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Looking for some handy tips to help you with your screenwriting career? Just looking for help finishing your first screenplay? You’re in luck. Today we’re going to review eight helpful screenwriting tips courtesy of a video from Variety and how to implement them into your writing.
Here’s a high-level overview of what’s in store:
As a writer, you should 1) enjoy the writing itself more than having written, 2) take time to consider your concept before you write, 3) know when and when not to break the rules, 4) spill your guts onto the page, 5) divorce yourself from your ego, 6) write your voice, 7) write through the suck, and 8) don’t give up!
We’ll review each of the tips in depth below and share our suggestions for how you can put each tip into action in your own writing this week. Let’s dive in!
Tip #1: Let the joy of writing be its own reward.
This tip comes from screenwriter Micah Fitzerman-Blue who wrote A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood and Maleficent: Mistress of Evil. He says:
“Never think you’ve written your masterpiece. You should always be writing, and it is the process of writing that should give you the most joy, not the ‘having written something.’”
I personally believe this is great advice, as it comes from a very real place – we all want to have written something great. That’s why we’re writers – we have great taste and want to create something that is just as good as (if not better than!) the stories we love.
Because we all want to write something great, it becomes easy to sit back and bask in the glory of what you’ve just written every time you’ve finished something.
How can you turn this advice into action? Next time you finish a draft of whatever screenplay you are working on, start thinking about what your next project is going to be.
It doesn’t have to be immediately – you should take a few days to relax and rejuvenate, especially after a long slog of a first draft – but always having your next project lined up keeps your focus on the work itself instead of having a finished project.
Tip #2: Take time to consider your concept.
This piece of advice comes from screenwriter Charlie Wachtel who wrote BlacKkKlansman along with co-writers David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott, and Spike Lee. He says:
“Don’t underestimate concepts, and taking time to think about your concept and what the story is you want to tell before you dive in and actually start writing it, because if it’s a concept that you’re just writing for yourself because you think is fun or that no one else is interested in, chances are it’s going to be a lot harder for you to make this movie.”
This tip goes to taking your time in the development stage of an idea, which is great advice that can be hard to follow when you’re excited to jump right into your story.
However, the more time you take to flesh out your idea before you start writing, the easier you make the actual writing of the script. Jordan Peele famously outlined Get Out for five years before writing the script.
To help you follow this advice, we’ve written a lot about how to write a story that works on this blog, and we’ve rightfully focused on the mechanics of the plot and how to create a compelling character by focusing on their goal. We’ve even touched on how important your story concept is to sell your script.
Besides reading all of that, one thing you can do right now to test your concept is to start by sharing your concept with five different people. Those five people should be your close friends or writing peers.
Get their feedback on the concept – do they like it? Does it sound original to them? Take as many questions as they throw at you.
Then, once you’ve surveyed those five people, share your concept with five more people who you don’t normally share this kind of thing with – this could be family members, friends who aren’t writers or not as close to you, or even strangers on an online forum and get their opinions.
When you’ve heard from those first ten people, you’ll be able to tell pretty quick if your idea resonates with the majority of those you ask, or if it needs more work before you should start writing. If you don’t get a clear consensus – open it up and survey more people!
Tip #3: Know when (and when not) to break the rules.
This advice comes from screenwriter Elizabeth Chomko, who wrote and directed the film What They Had starring Hilary Swank and Michael Shannon. She says:
“It’s hard to know in the beginning which rules to take into and which rules to break. Reading great screenplays will teach you which rules to break, and reading not so great screenplays will teach you what rules not to break. Once you’ve gotten a barometer for that, be absolutely reckless in your pursuit of revision.”
This is fantastic advice – especially the part about reading great screenplays to know which rules to break and reading not so great screenplays to know which rules not to break.
As aspiring screenwriters, we love to read great screenplays and get inspired. But just as important is reading bad screenplays to learn what not to do so we can be better b.s. detectors when it comes to our own work.
The last part of the quote that advises you to be “absolutely reckless in your pursuit of revision” is also gold.
When you know what to do and what not to do, you need to apply it by revising and revising your own work to push yourself to be more creative with your problem-solving.
Remember, to write is to rewrite.
How to apply this tip to your work this week?
Try reading three screenplays: one for a movie that has gotten great reviews but you haven’t seen, one for a classic movie that you love but have never read the script for, and one for a movie that you’ve either seen and hated or didn’t see but got bad reviews.
The idea here is to take a look at two screenplays that worked and one that didn’t. As you do, ask yourself the following questions:
- What screenwriting “rules” did these scripts break?
- Did breaking the rules help the story or hurt it?
- What creative choices did these scripts make that are unique to this particular story?
- Did these scripts deal with any tropes or cliches?
- Did the writing work to dismantle those tropes or imitate them?
- If the script didn’t work, can you pinpoint why?
- If the script did work, can you pinpoint why?
Next, challenge yourself to take what you learned and revise the script you are working on now. Do you see a place in your story to break the rules in a similarly creative way to the good scripts? Or does your script make a similar mistake to the bad script you read? Then revise!
Tip #4: Spill your guts onto the page!
This piece of advice comes from A Quiet Place co-writer Bryan Woods. He says:
“Spill your gut onto the page…you should be slightly embarrassed by the work you’re putting out there. You want your work to be as embarrassingly personal as possible.”
Short and sweet, but great advice!
Sometimes it can be all too easy for writers to shy away from topics that feel too personal or feelings that feel too scary to admit out loud out of fear or insecurity or any number of reasons. But the best work comes from the personal!
As writers, it’s important for us to be bold in our writing – the highest aspirations of drama demand that we hold a mirror to society in an attempt to show the world as it really is. This means that sometimes, to create great art, we need to go to those places that scare us.
Whether it’s writing a horror movie that draws on real fears you have, writing a drama that deals with painfully personal topics or writing a comedy that calls attention to deep character flaws that you or people you know have, the world needs your voice to be as honest as possible.
Our advice for implementing this tip into your work this week is to take some time to write something that has nothing to do with your current story. Try writing a diary entry or take an hour to do some free-association writing.
As you do, dig a little deeper than you normally would, and plunge into a place that feels too scary to go to in public. Make it another character if it feels safer and write a monologue in this character’s voice as they speak to a feeling you feel too scared to say yourself.
After you’ve done this for an hour or so, put it away for now. This exercise is just so you can practice digging a little deeper with your writing – but if you come up with something cool that you want to explore later for a new story or character, even better!
Tip #5: Divorce yourself from your ego.
This tip is from writer Christy Hall, who wrote and created the series I am Not Okay With This currently streaming on Netflix. She says:
“Divorce yourself from your ego. I feel like the best art really comes from passion and purpose and the need to say something, and I think the greatest dragon you have to slay is your own ego, your own need to be worshipped and celebrated and that’s just not where the best art comes from. I would say attack the blank page with humility and celebration and curiosity and imagination and joy. Ego is not going to give you any of those things.”
This is great advice that goes hand in hand with the previous tips as well. We all want to be known as great writers, but wanting to be a great writer doesn’t make you a great writer.
Instead of focusing on how you want your scripts to be received, this advice asks you to focus on the passion and purpose behind what you are doing.
Don’t write for the sake of being great – write for the sake of saying something important, and be humble and creative while you do so.
This advice is a little harder to implement right away, but we’ve still got an idea for you.
Try to write a mission statement about your script. Take a whole page if you need to, but write the reason behind why you are writing your script. What’s important about it to you?
You might find that it’s really easy to write about why you are choosing this story to tell. Or, you might find it incredibly difficult to write even a paragraph about why this story calls to you.
If the latter is the case, take a step back and ask yourself if this is the right story to focus on right now.
If it’s the former and the words come easy to you, try instead to focus on writing a clear and concise single-sentence mission statement about the most important reason this story is important to you to tell.
Then read your script back and make sure each scene in your script contributes to that overall mission behind your story in its own unique way.
If you find there are scenes that don’t fit into the purpose behind your story, take a second to ask yourself if those scenes need to be in the story at all.
This is a good way to “kill your darlings” so to speak and find out what scenes genuinely move the story forward and which ones you kept because they are fun or cool but don’t serve the greater purpose of the story.
Tip #6: Write your voice.
This tip comes from screenwriter Jac Schaeffer who wrote the story for Black Widow and created the upcoming series WandaVision for Disney+. She says:
“Write your voice. Write how you talk and write how you think, what’s really inside you, because if there’s anything that executives are looking for it’s something fresh, and something original and something authentic… write to entertain yourself and entertain the people that you love.”
This is a good piece of advice to take into consideration as you follow some of the other tips mentioned here, and that’s because it can feel tempting to imitate the stories and the writers that you love.
However, when you write from a place of imitation, you often miss tapping into your greatest strength as a writer: you!
I know, I know. All cheesy-cliche-ness aside, it’s true. Your voice and your thoughts and perspective is the thing that’s going to make your scripts stand out.
Sure, it might feel like you’re limiting your potential by having too original of a voice, but as Schaeffer points out, executives are looking for original voices first and foremost. They can hire the same people to write the same movies all day long.
What they really want is what they haven’t read yet – and that’s whatever the most authentic version of you is.
Writer, critic, and TV creator Andy Greenwald summed this up perfectly on a recent episode of the podcast The Watch when referring to showrunner and creator Michaela Coel and her new show I May Destroy You:
“The best works of art are the ones that are put into the world fueled purely by their own passions and interests and abilities and then the world meets up with them. It’s not responding to anything other than the life, existence, experience, and aesthetic interests of its creator…”
In addition to Michael Cole, this applies to other writers and creators like Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Donald Glover, and Jordan Peele, as a few examples, as well.
It sets a great standard for what “writing your voice” looks like using your life, existence, experience, and aesthetic interests as vital to whatever you are writing no matter what your project is.
How can you implement this tip in your writing this week? Take a stab at writing a scene from a movie you love – but this time write it in your own voice. Don’t feel obligated to stick to the original source material. In fact, take the premise and run with it as far as you can!
The more “you” you can make the scene, the better. If you do it right, you might come up with an entirely different take on the material that you could transform into your own original story.
If it helps, think about this in the context of any of the names I referenced above.
For example, what would the heist movie The Sting look like if it was written by Phoebe Waller-Bridge?
What would The Thing be like if Jordan Peele took a stab at it?
What would Donald Glover’s version of Casablanca be like?
Now try writing your version of any of the movies I just listed. Or better yet – find a movie you didn’t like but with a premise, you find interesting. Write your version of a scene from that movie!
Tip #7: Write through the suck.
This tip comes from screenwriter Ashleigh Powell who wrote The Nutcracker and the Four Realms and is currently adapting the book The Paper Magician. She says:
“Write through the suck. There are going to be days where the words are not coming and the thoughts just aren’t there, and in my experience, you can’t let that derail you, you can’t afford to just get stuck, so even if it’s terrible and you know it’s the worst thing you’ve ever written, write it, keep writing, get through it, that’s what rewriting is for you can come back and fix it later, but just keep the momentum going.”
Boom! This is probably the best piece of advice I’ve personally ever heard, but I had to learn it the hard way before I heard this tip from Ashleigh, and it took a very long time for me to learn on my own.
If you haven’t read it yet, we wrote about this as part of our article on what to do when you get writer’s block, and if you couldn’t tell, that article came from my firsthand experience struggling with my own writer’s block.
It’s the truth, though – you have to keep writing even when you know it “sucks.” That’s because, as Ashleigh points out, it’s all about momentum. As with anything in life, the secret to pushing through adversity is to keep going, and in writing, that means writing through the suck.
Here’s a very tangible way to take this advice into action this week: keep writing.
If you find yourself struggling with a particular scene or segment of your script, push through. I find it helps to write what is supposed to happen in the scene on the script itself, and then flesh the scene out from there.
If you have to write the most uncreative, on the nose version of the scene in order to get through it, do it, and then move onto the next scene.
You can always go back and revise it, but it’s hard to revise something that doesn’t exist, and the longer you leave a blank page, the longer it will take you to fill it up.
Now, this advice feels most applicable when you are writing your first draft of something, but it’s equally applicable to the editing process as well.
Sometimes you will get notes and know the scene has to change, but have no idea how to implement it. When that happens, take a pass that addresses the notes head-on just to give it a try.
The next day, try to edit the scene again, but this time try to layer the scene with more nuance.
Keep the original on-the-nose dialogue in a parenthetical for the subtext, and write a new version of the line to try to make it more calculated. Have the characters try different tactics to get what they want. Try to layer the theme with a visual aid. Break up the dialogue with actions.
There are many ways you can rewrite a scene to make it more interesting. Try them all! The goal here is to keep up the momentum, both on your story and in your writing, so that you can keep the focus on the work. The more you write, the more you’ll get better, so keep writing!
Tip #8: Don’t give up.
This last tip comes from writer Jay Longino who wrote the film Uncle Drew. He says:
“…If it’s what you really want to do, to not give up. I first moved to LA twenty-something years ago… I had a lot of stops and starts and people telling me it wasn’t going to happen, and I knew it was what I wanted to do, I was passionate about it and knew I was good at it, and I just didn’t give up… walking into a theater and hearing the crowd react to words that you wrote for the very first time like all the heartbreak and all the struggle and all that is so worth it when you have that moment…”
Hearing Jay sharing all this, even acknowledging that it’s kind of cliche, is still really inspiring. And it’s the exact type of trip we wanted to end this article with because it’s so true.
If you really want to be a writer, if you are truly passionate about making this your career or at least telling the story you want to tell and getting it made into a film, then “not giving up” is the number one tip you need to follow.
No matter how many screenplay competitions you enter and lose, no matter how many opportunities that pop up that end up resulting in nothing, hell, no matter how many paid writing jobs you get that end up never turning into movies, the only action you can take that is 100% in your control is your own willpower to continue writing and keep getting better.
So how do you take this tip and implement it this week? Keep writing! If there’s a script you gave up on because you weren’t ready or lost interest, dust it off and give it another read.
If there’s a concept you’ve always been interested in but never felt brave enough to try and crack, why not give it a go this week?
If there’s a script you submitted to a contest and got denied, or a contact of yours that read your script and never got back to you, or a round of notes you got that you never tried to implement, now is the perfect time to try again. Take another pass and re-submit.
If the current pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that our world is fragile. Tomorrow is never guaranteed. The only thing we can do with every day that we’re given is to give the life we want another shot.
So if you want to be a writer, use today to write. Doesn’t matter if you wrote yesterday or not. Write today. Try to do it every day this week and don’t give up. You do that, and guess what happens? You become a writer.
And that’s it – that’s the best eight screenwriting tips we heard this week! If you end up using any of these tips this week, let us know which tip helped you the most in the comments!
Grant Harvey is a freelance writer, screenwriter, and filmmaker based out of Los Angeles. When he’s not working on his own feature-length screenplays and television pilots, Grant uses his passion and experience in film and videography to help others learn the tools, strategies, and equipment needed to create high-quality videos as a filmmaker of any skill level.