What does “story by” mean? Well, it doesn’t mean what you think it means. You know, when you’re watching a screenplay, it’s sometimes it says “story by” one person and then “screenplay” by another. I think a lot of you think that it means that the person who has a “story by” credit just sold the idea. They came up with an idea and then they sold it. And therefore you could do that. You could have a career just by coming up with ideas and then finding a writer to write it. So it doesn’t really work like that. I highly doubt that’s the case. Maybe it happens sometimes, but far more often than not. I think this is what happens.

The original writer who has a “story by” credit, came up with an idea. Maybe they pitched it. Maybe they wrote it on spec, but they wrote the entire screenplay. And at some point the studio says, yeah, we want to turn this into a movie. Or at least we think we do. Now we have to find a director to attach to it. And then they go out to the directors and one director says, yeah, I’ll do it. But I want to make some changes to it before I attach myself, this is very common. Sometimes the director will do a rewrite themselves or they’ll hire one of the writers that they’ve worked with in the past to do a rewrite. But very often it is a page-one rewrite. And there’s nothing even resembling the first movie other than a vague concept. Okay. This is all very common. So who gets the credit in that case? Is that the person who came up with the idea and came up with that first draft or the person who did all that subsequent work on the other draft, and maybe there’s not even a single line of dialogue, that’s the same? 

Well, in that case, the script will go to the Writers Guild of America and they will, there’ll be an arbitration. They’ll have a panel of several people and they have criteria that they judge who should get the credit. And because it means it’s not just a vanity thing, with the credit comes more money, residuals, pension. So it’s kind of a big deal to have your name. If you’re a writer, you want your name on that movie as much as possible because there’s money attached. So very often what happens is that the original writer will get “story by” credit. And the subsequent writer will get “screenplay” credit. That’s sometimes how they handle this. Now. It doesn’t mean that the original draft was good or bad. It just means that the director wanted to make subsequent changes to it. 

So if you’re hoping to make a career of coming up with ideas and selling them, that’s really not how it works. You have to be a writer. The writer comes up with the idea. They write it, they write a draft and other writers do rewrites and stuff like that. That’s why the movie business is rough, because if you want to be a movie writer, you may not get any credit at all. You may never see anything get made. You have no creative control. On TV, you don’t have these problems. I’m gonna talk about that in future episodes. So for more on what it’s like to be a professional screenwriter, you can find me here and on Instagram, I have special content there @MichaelJaminwriter.

Michael Jamin, Showrunner, TV Writer, Author

Michael Jamin

For the past 26 years, Michael Jamin has been a professional television writer/showrunner. His credits include King of the Hill, Beavis & Butthead, Wilfred, Maron, Just Shoot Me, Rules of Engagement, Brickleberry, Tacoma FD and many more.

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