and it's not the easy portion. If you’re serious about writing, serious about storytelling, serious about inspiring and entertaining and empowering people with messages of hope, get good at more than one way of telling stories.


There are literally dozens of ways to make a living as a storyteller today. If you’re willing to look, if you're willing to stretch beyond your comfort zone and take a shot at a form of writing you haven't explored yet, there is a great big world of opportunity you are almost certainly unaware of. And it is definitely not playing at a theatre near you.


There's podcasting, web series development, comics, novels, non-fiction, songwriting, social media narrative messaging, corporate storytelling, and marketing. Just to name a few.


Here are just some of the exciting possibilities waiting for storytellers willing to take a chance on themselves and dig in:


  • Screenwriter – Film

  • Screenwriter - Documentary

  • Screenwriter – Television

  • Screenwriter – Web Series

  • Writer – Podcast

  • Author – Fiction

  • Author – Non-Fiction

  • Songwriter

  • Producer – Film / Documentary

  • Producer – Podcast

  • Producer – Web series

  • Director – Film / Documentary

  • Director – Podcast

  • Director – Web series 

  • Editor – Podcast

  • Editor – Film / Documentary

  • Editor – Podcast

  • Editor - Web series

  • Host – Podcast

  • Host – Web Series

  • Host – Livestream

  • Copywriter

  • Blogger

  • Vlogger

  • Social media influencer

  • Social media marketer 


Some are paid positions, some are niches you can create for yourself and maybe even build a business around. That's what I did.


And just in case you missed it, what do all of the positions above have in common? They are all - first, last and always - storytellers. I've done all of these, sometimes consecutively, sometimes simultaneously, and made a decent living in the process. Best part was, I was doing what I loved: telling stories.


I train storytellers, regardless of which particular format they choose. Because story is story, regardless of the format. Film, TV, podcast, fiction writing, comics, videos that make me cry like a baby in public while scrolling TikTok - it doesn't matter. It's all variations of story, boiling down to how skillfully they can weave a narrative that hooks, moves, and motivates people. Only the end product is different.


Good stories grab us by the heart. They explore themes that connect with audiences by plugging them into characters who climb emotional mountains and cross existential oceans to get what they want, only to discover what really matters. And if executed right, that can be done just as effectively through a podcast about Pokémon, sex, or skydiving as through a blockbuster in a cinema. It's really up to you. What are you interested in?

The point is, as a writer, you are not limited to just one type of creative writing. In fact, the more formats and venues you're open to experimenting with, the more likely you'll be able to do that thing we started talking about in the first place: making a living as a creative writer.


For all you know, there could be an opportunity waiting for you (or waiting to be created by you) literally around the next corner. Everyone's got a different story. I went to film school to become a filmmaker, period. My first (well-paid) job out of the gate was a twelve-part graphic novel series. Did not see that coming. Next job was a television pilot (also paid), then a super-fun marketing gig (paid again), and after that, designing curriculum for post-secondary writing programs (very well paid).


Eventually, I started my own business helping other writers. I predicted exactly NONE of that when I decided twelve years ago to get serious about a passion I'd had since I was five: to tell stories for a living. Every day, I work with storytellers who are learning how to do what they love in more ways than one, build their business around it, and make a living doing it.


If you want to learn how to do that, too, let me know: paul@writerjump.com


P.S. If you are an aspiring screenwriter, there is certainly good news: there are more platforms for cinematic storytelling than ever before. Streaming services like Netflix, Prime, Lifetime, and Hallmark, as well as festivals and competitions looking for new submissions everyday. Caveat: there are also more writers trying to be seen and become known, so distinguishing yourself and your writing from the herd is critical.


Best of luck on your writer's journey!

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