3 Tactics to Writing Like the Coen Brothers

How can you write screenplays similar to the tone, atmosphere, and style of the Coen Brothers?

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 turn to the StudioBinder video How to Write Like The Coen Brothers for three specific screenwriting tactics that you can use to write screenplays that have the feel of a Coen Brothers movie experience, accompanied by our own elaboration.

Coen Brothers are known for stylish films that utilize elements of both comedy and drama, often centered on eccentric characters and convoluted plots. They’ve given us the classics Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, Miller’s Crossing, Barton Fink, The Hudsucker Proxy, Fargo, The Big Lebowski, O Brother Where Art Thou, and No Country for Old Men.

But how can writers emulate their style in their own original stories?

Download Coen Brothers scripts for free at the TSL Screenplay Library!

1. Necessary Violence

“In a Coen Brothers film, violence is integral to the story rather than gratuitous.”

While Tarantino films often use violence for the sake of violent shock value, the Coen Brothers opt to keep most of the violence present in their scripts integral to the story. There are consequences for both the victim and the one unleashing the violence.

This is present in films like No Country for Old Men and their True Grit remake especially. Film Critic Kenneth Turan wrote, No Country for Old Men doesn’t celebrate or smile at violence, it despairs of it.”

Violence for the sake of story is always the better option regardless. You can use violence to raise the stakes of the story and to reveal character flaws and character strengths.

2. Self Destruction

“Often, the hapless protagonists will work against themselves as plans and schemes go awry.”

The protagonists in Coen Brothers movies often self-destruct. They are their own worst enemies in so many ways. They are often flawed, unremarkable, arrogant, ignorant, or take risky chances that they end up paying for.

If you watch any Coen Brothers film, you’ll see this trend of self-destruction in either protagonists, antagonists, or secondary characters.

3. Ambiguous Endings

“By the end of their films, the Coens leave the main conflict often unresolved.”

When you leave the closure of your story vague, it increases the “water cooler” factor of letting the audience be able to draw different interpretations of the ending. And this leads to discussion and debate, which keeps the film alive.

That said, when you’re writing on spec — and you’re not a Coen Brother— you should make sure that you offer some form of resolution. However, it can be left vague enough for the ending to stick with people afterward.

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If you want to write cinematic stories like the ones the Coen Brothers provide, these three tactics will help you along the way.

Watch the whole video below for some excellent Coen Brothers moments and examples of these three tactics that their films often employ!


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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.

More posts by Michael Lee