What are some of the best screenwriting tips from action icon Shane Black (Lethal Weapon, The Long Kiss Goodnight, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Iron Man 3, The Predator)?
Here we share some of Shane Black’s best quotes on screenwriting and offer our own elaboration on how screenwriters can apply his wisdom and insight to their screenwriting journeys.
1. Turn Fear into Problem-Solving
“Writing to me is the process of turning fear into problem-solving. You sit down, and there’s a blank page. And you’re terrified. And you start typing and there’s terror, terror, terror, until suddenly… hmmm, what if… and you just start doing it until you find something that momentarily, in the moment, is temporarily more interesting than you fear… and then [your brain] catches something… you write until fear morphs into problem-solving. The fear itself that you start with never goes away.”
Your brain is a tool that can often work on autopilot and in the background. It will figure out the problems you have for you as you write.
All writers have that initial fear of whether or not they will be able to figure out their story, characters, etc. That fear never goes away. It will drive your brain towards the necessary problem-solving.
2. Picture Your Story’s Trailer
“I always write the trailer in my head because it starts to sum up the shape of what I want to see.”
He goes on to elaborate by describing the experience we all feel when we see a movie trailer that excites us. We see image after image and moment after moment flash by and we begin to piece together the perfect version of that movie. Sadly, many movies don’t live up to those expectations we create.
The point is that the trailer is the core of the idea, characters, and story. And when you start there by envisioning the movie’s core, you can do what you do when you watch trailer’s for other people’s movies — you piece together what you think is the perfect version of that concept, character, and story.
3. Developing Characters
“I always have the characters swirling, and they’re not actors… mostly it’s just this weird amalgam of the things we’ve seen in our lives that look a little bit like dad, a little bit like someone from TV. But it’s a face that we assign to the characters as we read novels. And that’s sort of what it is for me. Just finding little bits of those characters. And when you feel them you can write them.”
You can do this for the visualization of your characters, as well as for their characterization. You take what you know from your life, as well as what you’ve seen on film and television, and create that perfect amalgam.
4. Writing Great Cinematic Dialogue
“You can’t write the way people actually talk in real life. You have to write the way they talk in movies and make it sound like it’s real life. That’s where you get the banter… people talking back and forth. It’s slightly heightened. Everything I do, I try to stylize it so that it’s a little more interesting. A little more lively. It’s a little bit more intense of a conversation.”
Black specifically pointed to horrible dialogue that new writers write. They spell out the whole conversation that someone would have. That’s not cinematic dialogue. And there’s no such thing as naturalistic dialogue that is true to real life.
If you listen to the conversations people have, it’s boring and full of tangents, breaks, pauses, and silence.
Write cinematic dialogue.
5. How to Write Great Scene Description
“You have to describe what happens. You have to tell people what they’re going to see onscreen, but you have to make it read like it’s going to feel when you watch it. So what to me is exciting is not to specifically describe everything you see. Blue shirt. Tan shoes. What to me is exciting is to convey, with the flow of the words — the breathlessness, the pauses, the beats of it — to show the director how the scene is supposed to feel as it’s unfolding.”
You feature what is essential and discard what is not. And you marry that with trying to capture the essence of how they should feel if they were actually watching the film instead of reading it. That’s the most simple way to explain how to write great scene description.
“Structure is interesting. Everyone has it differently. I think you feel it… if I were trying to sell you on my screenwriting class, I would talk about three-act structure, and then I can imagine someone raising their hand and saying, ‘Are you saying that everything has a beginning, middle, and end?’ Ah, yes. There is an extent to which all of this talk is really just the fact that you’re finding a shape that feels right. Most people who see movies can sort of concoct it by feel and intuition. And understand that things are going on a bit and it’s time to move on. Mostly it’s keeping things motivated and proactive. And everyone is either moving towards something or away from something.”
No one structure works. Most structure interpretation depends on 20/20 hindsight and personal opinion. It’s an academic study of a story that isn’t universal to all stories.
Structure is within us. It’s in our DNA.
Stay tuned for the upcoming follow-up Screenwriting Tips from Action Movie Screenwriter Shane Black: Part 2!
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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