Some of the most common phrases of screenwriting advice are often misleading or misunderstood.
Here we feature five of the most commonly misunderstood or misinterpreted “words of screenwriting wisdom” and offer better breakdowns of what they mean and how screenwriters can apply them to their own scripts and screenwriting journeys.
1. Kill Your Darlings
Many iconic writers in screenwriting and literary platforms have their own version of this common saying.
“In writing, you must kill all your darlings.” — William Faulkner
“Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.” — Stephen King
These words of advice have an important meaning in screenwriting, to be sure. But they are often misinterpreted when applied to screenwriting.
Your Darlings refer to those favorite scenes and characters that you love. They are your favorite moments, your favorite characters, your favorite action sequences, your favorite scares, and your favorite lines of dialogue.
Many novice screenwriters apply that to the need of having to delete those elements to make a page count or shorten a scene.
“If you’re at 120 pages and know that you should be at 110, you’re going to have to cut one of those scenes that you love.”
“If a block of dialogue is getting too long, you’re going to have to cut one of those great lines you’ve written.”
That isn’t what these otherwise wise words of wisdom represent. They aren’t meant to merely save you space on the page or allow you to cut down on your page count. Those issues should have been taken care of within the actual conceptualize and structuring of your screenplay already.
If you’ve written a great moment, scene, storyline, character, joke, or line of dialogue that you love, that doesn’t always mean that they are right for the particular story that you are telling. And the fact that they are conceived and written well doesn’t justify them being in that specific script.
Everything has to fall into place within the confines of what is necessary to tell the story you’re trying to tell within your script. It’s your job as a writer to identify what follows that criteria.
You could be at 100 pages and still have a scene that you love that doesn’t need to be in the script.
Perhaps the tone is different. Perhaps the moment isn’t true to the character you’ve developed throughout the rest of the script. Perhaps the brilliant line that sounds cool or badass doesn’t fit with the character you’ve attached it to.
You have to sometimes kill your darlings for the better of your story, your characters, and your script. It’s a lesson that all writers need to master.
But don’t worry. Those brilliant elements of writing that you’ve written can be saved in another document that you can title “My Darlings That Need a Home” and apply them to future scripts.
2. Show, Don’t Tell
Believe it or not, many screenwriters use this as an excuse to write more detailed and expansive scene description. Some even manage to parlay that advice into an excuse to direct the camera by writing camera directions (Angle On, Dolly To, Zoom Into, etc.).
“Hey, I’m showing how this story should visually play out.”
You never want to overwrite scene description or write camera directions into your screenplay. That’s not what this otherwise wise piece of advice is saying.
Showing rather than telling is about avoiding the use of dialogue to showcase inner feelings of a character or to dump bad expositional dialogue into a scene to explain plot elements.
We want to see these things unfold. Film and television are visual mediums. There’s nothing worse than hearing a character say what they actually feel and tell us what they already know to inform us of what is happening in the story.
When a character is feeling an emotion, we want to see the physical manifestation of that emotion, much like we would in real life.
No one says, “I’m so angry at you.” They instead lash out in anger, break a dish, hit a wall, or slam a door.
No one says, “I like you, but I don’t want you to know that.” Instead, they look at you when you’re not looking at them.
They send you flowers. They hug or kiss you.
No one says, “Don’t forget that your parents died in a car accident when you were a kid, and that’s why you’re acting this way.” The person surely wouldn’t have forgotten this life-changing detail.
Instead, screenwriters use it to inform the audience instead of finding creative ways to show us this important plot and character detail by having that character look at a picture of their parents solemnly or some better form of visual that informs the audience of this element of the story.
3. Write What You Know
Nearly every screenwriter has heard or read this piece of advice and so many misinterpret it as meaning that your best writing will be on subjects that you know about or experiences that you’ve experienced.
There’s undoubtedly some truth to those statements, but the meaning behind this phrase is more significant than that.
Screenwriters have written about space travel, journeys to worlds of fantasy and magic, and the afterlife — but these are worlds and experiences that they have obviously never come across in their lives.
Writing what you know is all about applying your own experiences, perspectives, beliefs, and emotions into any necessary storyline. That’s how you connect with the material.
If you’re writing about a character who has lost their father, and you’ve only lost a friend, apply those emotions to the character in that otherwise unidentifiable scenario.
If you’re writing about a character who is secluded on an island, look at your life and find a time when you were alone and away from anything or anyone you ever knew. Or use your imagination to put yourself in their place and find the emotions that you would likely experience.
Yes, if you’ve lived through a certain tragedy, adventure, experience, or specific trade that is compelling enough to warrant a cinematic interpretation, then write what you know. But those words of advice are so much more than that.
4. Less Is More
This standard piece of advice is vital to a screenwriter’s success, but too many screenwriters apply it to cutting down necessary scene description to the most unspecific degree. And other screenwriters just don’t understand the somewhat counterintuitive phrase.
Cinematic screenwriting is about cutting away the fat until you get to the meat of each and every element within the script. But there has to be some meat for people to ingest.
You can’t just write “he runs” and expect that to give the script reader a cinematic experience. On the other hand, you don’t want to write a detailed four-sentence description of how he runs, describing every little detail about the street he’s on, what’s going on the background, etc.
You have to ask yourself:
What can I delete that doesn’t affect the point of the scene?
Does this need to be here?
Can I communicate this visual with one or two words instead of one or two sentences?
What is the literal way to describe this vs. the articulate way?
Does the character need to say this?
That’s what Less Is More is about. You pick away at your script, taking out unnecessary lines of scene description and dialogue. You question each and every scene in your script. Your concepts and characters are more evident than ever before because they are front and center, void of being clouded by overwriting. That is what Less Is More is all about. Getting to the core of what the character is trying to say or what you want the script reader to envision.
5. You Have to Go All-In to Make This Screenwriting Dream Come True
Just because a movie star or Oscar-winning screenwriter said that they quit their job and moved to California with nothing but a carload of belongings and no job doesn’t mean that this is the way you need to approach your screenwriting journey.
In fact, probably the worst thing you can do is jump into a situation without first taking care of yourself and anyone that you may be responsible for.
No, you shouldn’t quit whatever career or bill-paying job you’re in right now to focus solely on screenwriting. If you have the means to do that, wonderful, have at it and best of luck. But most people still need to make a living. And when you’re trying to succeed at a career that has overwhelming odds against you succeeding, it’s not a smart decision to go all-in, quit your day job, and throw caution to the wind.
You first have to hone your craft. And that can take years before you are ready to contend with the pros. Your first script is always your worst. It takes at least a few scripts to get a knack for good cinematic storytelling, let alone the excellence that you need to have to break through.
So, in the meantime, write on your lunch breaks and days off — either on your computer or in your head. Find time before school or work — and then sometime after.
Study screenwriting by watching movies, reading produced scripts, and reading some of the great screenwriting books to feed your brain. And then write, write, write.
After that, there will be plenty of time to make a smart plan of attack when you’re truly ready.
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Ken Miyamoto has worked in the film industry for nearly two decades, most notably as a studio liaison for Sony Studios and then as a script reader and story analyst for Sony Pictures. Make sure to read his growing archive of posts at ScreenCraft for more inspiration.
He has many studio meetings under his belt as a produced screenwriter, meeting with the likes of Sony, Dreamworks, Universal, Disney, Warner Brothers, as well as many production and management companies. He has had a previous development deal with Lionsgate, as well as multiple writing assignments, including the produced miniseries Blackout, starring Anne Heche, Sean Patrick Flanery, Billy Zane, James Brolin, Haylie Duff, Brian Bloom, Eric La Salle, and Bruce Boxleitner. Follow Ken on Twitter @KenMovies