What Kind of Writer are You?


As you’re learning to write, it’s important to observe yourself and consider what kind of writer you are. Different writers have different strengths and gravitate toward different types of stories. When I was in film school, it was pretty easy to pick up what kinds of writers the other students were. Roughly, we broke down into two camps. Some of us were much more focused on commercial story-telling, while others were attracted to films that were more artistic.

I can almost hear you saying, what difference does it make? Shouldn’t I just tell the story I want to tell and let other people decided what it is? You can do that. However, filmmaking is a collaborative process and you, as the screenwriter, are at the very beginning and there’s no guarantee you’ll be there at the end. If you want to make it to the end you’re going to need to understand as much as you can about what you’re doing.

Now, there are many other ways to describe what kind of writer someone is but for the purposes of this article we’re going to focus on commercial and artistic screenplays.


You can’t get too much more commercial than The Avengers series. Photo courtesy Marvel.


If you’re someone who loves big summer movies then you might also be a commercial writer. If this is your inclination you should definitely study big budget films and try to figure out what makes them work and look at the types of stories that are being told. And, of course, you should try writing one and see what you get. There are some pitfalls to avoid though…

Commercial films can often be a bit bland, as though they’ve had all their sharp corners shaved off, they can be predictable, and often un-challenging. I can assure you that in most cases the script did not start out that way. As I said earlier, it’s a collaborative process and usually, it’s the producers, the directors, the studios and the actors who manage to kick the life out of a story. So, you shouldn’t do it for them.

When you write a commercial film on spec, you want to use everything you’ve learned about commercial film structure and try to bring as much freshness to the project as possible. Notice I didn’t use the word original. Film history is too long, so it’s not really possible to be original. You can be fresh, though. You can put things together in a way that hasn’t been done for a long while.

Of course, very few commercial spec scripts get made. Most commercial films are built on a well-known underlying project so there’s a built-in audience: Comic books, bestsellers, remakes. Most of the opportunities in commercial film writing are adaptations.

And, if you read the trades, you’ll notice that adaptations often go to writers (and directors) who are the opposite of commercial. Someone makes a splash in the indie world one year and the next they’re directing a big superhero franchise. Studios are still hoping for a commercial film, they’re just hoping to expand their audience by choosing someone to add a tiny bit of the artistic.


Artistic movies are often vehicles for actors to win awards. Emma Stone strives for approval in The Favourite. Photo courtesy Fox Searchlight Pictures.


If your favorite time of year for filmgoing begins in the fall and ends during the holidays then you may be an artistic writer. If you feel like this is your inclination you should do exactly what I recommend for commercial writers and study the artistic films you like and analyze how they work and look closely at what types of films are being made. And then, write a couple.

One of the first things to recognize about artistic films is that they are meant to make money. They’re just meant to do it on a smaller scale. The idea is not to write a film that no one will come to see, the idea is to write a film that can make money with a much smaller audience. So what does that mean?

It can mean that you keep production costs down by limiting the number of sets and amount of CGI necessary. More importantly, though, you keep production costs down by writing characters actors want to play. Those big, famous actors who play all the superheroes want to do artistic things and they will accept much less money if the part is well written and appealing to them. So, it’s your job to attract them.

Another thing to keep in mind about artistic films is that they are more likely to get made from a spec script. The audience demands are lower so they don’t need the built-in name recognition. You may have already picked this up, but one of the routes to commercial film writing is through artistic writing.


It’s very likely that you’ve been reading this thinking, I’m kind of a commercial writer and sort of an artistic writer. That’s not a surprise. Very few of us fit neatly into categories.

One of the things writers should always do is follow their gut… but very often our guts lead us to places that are not profitable. What I tell screenwriters when I’m giving them notes is, you need to look for the intersection between what’s in your gut and what’s saleable.

As you’re studying screenwriting, as you’re learning to write, try to understand the kind of writer you are and keep that firmly in mind. That’s your product. That’s what you’re selling.



Marshall Thornton has an MFA from UCLA in screenwriting. He spent ten years writing spec scripts and has been a semi-finalist or better in the Nicholl, Samuel Goldwyn, American Accolades, One-In-Ten and Austin Film Festival contests. As a novelist, he writes the Lambda Award-winning Boystown Mysteries. The eight book series follows the cases of a gay detective in turbulent 1980s Chicago. Marshall has also been known to write the occasional romantic comedy. You can find him online at marshallthorntonauthor.com. You can follow him on Twitter: @mrshllthornton

12 Replies to "What Kind of Writer are You?"

  • comment-avatar
    E.C. Henry January 10, 2019 (12:41 pm)

    Nice article, Marshall Thornton. I enjoyed it.

    I am (mostly) an artistic writer.

    – E. C. Henry from Bonney Lake, WA

  • comment-avatar
    Ginny Monroe January 10, 2019 (1:19 pm)

    Hi Marshall Thornton,
    Thanks for this interesting article. Based on your article, I am an ARTISTIC Writer.
    Ginny Monroe
    #Masterplayer #Seamaster

  • comment-avatar
    Michael smith January 10, 2019 (4:54 pm)

    I like writing stories that involve anything beyond normal like science fiction, fantasy, supernatural stuff. I have taught myself how to write screenplays which I like to do the most. I have finished four screenplays and have five more unfinished. I like reading other writers screenplays to compare what people learn and how they write.

    • comment-avatar
      Marshall Thornton January 19, 2019 (5:57 am)

      I always tell people to write the movie you’d like to see. A screenplay isn’t finished until it’s a movie, so if you’re working on something you don’t like it can be very painful. Reading screenplays is a great idea.

  • comment-avatar
    Shirley Hassen January 10, 2019 (5:55 pm)

    Hello Marshal,
    Reading the above motivates me to tell you of my writing works, books/scripts which three of my books are scripted. I have several scripts with writing partners. It was in 196? I started a book/script titled, SIX THOUSAND YEARS B.C to NINETEEN FIFTY SIX B.C . In 2018 my 50yrs old son came across my work and having read several pages, excited, told me, “Mum! This is the one!” So I worked on both book/script finalising them. Would you be interested in reading some of my pages? My story is about the lives of four cave dweller children, their trials with dinosaurs, loss of parents and their lives growing up on their own etc. Shirley (Fiction)

    • comment-avatar
      Marshall Thornton January 19, 2019 (5:55 am)

      Thanks. Generally, other writers can’t help you with much other than learning how to write. 🙂

  • comment-avatar
    Phil Addison January 11, 2019 (1:35 am)

    It’s an interesting question but of course the two blend together more often that we’d think. I just saw Into the Spider-Verse recently (pretty late to the party) and on the surface it’s the most commercial movie out there. It’s a PG animated comic book/superhero movie with broad appeal but the love put into the animation, story and music clearly show off its artistic merits. One of my favorite writers is Quentin Tarantino. You could argue he’s a commercial filmmaker though still pretty niche. He’s made the jump from low budget intimate movies like Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction to bigger films like Kill Bill and Django Unchained. His portrayal of violence is controversial for some but I think you can’t argue against the artistic nature of his work since most of his movies get award considerations and I think he gets more commercial (in name) with every film. So I think any writer can have it both ways.

    • comment-avatar
      Marshall Thornton January 19, 2019 (5:55 am)

      True. It’s something of a tightrope though. You have to be very aware of your “brand” as well as other writers “brands” since Hollywood is the kind of place where they only allow one Tarantino.

  • comment-avatar
    Kimberly Compton January 13, 2019 (1:32 am)

    Please unsubscribe me from your email list. Thank you

    • comment-avatar
      Marshall Thornton January 19, 2019 (5:53 am)

      There should be a link at the bottom of the email you received that will help you do that.

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