Screenwriting Advice from Every 21st Century Oscar Winner

By Ken Miyamoto from ScreenCraft · August 29, 2020

We’ve searched for the best screenwriting advice from every Academy Award-winning screenwriter in the twenty-first century so far. Sit back and enjoy some of the best quotes that we found and see how they can apply to your own writing process and screenplays.

“Characters can be happy for the last three minutes… until then, it’s a bumpy road.” — Julian Fellowes, Best Original Screenplay for Gosford Park (2001)

“Writing is both a pleasure and a struggle. There are times when it’s really aversive and unpleasant, and there are times when it’s wonderful and fun and magical, but that’s not the point. Writing is my job. I’m not a believer of waiting for the muse. You don’t put yourself in the mood to go to your nine-to-five job, you just go. I start in the morning and write all day. Successful writers don’t wait for the muse to fill themselves unless they’re geniuses. I’m not a genius. I’m smart, I have some talent, and I have a lot of stubbornness. I persevere. I was by no means the best writer in my class in college. I’m just the one still writing.” — Akiva Goldsman, Best Adapted Screenplay for A Beautiful Mind (2001)

“I don’t want to imitate life in movies; I want to represent it. And in that representation, you use the colors you feel, and sometimes they are fake colors. But always it’s to show one emotion.” — Pedro Almodóvar, Best Original Screenplay for Talk to Her (2002)

“I can’t write treatments. I think there’s a danger with treatments. That you… you write out your first excitement and enthusiasm in a prose treatment.” — Ronald Harwood, Best Adapted Screenplay for The Pianist (2002)

“I like telling the story in a visual way. I don’t like explaining a lot in dialogue.” Sofia Coppola, Best Original Screenplay for Lost in Translation (2003)

“The last thing I want to see at the movies is a version of my reality. I don’t want to see art imitating life.” — Fran Walsh, Best Adapted Screenplay for The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)

“As a screenwriter, you have to let go, and you have to hand your baby over and let it go off into the world, which is entirely appropriate.” — Philippa Boyens, Best Adapted Screenplay for The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)

“Writing a screenplay with a group of collaborators is like the Lennon McCartney collaboration — sometimes one or two people do more than others on certain parts of the process and vice versa.” — Peter Jackson, Best Adapted Screenplay for The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)

“Do not simplify. Do not worry about failure. Failure is a badge of honor. It means you risked failure.” — Charlie Kaufman, Best Original Screenplay for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)

“In my opinion, it’s more interesting to see magic happening in a world that feels grounded. If the world is already crazy, then anything can happen. So it’s better to start with something real.” — Michel Gondry, Best Original Screenplay for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)

“For me all activity — art, film. etc. — are traces that occupy space, even if you are only trying to do something simple. By erasing you are simply adding.” — Pierre Bismuth, Best Original Screenplay for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)

“I think a badly crafted, great idea for a new film with a ton of spelling mistakes is just 100 times better than a well-crafted stale script.” Alexander Payne, Best Adapted Screenplay for Sideways (2004)

“I think once we fall in love with the characters, then it’s really just about the characters for us. We have the best time writing when the characters are leading us somewhere, and we’re not so much trying to write about some theme.” — Jim Taylor, Best Adapted Screenplay for Sideways (2004)

“I like asking myself difficult questions — I don’t think writers should write about answers, I think they should write about questions.” — Paul Haggis, Best Original Screenplay for Crash (2005)

“I was smart enough to understand one thing early on. It’s that no one can stop me from doing what I want to do. The only thing they could stop me from doing is getting paid at it.” — Bobby Moresco, Best Original Screenplay for Crash (2005)

“Writing is a form of herding. I herd words into little paragraph-like clusters.” Larry McMurtry, Best Adapted Screenplay for Brokeback Mountain (2005)

“The most important thing to know before sitting down to write is the nature of each of your characters — know them inside and out, through and through, as if they’re real. Know them better than you know yourself.” — Diana Ossana, Best Adapted Screenplay for Brokeback Mountain (2005)

“I read a lot of comedy screenplays, and the reason why most of them don’t work is they’re not about anything. If your story isn’t about anything, or your character just wants a pretty girl and the bag of money then — it’s not going to add up to anything.” — Michael Arndt, Best Original Screenplay for Little Miss Sunshine (2006)

“Dialogue is used to reveal not what we want to say, but what we are trying to hide.” — William Monahan, Best Adapted Screenplay for The Departed (2006)

“I think when you’re writing prose there’s a lot of attendant description and that’s where I used to really go bananas. With a screenplay that all gets filled in by the director, so it just sort of pulls you back by virtue of the form. You also have to use more economy as a screenwriter, and so it’s kind of limiting in a good way.” — Diablo Cody, Best Original Screenplay for Juno (2007)

“If the material is challenging, it forces you to challenge yourself when handling it.” — Joel Cohen, Best Adapted Screenplay for No Country for Old Men (2007)

“You don’t have to have a true story to make a true story movie.” — Ethan Coen, Best Adapted Screenplay for No Country for Old Men (2007)

“Why make a biopic if it’s not somehow helping us now? There’s really no point. If it’s not informing how we can do things differently now and maybe not repeat our mistakes, then why do this piece about this person or this event?” — Dustin Lance Black, Best Original Screenplay for Milk (2008)

“I guess my approach to adapting books is to treat them with a deep respect on one level and at another level part them to one side and go, ‘I’m doing something completely different here.'” — Simon Beaufoy, Best Adapted Screenplay for Slumdog Millionaire (2008)

“I’m interested in finding extraordinary moments in otherwise normal people.” — Mark Boal, Best Original Screenplay for The Hurt Locker (2009)

“I devoted myself to writing for years without representation or a promise of anything. And there were times when I felt quite down about my prospects.” — Geoffrey Fletcher, Best Adapted Screenplay for Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire (2009)

“I had written Tucker for Francis and was just naive enough to think that that meant it would get made immediately and change my life forever. It took ten years to get made, and it didn’t change my life that much. And I also thought that meant I could write anything I wanted in Hollywood. And you’re all wise enough to know that’s not true, but I did.” — David Seidler, Best Original Screenplay for The King’s Speech (2010)

“I’m very physical. When I’m writing, I’m playing all the parts; I’m saying the lines out loud, and if I get excited about something – which doesn’t happen very often when I’m writing, but it’s the greatest feeling when it does – I’ll be out of the chair and walking around, and if I’m at home, I’ll find myself two blocks from my house.” — Aaron Sorkin, Best Adapted Screenplay for The Social Network (2010)

“To me, the torture is getting the idea, working the idea out — its general plot, structure, and story. But once I know that, I can write a screenplay in two, three weeks. It’s the difference between writing it and writing it down. It becomes pleasurable for me and flows easily because I’ve done all the spadework beforehand.” — Woody Allen, Best Original Screenplay for Midnight in Paris (2011)

“I’ve certainly been someone who has loved to mine the trials and tribulations of growing up in general, and the people who are in our lives, and I don’t mind pulling from them and writing things down on my phone that my family says.” — Jim Rash, Best Adapted Screenplay for The Descendants (2011)

“There’s something about the schedule of working in TV that’s attractive. You know exactly what the next six months are going to be like. You’ll work Monday through Friday and have the weekends off, and then there’s going to be a hiatus here, so you can kind of plan a little bit.” — Nat Faxon, Best Adapted Screenplay for The Descendants (2011)

“If you have your movies so that everyone understands everything, I think that’s probably not a very good movie.” — Alexander Payne, Best Adapted Screenplay for The Descendants (2011)

“When people ask me if I went to film school I tell them, ‘No, I went to films.'” — Quentin Tarantino, Best Original Screenplay for Django Unchained (2012)

“You can’t really write until the characters kind of show up one day and tell you what they’re going to say. You start to hear the rhythm of the way the people talk, and then it becomes easier.” — Chris Terrio, Best Adapted Screenplay for Argo (2012)

“Some of the best ideas come from sheer discovery, and not by some masterminded, preconceived genius.” — Spike Jonze, Best Original Screenplay for Her (2013)

“We see films all the time, whether they have access to all kinds of intellectual property or artifacts, and the one thing that they don’t get is story. So I think whether you’re talking about a biopic or an action film or a science-fiction film that has all the CGI in the world if you’re not trying to connect with an audience, it doesn’t really matter.” — John Ridley, Best Adapted Screenplay for 12 Years a Slave (2013)

“I listen to a lot of music. I use music to help me work, and put my mind in the moment. It helps me pick the tone and helps when I need ideas. So that’s kind of my ritual.” — Armando Bo, Best Original Screenplay for Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014)

“For me, knowing and being able to understand and respect ‘the rules’ of dramatic structure frees me to be more adventurous and take bigger risks, because I know I will always be able to find the way home.” —  Alexander Dinelaris Jr., Best Original Screenplay for Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014)

“Collaboration is the most incredible thing. You learn about yourself because you have to put your own ego in a very special place, where you can be your best but at the same time accept all the ideas of the other guys. It’s tough to be able to throw all the mediocrity you have at others, and deal with the worst things they will say about it.” — Nicolás Giacobone, Best Original Screenplay for Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014)

“The creative process is mysterious — a conversation, a ride in the car, or a melody can trigger something.” — Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Best Original Screenplay for Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014)

“When I first starting writing, and no one was paying me, in order to feel like I had a real job, I would get out of bed, put on a jacket and tie every morning, and sit down at my desk.” — Graham Moore, Best Adapted Screenplay for The Imitation Game (2014)

“To me, great stories have multiple themes that resonate and are powerful.” — Josh Singer, Best Original Screenplay for Spotlight (2015)

“Taking chances is my job — some will connect and some won’t, and certain films find their audiences in different ways… you learn with every movie you make. You learn from your mistakes, and you learn from your achievements.” — Tom McCarthy, Best Original Screenplay for Spotlight (2015)

“I’m a big believer that romantic comedies have floundered because there are no real stakes.” — Charles Randolph, Best Adapted Screenplay for The Big Short (2015)

“First and foremost when you’re doing comedy, you gotta be relevant and applicable to the times that you’re living in. When you try and just do comedy about who is dating who and lifestyle jokes, it gets tiring after a while. It’s hard to be funny in that realm.” — Adam McKay, Best Adapted Screenplay for The Big Short (2015)

“I trust my judgment when I think it’s boring, dull, tepid and not interesting. That’s important to listen to.” — Kenneth Lonergan, Best Original Screenplay for Manchester by the Sea (2016)

“You’re going to fail so many times. Just fail better. You’re going to mess up. You have to. And you’re going to do work that is problematic politically and personally and work that is devoid of spiritual engagement, and your job is to keep trying to find your place in that work every time. And everyone is, like, they just want to put it out there and get it done. Why don’t you put it out there until you’re sure? Because once it’s out there, you have no control.” — Tarell Alvin McCraney, Best Adapted Screenplay for Moonlight (2016)

“As a writer, a blank page will humble the hell out of you. It always does, and it always will.” — Barry Jenkins, Best Adapted Screenplay for Moonlight (2016)

“That’s my advice with dealing with writer’s block. Follow the fun. If you aren’t having fun, you are doing it wrong.” — Jordan Peele, Best Original Screenplay for Get Out (2017)

“I always assume that nothing that I make is going to be a success, that everything I make is going to be a failure — not a failure but not some huge box office success. If something is an artistic success, I’ll be happy, but I’ll maybe be the only person that’s happy.” — James Ivory, Best Adapted Screenplay for Call Me By Your Name (2017)

“I’m just trying to tell a good story and make thought provoking, entertaining films. I just try and draw upon the great culture we have as people, from music, novels, the streets.” — Spike Lee, Best Adapted Screenplay for BlacKkKlansman (2018)

“My favourite genre lies inside myself, and as I follow my favourite stories, characters and images, it sums up to a certain genre. So at times even I have to try to guess which genre a film will be after I’ve made it” — Bong Joon-ho, Best Screenplay for Parasite (2019)

“My world is not spectacle and explosion. It’s two people talking.” — Taika Waititi, Best Adapted Screenplay for JoJo Rabbit (2019)


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

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