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9 Pieces of Screenwriting Advice from 9 Hollywood Screenwriters

By Ken Miyamoto · May 27, 2020

What single piece of advice can the screenwriters behind some of Hollywood’s past hits offer screenwriters?

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 a great YouTube video: Tales from the Script: Advice for New Screenwriters, and we feature the best quotes with our own elaboration on the points these Hollywood screenwriters make.

1. “There are examples of that [person] who sits down, writes a script, somewhat effortlessly, writes a couple of pages here, couple pages there, finally gets to the end, sends it out, it gets sold, it gets sold, it gets made, [they’re] a big star. Happens occasionally… but for most people, it doesn’t quite work that way. And so you really have to be serious about the way you approach it.”  — Adam Rifkin (Small Soldiers)

The lottery hopes of selling one of your first original screenplays, getting it produced by a major studio, and becoming an in-demand screenwriter won’t get you anywhere. If you are banking on that, it’s going to be a heartbreaking journey. Most screenwriters struggle for multiple years and multiple scripts before they get a break. And most of the time they’re hired for assignments, as opposed to selling their original work.

Hope for the best, expect the worst, and just focus on writing great scripts. Everything else will take care of itself.

2. “I have been sent hundreds of scripts from wannabe writers over the years, and not one good one has ever landed on my desk. Go back. Get better. Learn the craft. Learn the craft.” — Ron Shelton (Bull Durham)

Don’t send your first or second script out to industry insiders that you make connections with. Too many screenwriters try to push screenplays that just aren’t ready. Too many screenwriters try to push themselves and their writing when they just aren’t ready. It’s better to take a couple of years to hone your craft and get to the point where you have 3-5 excellent scripts to share.

3. “If you’re not prepared to do a lot of pushups, don’t enlist in the Marines. If you’re not prepared to be rejected, don’t try to make films, write films, or direct films, or act in films. Because you’re going to be rejected.” — Peter Hyams (Outland, 2010: The Year We Make Contact)

Rejection is part of the process. Even the most successful screenwriters and filmmakers in the industry have received ten times more rejection than they’ve heard, “Yes.”

Embrace rejection. Learn from it. Use it.

4. “You can read stories about screenwriters and how tough it is. You hear about the screenplay that was rejected by everyone under the sun except, you know, this one guy. And you only need one. You only need one person to buy it.” — Kriss Turner (Something New, The Bernie Mac Show)

All that it takes is one person. Dozens can and will reject it, and it’s not necessarily because the script is horrible. Many great scripts are rejected and never see the light of day. It’s about finding that one person in power that loves it. And you do that by making sure your writing is great before you send anything to anything. And then do your best to continue getting that great work out there — even when you’re dealing with multiple rejections.

5. “Just as a screenplay needs to be developed, I think a writer needs to be developed. And that it takes a number of failures in order to write something that eventually gets better. Yeah, [you] can fill 110 pages and, yeah, it’s a screenplay. Yahoo. But that’s very different from writing something that is going to move somebody on some level when they read it.” — Joe Stillman (Shrek)

Just having a screenplay that tells a story from Point A to Point B isn’t enough. You have to get to the point where you can write screenplays that are cathartic. That’s the key to making it.

6. “Just find your own voice. Don’t try to duplicate the styles of other writers.” — Billy Ray (The Hunger Games)

You need to stand out. It’s not worth trying to be the next Quentin Tarantino, Christopher Nolan, or Greta Gerwig. You need to find your own voice and stand apart from the rest because Hollywood isn’t looking for the next duplication of what has come before. They’re looking for the future. So do something different. Take what’s familiar and put your own spin on it.

7. “New writers tend to overwrite and explain everything as opposed to hooking people with mystery. They’ll have two pages of backstory instead of just the provocative line that makes us want to know more about the characters… that keeps us as an audience leaning forward and engaged in the storytelling.” — Andrew W. Marlowe (Air Force One)

Less is more. Keep the audience guessing. Don’t show the whole hand of the story and the characters — reveal little-by-little to keep us engaged.

8. “I am a ten-year overnight success. If I had known ten years before I got to the point where I could make a living even close to the living my friends were making on Wall Street, I would probably have thought more than twice about continuing with it.” — Justin Zackham (The Bucket List)

There are no such things as overnight successes, no matter what you read in the trades. That’s a media creation. Most “overnight” success stories are a result of a decade or more of struggle. Thus, you have to really want to make this dream happen.

9. “If you have a really wonderful original story, people will jump on it.” — Jane Anderson (It Could Happen to You)

If there’s one single advice to impart onto novice screenwriters, it would be to focus on writing extremely original stories. Give Hollywood what they didn’t know they wanted. That’s the secret to standing out.

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