More On “The Ten-Year Rule” in Creativity
So after 20 years in the screen industries (I’m a million-selling transmedia writer: movies, games, books, etc) I did a PhD on creativity in movies. How it works, and why so many do it wrong, or the hard way.
The PhD is a free PDF online – and you should read it, if you’re a screenwriter. It will solve a lot of your problems. (See my article in The Journal of Genius and Eminence on how: all creativity is just problem-solving.)
So, creativity expert Csikszentmihalyi (rightly) says, it takes roughly ten years to internalize the domain and then produce something creative.
There is also evidence for this, in Jack Foster’s book How To Get Ideas (1996)
`In attempting to make a lightbulb [Edison] tried over a thousand ideas before he hit the one that worked.
Ray Bradbury wrote at least one short story a week for ten years before he wrote one that made the hair on the his neck stand up.
Kepler spent nine years and filled 9,000 folio sheets with calculations in his small handwriting trying to work out the orbit of Mars before he concluded that the paths of the planets were not circular but elliptical.’
And Malcolm Gladwell also supports this view (though, he calls it `the 10,000 hour rule’ – which amounts to about 10 years) in “Outliers”. (Gladwell 2008)
What this means is: it takes about 10 years to acquire enough habitus (“a feel for the game” in Bourdieu’s terms) to be Creative. (That is, to produce a work that will be judged “creative” by the field, i.e. the audience, critics, the film industry…)
“Creative” means “new and useful” or “novel and appropriate.”
Or “new and useful and surprising”!
Kaufman, Scott Barry, and James C. Kaufman. “Ten Years to Expertise, Many More to Greatness: An Investigation of Modern Writers.” Journal of Creative Behaviour 41, no. 2 (2007): 114-24.
So back to the crux of this post:
After 10 years of learning and practice, what screenwriter wants to risk having their film story fail ? 
(Which is also why – you should probably read my PhD. It has lots of shortcuts to movie creativity in it.)
This “10-year rule” is also totally borne out by evidence, from the field of screenwriting. In Chapter 23 of The 101 Habits of Highly Successful Screenwriters (Iglesias 2001), six successful screenwriters also totally verify this finding:
`Jim Kouf [writer of the films Rush Hour, Gang Related, Operation Dumbo Drop, Disorganized Crime, Stakeout, Miracles, The Hidden, Secret Admirer, American Dreamer, Class, Up The Creek]: I wrote 11 TV specs before I got someone to take me seriously and then it took 6 feature scripts before I wrote one that was good enough.
Michael Schiffer [writer of the films The Four Feathers, The Peacemaker, Crimson Tide, Lean On Me, Colors]: Developing craft is a very slow process. If you were playing the violin, you wouldn’t expect to pick it up and then go to Carnegie Hall within 6 months. And yet people expect their first or second script to sell and become a hit movie. It’s a bit delusional. Sure, there may be instances of this happening, but I think generally it’s a craft that takes 5 to 20 years to develop.
Tom Schulman [writer of Holy Man, Eight Heads In A Duffel Bag, Medicine Man, What About Bob? Dead Poets Society, Honey I Shrunk The Kids, Second Sight]: We all hear stories of overnight successes. But almost every one of those successes will tell you that it was an overnight success that took 10 to 20 years. This is by far the rule.
Scott Rosenberg [writer of Con Air, High Fidelity, Gone In 60 Seconds]: I wrote ten scripts before I got my first agent, wrote another two before my first sale and another three before anything got made… I look back at those ten scripts and they suck… And these kids, with their lottery mentality think they just wrote The Terminator, and it’s ridiculous.
Nicholas Kazan [writer of Enough, Bicentennial Man, Fallen, Matilda, Dream Lover, Reversal of Fortune, At Close Range, Patty Hearst, Frances]: The trick is knowing which category you fall into. Are you someone who’ll make it eventually? Or are you someone who’ll work at it for 20 years and never make it?
Frank Darabont [A Nightmare on Elm Street 3, The Blob, The Fly 2, The Shawshank Redemption, Frankenstein, The Walking Dead]: There are potentially more talented writers and directors than I, working in shoe stores and Burger Kings across the nation. The difference is I was willing to put in the nine years of effort and they weren’t.
Likewise, Stephen King, who has had over 50 films or television adaptations made (from his novels and short stories), makes a statement in On Writing (King 2000) about absorbing the Domain (which is part of: a writer, acquiring habitus, or `a feel for the game’):
`If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.’
Actually – if you are an aspiring (or even – practising) novelist – and want to save yourself about 10 years time, I strongly suggest you try this excellent book:
And check this great TED talk out!
STORY GENIUS: HOW TO USE BRAIN SCIENCE TO GO BEYOND OUTLINING AND WRITE A RIVETING NOVEL (BEFORE YOU WASTE THREE YEARS WRITING 327 PAGES THAT GO NOWHERE)
So – anyway – to return to Csikszentmihalyi (1996) on creativity:
`A person who wants to make a creative contribution not only must work within a creative system but must also reproduce that system within his or her mind. In other words, the person must learn the rules and content of the domain as well as the criteria of selection, the preferences of the field.
In science, it is practically impossible to make a creative contribution without internalizing the fundamental knowledge of the domain…
The same conclusions are voiced in every other discipline. Artists agree that a painter cannot make a creative contribution without looking, and looking, and looking at previous art, and without knowing what other artists and critics consider good and bad art.
Writers say that you have to read, read, and read some more, and know what the critics’ criteria for good writing are, before you can write creatively yourself.’
(So – there you have it: Get cracking – and absorb that Domain! Read lots of screenplays and write ten of them!)
Simonton makes a similar point, in his (excellent) book, Great Flicks: Scientific Studies of Cinematic Creativity and Aesthetics (2011):
`Was Orson Welles an unadulterated genius whose Citizen Kane could spring from his brain like Minerva from the head of Zeus?
I don’t think so. To begin with he had acquired relevant experience in the theatre and in radio that he could carry over to his first feature.
In addition, he had the fortune of working with some very talented and more experienced collaborators – most notably the writer Herman J Mankiewicz and the cinematographer Gregg Toland, both of whom had been active for over a dozen years.’
Simonton also talks about the ten-year rule in creativity, in that 2011 book (i.e., Great Flicks). I highly commend both the book and taking 10 years to learn a creative domain.
On other words, the ten-year rule is verified by considerable evidence from the field.
Screenwriting is a recondite (deep – and complex!) domain.
See also, this great post: The Ultimate Guide To Screenwriting Mistakes!
And try not to make any of those mistakes in your spec screenplay! Or – in any screenplay, probably?
See also my post where I analyze The BlackList Survey – Titles and Loglines (2005-2017)! (It is mostly a satire – but ironically, has a lot of truth in it!)
There is at least around 10 years’ worth of material (ie – movies, films, information, processes) to absorb, in the domain of filmovies (and also, TV) screenwriting. (TV is actually, a whole other creative domain.)
So the key is to keep writing screenplays, and/or keep making movies.
Hey – but: How do you keep making movies if your first (or subsequent) movie loses money-?
Or both. Or neither.
…Thoughts? Comments? Feedback?
High-RoI Story/Screenplay/Movie and Transmedia Researcher
The above is (mostly) an adapted excerpt, from my doctoral thesis: “Communication, Creativity and Consilience in Cinema”. It is presented here for the benefit of fellow screenwriting, filmmaking and creativity researchers. For more, see https://aftrs.academia.edu/JTVelikovsky
JT Velikovsky is also a produced feature film screenwriter and million-selling transmedia writer-director-producer. He has been a professional story analyst for major film studios, film funding organizations, and for the national writer’s guild. For more see: http://on-writering.blogspot.com/
Cron, L. (2012). Wired For Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence (1st ed.). New York: Ten Speed Press.
Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly (1996), Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention (1st edn.; New York: HarperCollins) viii, 456 p.
Foster, J (1996), How To Get Ideas, 1st edn, Berrett-Koehler, San Francisco.
Gladwell, Malcolm (2008), Outliers: The Story of Success (1st edn.; New York: Little, Brown and Co.) 309 p.
Iglesias, Karl (2001), The 101 Habits of Highly Successful Screenwriters: Insider Secrets from Hollywood’s Top Writers (Avon, Mass.: Adams Media) xxiv, 232 p.
King, Stephen (2000), On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (London: Hodder & Stoughton).
Simonton, Dean Keith (2011), Great Flicks: Scientific Studies of Cinematic Creativity and Aesthetics (New York; Oxford: Oxford University Press).