These screenwriters have advice about how they prepare to write, how they write dialogue, their plotting, which ideas to write, how they keep every scene dramatic, things they keep in mind while writing, how they broke into writing, and even some words of encouragement.
They’ve written hundreds of screenplays between them.
They count among their screen credits, All The President’s Men, A Clockwork Orange, Taxi Driver, Runaway Jury, Being John Malcovich, The Lazarus Effect, Big Fish, Toy Story, The Graduate, The Devil Wears Prada, and Glengarry Glen Ross. Whether or not you’re fans of their films, you’ll want to hear what they have to say.
“I think there are three steps to writing a script. First, you have to have a theme, something you want to say. It doesn’t have to be a particularly great thing, but you have to have something that’s bothering you. In the case of Taxi Driver, the theme was loneliness. Then you find a metaphor for that theme, one that expresses it. In Taxi Driver, that was the cabbie, the perfect expression of urban loneliness. Then you have to find a plot, which is the easiest part of the process. All plots have been done; they’re fairly easy, you just work through all the permutations until the plot accurately reflects the theme and the metaphor. You push the theme through the metaphor and you should come out with the plot.” –Paul Schrader
“If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it. Or, if proper usage gets in the way, it may have to go. I can’t allow what we learned in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative.” –Elmore Leonard
“So: we, the writers, must ask ourselves *of every scene* these three questions. 1) who wants what? 2) what happens if he don’t get it? 3) why now?… The answers to these questions are litmus paper. Apply them, and their answer will tell you if the scene is dramatic or not.” –David Mamet
“There are only three kinds of scenes, a fight, a negotiation or a seduction.”
“Young writers seem to forget that people in the industry are desperate for good material. The business isn’t constructed to keep you out of it, but to bring you into it. More than ever now, there are so many contests and agents and producers. It’s a world that’s so desperate for good writers. So, if you can build it, they’ll be there. If you write something great, and you know somebody who is even peripherally involved in the industry, like the assistant director’s brother-in-law’s niece, it’ll find its way to someone. It may not get green-lit and turned into a blockbuster immediately, but it’ll get read, and if it’s really good, it’ll start your career.” –Aline Brosh McKenna
“When I’m writing a script, before I can write dialogue or anything, I have two or three hundred pages of notes, which takes me a year. So, it’s not like “what happens next.” I’ve got things that I’m thinking about but I don’t settle on them. And if I try to write dialogue before then, I can’t. It’s just garbage.” –Charlie Kaufman
“Finish it…I have so many friends who have written two-thirds of a screenplay, and then re-written it for about three years. Finishing a screenplay is first of all truly difficult, and secondly really liberating. Even if it’s not perfect, even if you know you’re gonna have to go back into it, type to the end. You have to have a little closure.” –Joss Whedon
“Think about how the screenplays made you feel. And how the movies built from these screenplays did or didn’t hit you the same way. […] This sounds basic, right? That’s because it is basic. And it’s true. All the information you need is the movies and screenplays you love. And in the books you’ve read and the relationships you’ve had and your ability to use those things.”-Brian Koppelman
“The essence of dramatic form is to let an idea come over people without it being plainly stated. When you say something directly, it is simply not as potent as it is when you allow people to discover it for themselves.” –Stanley Kubrick
“If you have four ideas, all equally viable, I’d recommend writing the one that has the best ending. That’s the one you’ve thought through the most, and the one you’re least likely to abandon midway.” –John August
“1).Thou shalt not take the crisis out of the protagonist’s hands. 2)Thou shalt not make life easy for the protagonist. 3) Thou shalt not give exposition for exposition’s sake. 4) Thou shalt not use false mystery or cheap surprise. 5) Thou shalt respect thy audience. 6) Thou shalt know thy world as God knows this one. 7) Thou shalt not complicate when complexity is better. 8)Thou shalt seek the end of the line, taking characters to the farthest depth of the conflict imaginable within the story’s own realm of probability. 9) Thou shalt not write on the nose — put a subtext under every text. 10.) Thou shalt rewrite.” –William Goldman
“Technology is so cheap. There’s no excuse for not making short films on the weekend with your friends […] All we had was our parents’ video camera, which had a dead pixel in the middle of it. I said, “I’m gonna get a tape […] That three-dollar movie was our first to get into Sundance. It changed everything for us. We realized that it doesn’t matter what your movie looks like. I recommend making one of these every weekend with your smartest group of friends.” –Mark Duplas
These are not your typical quotes from big name screenwriters. Most of them are not generic platitudes, you know like “perseverance pays off.” Although those kinds of quotes can be helpful, too.
These quotes have something specific to say, something you won’t always find in screenwriting books. I hope you’ll find them both insightful and inspiring. You might even want to start your own collection of great quotes.