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By Britton Perelman · June 9, 2022
Is it just me or does anyone else feel like as soon as they started writing screenplays, everyone suddenly had screenwriting advice to give?
Screenwriting tips are a dime a dozen — there’s the well-meaning advice, the advice you hear from every ole Joe on the street, the advice meant to scare you silly, and the advice that’s bound to make you feel like a failure, the advice that sounds good in theory but is impossible in practice, and all the other advice in between.
Unfortunately, this abundance of advice means that figuring out what is worth listening to and what should be ignored isn’t always straightforward.
Don’t worry. I’ve got you covered.
Here are six pieces of popular screenwriting advice you should ignore… and what to listen to instead.
This is one writers hear ALL. THE. TIME. And while it’s grounded in something of merit, on the surface, it can be incredibly misleading. After all, if writers only wrote what they know, almost every movie and TV show would be about writers sitting in a room and trying to come up with good story ideas.
“Write what you know” is helpful when it comes to the emotional core of your story, the universal truth at the heart of your narrative that anyone can relate to. But in terms of life experience? In terms of content? Ignore it.
Instead, write about whatever you want. Bootleg moonshiners at the turn of the century. Okay! Hippies who accidentally end up on Mars? Sure. Swing dancers who save the world? Heck yeah.
Just make sure to do your research if you’re dealing with some kind of content, location, time period, historical event, industry, or field you aren’t familiar with. That’s what the Google machine and the “Clear History” button are for, right?
I don’t know about you, but I get tired just thinking about this particular piece of advice. Stephen King might be able to write every single day, but I certainly can’t.
Every writer is different. It’s like the tortoise and the hare — some writers sprint with their first drafts, others take it slow and steady. No way is truly right or wrong, it’s just about finding what works for you.
I tried writing every day for a while as an exercise and was downright exhausted. But that doesn’t mean I’m not working every day; it doesn’t mean I’m not constantly thinking about and accumulating ideas for my stories.
What this advice really should be is… write consistently.
If, for you, that means writing every day of the week, even Sundays, great! If not, that’s perfectly okay too. Figure out a cadence and pace that works for you and keep forging ahead. As long as you’re writing on a somewhat regular basis, that’s a win in my opinion.
There are so many variations of this one floating around.
Don’t start writing until you know the ending. Don’t start writing until you have a complete, bulletproof outline. Don’t start writing until you know the moral of the story. Don’t start writing until you know everything about your main character. Don’t start writing until you know the climax, the inciting incident, and/or the shocking twist. Don’t start writing until you know what you want to say.
Don’t even get me started. Just start writing.
An idea remains just that until you actually put pen to paper, so to speak. So get the idea out of your head and turn it into actual words on the page.
Simply starting can be helpful in so many ways — once you have pages, you can diagnose problems with the story, see what’s working and not with your characters, discover plot holes, and so much more.
Once you start, don’t be afraid to press the pause button once you start writing if you discover you need to re-outline, rework character motivations and goals, or strengthen a particular plot point. Just don’t get stuck staring at a blank page because some vague screenwriting advice has declared you’re not ready to start yet.
Young and emerging screenwriters hear this kind of advice all the time, usually disguised as a screenwriting “rule.” And the fact of the matter is, it’s just not true.
Plenty of beloved, award-winning, incredible movies and TV shows use the very plot devices you’ve been told to avoid.
If your gut is telling you to use flashbacks in your script, use ‘em! If the best way to tell your story is with some voiceover, go for it!
The thing to keep in mind when using any kind of plot device is necessity. Is the plot device absolutely necessary to telling your story in the best way? Is the plot device a hindrance to the story, or does it actually make the story better?
Flashbacks, voiceover, dream sequences — the rule of thumb with these kinds of plot devices is that they should enhance the story in some way. If they don’t, if they’re just a cool narrative trick you the writer are forcing upon the story, cut your losses.
But if it makes the story better, go with your gut, follow your heart, or listen to the little screenwriting voice in your head.
The multiverse, vampires, time travel, mockumentaries, social commentary thrillers, reimagined fairy tales — anyone can name a handful of trends in Hollywood storytelling in a matter of seconds. But that doesn’t mean you should fall in line and become part of the pattern.
Part of the problem with following a trend in Hollywood is that by the time the general population becomes aware of the trend, the studio execs and money-lending financiers have already moved on.
If people in Hollywood are trying to find the “next Ted Lasso” or “something like Everything Everywhere All At Once,” it doesn’t mean they’re actually looking for projects that include the same elements as their examples. No one actually wants a discount Bridgerton, they want the next thing that’s going to make audiences compulsively binge an entire season in one sitting.
Instead of trying to be part of a trend that’s likely already on its way out the proverbial door, just write something you would actually want to watch. Your passion and love of the subject matter will come through in the script, and no matter what they might say, that’s actually what Hollywood hacks are looking for.
This is a warning touted as advice that gets thrown around in Q&As, panel discussions, and everyday conversations so often it’s burned into every aspiring screenwriter’s brain.
The people who say this may sound like they’re trying to scare you out of the screenwriting biz, but I don’t think that’s actually true. As with any piece of feedback you get during the writing process, you just have to look for the note underneath the note.
When someone tells you that if there’s anything else you could be happy doing other than writing, you should do it… that’s not what they really mean.
What they really mean is… screenwriting is hard. There’s no one path to follow, no guarantee of success. You’re going to have to do a lot of work for free, with absolutely no expectation of anything coming of it. Know that there’s going to be some misery, that you’re going to have to get comfortable with rejection and persist even when it seems like everything is against you.
But if you love it — if you love writing stories for the screen — do it. Don’t let anyone discourage you or convince you otherwise.
Embrace the journey inherent in screenwriting and get to work on that next script.
As William Goldman once wrote, “Nobody knows anything.”