Screenwriting Preparation Tips From Acclaimed Screenwriters

How do some of the most acclaimed screenwriters handle their screenwriting preparation for each screenplay they write?

Welcome to our ongoing Learning from the Masters and Industry Insiders series where we seek out and feature excellent videos, interviews, and discussions of the art, craft, and business of screenwriting and pull the best words of wisdom, writing tips, and screenwriting advice.

Here we feature BAFTA Guru‘s How to Write video series and share some of the best information that you can use to help your screenwriting preparation process.

1. Research

David S. Goyer (The Dark Knight Trilogy, Man of Steel) begins his preparation with research, whether it’s reading books, interviewing people, and all sorts of things. Even if it’s a science fiction piece. “I usually do that for at least a month, if I can. Just try to absorb as much information as possible.”

Hossein Amini (Drive, Snow White and the Huntsman) often chooses a project based off of whether or not it is something he’s interested in. “And then I’ll buy twenty or thirty books from Amazon or from a bookshelf and just completely immerse myself in that world first,” Amini says.

2. Let the Idea or Character Stay With You Before You Write

Richard Curtis (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Love ActuallyWar Horse) prefers to first live with the idea in his head for a while. “I never have an idea for a screenplay and then just write it. So I always live with the ideas I’ve had for a long time.”

Tony Gilroy (The Bourne Series, Michael Clayton) takes the initial spark of the idea or concept and plays with it. “The analog is really very much to a painter or a sketch. I sit at the computer, and I play with an idea that interests me.”

Susannah Grant (Erin Brockovich, In Her Shoes) instead lets the character stay with her for a long while. And she focuses on the conflict that character has. “Before I write anything down, it’s usually driven by character. Just somebody I’m thinking about. A situation I’m thinking about. It’s often a central conflict a person has with another person, situation, you know. And that will root around there for a long time.”

3. Using Cards, Outlines, or Nothing

Goyer starts with index cards that feature ideas for scenes and color-codes them for different characters. In recent years, technology has offered him the ability to do that with software.

Amini does a lot of adaptations so he’ll use cards as he goes through books and make notes of scenes or moments that he wants to feature.

For War Horse, Curtis was given many breakdowns of books, research, and a former draft of the screenplay. He would then use the card system. “Suddenly, I’ve got something that’s starting to resemble a story. And then I see where the holes are. And then I start writing dialogue and start writing more cards.”

For some of them, an outline follows. Although Grant says, “My outlines are worthless though. I’ll get about a quarter way into a script and realize the rest of the outline is worthless. And I just have to sort of pick my way forward. My ultimate destination rarely changes that dramatically. I usually know where I’m heading.”

Peter Morgan (Queen, Rush) prefers to stay in the development phase for the longest time possible. “I do work through an outline as long as possible, based on the theory that to screw up an outline is less heartbreaking than to screw up a screenplay.”

4. Developing Characters

Morgan states, “If I can hear their voices, and I don’t mean to sound pretentious, but either I can or can’t hear their voice. And if I can hear their voice, then I can talk in their voice in my head. And as soon as soon as I have that, then I can find a way in.”

Goyer allows the characters to come to life through the plot and story, as opposed to working on character breakdowns beforehand. “I know that some writers will sit down and they will write character biographies or something like that. I don’t do that. I start through plot, in terms of who they are and what they are doing, and then inevitably what happens when I’m writing the script is the character kind of bubbles to the surface, and then quite a few times I’ll end up changing the plot based on having discovered the character.”

Amini likes to discover the character through the many drafts. “You start off knowing them quite well. But with each draft, you get to know them better. So dialogue for me in the first few drafts tends to a little bit of the discovery of the character so that the character will tend to overtalk. And with each draft, they talk less and less because I sort of know them better, and I don’t need to discover them through the dialogue.”

5. Tricks From the Pros

Curtis writes a lot of extra material to discover character and moments. “My main writing trick is that I just write an enormous amount. So, if I’ve decided that someone has a sister and that sister is going to be a key part of it, I will write twenty pages of him talking to his sister. And the relationship between them and the characters will slowly emerge over the course of the day, and when I read it back, I’ll think, ‘Oh, there I came across something interesting and when I start tomorrow that will be my starting point.'”

Goyer shares, “This is going to sound a little touchy-feely, but I meditate. I do transcendental meditation every morning for about twenty minutes.”

Grant focuses on doing simple things where she can daydream. “I try to do things that require very, very little attention. I find grocery shopping is excellent. Honestly… I have had more things figured out in the aisles of the supermarket, or gardening.” 

Learn a few more tips, hear some further elaboration, and understand the writing schedules of these acclaimed screenwriters by watching the full video below!

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Michael Lee

Author Michael Lee

Michael Lee has worked in development as a script reader and story analyst for a major studio, Emmy Award-winning production company, and iconic movie director.

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