Here we highlight some amazing screenwriting wisdom from Jim Rash — Oscar-winning co-writer of The Descendants and co-writer/co-director of The Way, Way Back — through the lens of TSL Summit. Watch the full interview for free on the weekend of Sept. 22 and 23 only.
We’ve pulled some of his best nuggets of advice and perspective and elaborate on how those points can be best applied to your own screenwriting journey.
1. Stumble Into a Way That Works for You
Rash was asked about how he and his writing partner Nat Faxon learned the screenwriting trade as they made the transition from sketch writing to TV pilots and features.
He was very candid in admitting that they stumbled through their screenwriting education by reading all of the recommended screenwriting books — both good, bad, and everything in between. They would take bits and pieces from each and slowly apply them to their own process.
The mistake most screenwriters make early on in their journey is trying to apply specific secret formulas, beat sheets, or overall processes that they’ve studied to their own writing process. Most gurus pitch a particular method to sell books. Successful screenwriters preach a specific process that works for them. But in the end, there’s no one specific way to write a successful screenplay.
You have to do what every screenwriter does — even eventual Oscar winners like Jim Rash — stumble your way into a process that works for you.
Feed your brain with all of the screenwriting education you can, but never feel that you have to subscribe to any specific methodology. Instead, take what works for you and leave the rest behind.
2. Every Writing Duo Has Different Strategies
When asked about his writing process while working with his writing partner Nat Faxon, Rash quickly stated that every writing duo will and should have their own process.
He went on to say that some writing partners make an even 50/50 split with the screenwriting duties and pages. Others split up scenes and go off to write them independently until they come back together afterward and rewrite them. Rash worked with Alexander Payne and noticed that Payne and his writing partner would sit next to each other synced to the same screen while literally writing together.
For Rash and Faxon, they would usually write a skeleton version of a scene, sequence, or complete draft, and then get together and develop the material further.
When you work with a writing partner, you’ll find your own way to work together, based on each of your strengths, weaknesses, mentalities, schedules, and whatever other dynamics that come into play.
3. Avoid “Need I Remind You” Exposition
The thing that Rash tries his best to avoid while writing is the very mistake that he’s often made himself — bad exposition.
He tells the story of how he wrote some terrible exposition within a TV pilot he and Faxon were writing together. The character he was writing started his monologue with the phrase “Need I remind you…” and then went on to share information that Faxon’s character clearly already knew.
“Need I remind you that your house burnt down,” Rash laughed as he offered an example of how silly that bad exposition sounds because that character wouldn’t have forgotten about such an event.
When you catch yourself writing exposition that is clearly only present to inform the audience, know that it’s bad exposition. If the characters in the story know that information, there’s no reason to repeat it. And if you feel that the audience needs to be reminded, find a more creative way to present it.
4. Bring in Yourself and People That You Know
When adapting the novel of the same name for the film The Descendants, they received a note from Alexander Payne (before he officially came on as a co-writer and director) saying that they shouldn’t be scared of bringing a bit of themselves into the script.
When you’re writing a screenplay, even if it is set in space or some fantasy world, you have to find ways to bring yourself and your world into it somehow. Look at your life and find characters within the people you know. It helps you to understand what makes your characters who they are when you take traits, ticks, relationship dynamics, and moments from your life and the people around you. And the more you know about your characters, the easier they are to write.
5. Read It Out Loud
Rash was asked how he finds his unique voice that is ever-present within his projects. While it was difficult to pinpoint, he mentioned that he always searches for a particular rhythm within the dialogue that he writes. And he accomplishes that rhythm by reading the dialogue out loud with his writing partner. Then you start to get a feel for the rhythm of it and where it needs work.
He and Faxon would then improvise better variations and apply them to the script.
It’s very easy for screenwriters to use dialogue to merely move the plot along. You forget that these characters need to come to life. Reading the dialogue out loud is an amazing way to find the flaws in your dialogue and exchanges between characters. Don’t be scared to find a private place to act out the dialogue either.
6. Accolades Don’t Guarantee Success
When asked if the process of getting a script produced was easier after his Oscar win, Rash laughed and said that while it does open so many more doors, it’s still an uphill battle for each and every script.
The same can be said for you if you win that screenwriting contest, competition, or fellowship — or even after you’ve made connections within the industry and have garnered studio meetings and representation.
There are no promises when you receive any accolades or success. You just have to keep trying.
It’s always an uphill battle, even for Oscar winners.
7. The Thrill of the Finish Will Get You Through the Hard Times of Writing
Rash comments on how the writing and directing process can be agonizing. While there is a thrill to that process, it’s difficult. However, what gets him — and hopefully you — through those hard times is the thrill of the finish. And the finish is so worth it when you have that completed screenplay.
8. The Market Changes Every Minute
He shared the fact that a recent pilot he wrote was passed on by everyone he took it to, but it doesn’t mean that the work is bad.
The feature script market and the TV pilot market changes every minute. There is no way to predict a trend. There is no way to determine what you should or shouldn’t be writing at any given time because the market changes so fast as far as who wants what and why.
The lesson learned is that you just write what you want to write. Write what you’re passionate about. Yes, there are specific genres that studios, networks, and producers are attracted to most, but don’t be afraid to give them what they didn’t know they wanted.
9. When Writer’s Block Sets In, Do a Task
Rash told an interesting story about cleaning out his garage and how it applies to Writer’s Block.
He was working on a pilot and hit a wall. He couldn’t figure out a certain point in his script, so he decided to go do a task to get his mind away from overthinking it.
While cleaning his garage, he stumbled upon an item that somehow held the answer to the question he was trying to answer within his script.
When you hit a wall, it’s best to walk away from the screen and do something else. Go for a walk, go to the gym, go for a drive, or go do a task that you’ve been putting off. The answers will often present themselves when you’re not writing.
The TSL Summit features masterclasses, deep-dive interviews and lectures from Academy Award-winning screenwriters, TV showrunners, producers, managers, agents, studio executives and leading educators — all in one place. You can learn directly from the industry’s best about the craft and business of screenwriting and filmmaking.
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 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