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The Greatest Scriptwriting Tips You Will Ever Read

So, you’ve bought all of your How-To books, you’ve structured your idea, you’ve consumed thousands of cups of coffee while busily writing your notes and now… now you have to write a script.

So, it’s probably time to give up.

The fact is, the hardest part about writing is the writing part. Anyone can lay out a strong structure for a script — but it takes talent, patience and a little bit of insanity to actually write something good.

It also takes time. You have to learn through trial and error, and you have to figure out what tricks work for you. I’ve been doing this whole writing thing for a while now, and while I don’t pretend to be any kind of writing guru, I am trying to get my writing guru license.

Which is why I have compiled a list of writing tips that I have known to be right and true. I have, because I am, like a writing Buddhist monk, humble, I have titled it simply:  The Greatest Scriptwriting Tips You Will Ever Read.

Here we go.

1. Write. A lot.

This one seems simple, but it isn’t — fact is, much like most art, you need to be in a mood to write and sometimes these moods are few and far apart. This, however, is no excuse.

You should write every single day — it can be the script you’re working on, it can be other scripts, it can even be fan fiction for your favorite romance novel (“She ran her fingers through his sensually curled chest hair…”) but you need to write at least a page a day. Why? Because writing is a lot like playing a sport. If you play every day, you’re going to get better, you’re going to have the rhythm and timing of the game become reflexive so you can play it at its highest level without thinking. Writing is similar. You want to get into a rhythm, a frame of mind, you want your brain to be ready to open the creative gates and let the writing flow.

So write, write, and write again — it’s what writers do.

2. Don’t Edit Yourself.

I mean this in two very important ways.

The first: It’s very easy to imagine your mother or father watching the production of your script and recoiling in terror at the sexual innuendo and nude scenes that you’ve stuffed in there for plot development (and to see your actors naked). It’s even easier to imagine your friends all hating you when they recognize your characters’ odd ticks as being their own — but don’t. In fact, stop caring right now. Art can’t be censored, and if what you’re writing is good you have to be faithful to the work and ignore the consequences of it. Frankly, if you want to be a writer, the work is what’s important, and once the work is finished, then you can deal with your parents asking you why it was necessary to title your script, The Penis.

The second: My brother is a great writer — but it can take him a week to write two pages because he tries to craft the perfect script page by page by page. A lot of good writers do that, and it not only kills any love you have for the idea, it also is about as fun as chewing out your own veins. Finish your script then edit. Life is so much easier when you’ve got a beginning, middle and end. It can be awful, it can be the worst thing you’ve ever read — but you’ve got something to work with and it’s much easier to mold awful into amazing when you at least have awful.

As I would say if I was a sassy black woman — baby, if you start with nothin’, you ain’t gonna have nothin’ to work with.

So finish, then mold.

3. Torture Your Characters.

A script is the time in a character’s life when something extraordinary happens. It’s the part in their life when they say, “Everything was normal until…” A script is also a time in a character’s life where they learn something, something that changes everything. How do you do this? You torture the hell out of your characters. As long as it matches your plot and idea, there’s no limit to the awful things that you can’t have happen to them. Beat them down, beat them until they’re lost, beat them until they’ve given up, beat them until every decision they make is about life or death (either literally or just to them) — beat them until they are forced to grow and change and struggle and finally, in the end, grow to a point where they can defeat Darth Vader.

4. Find a Writing Space.

Every writing book mentions this and I used to think it was one of those silly suggestions that they all have, like, “Write a note to yourself saying how proud you are of your own script!” …but finding a writing space is really good advice.  I write best when it’s raining, jazz is playing and I have a cup of coffee sitting proudly in my Break a Leg mug.  I also write well in coffee shops, but they have to be a particular kind of coffee shop — brick walls, good music, a generally cozy feeling. I learned to write from Neil Simon, Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, et cetera — so, that might be the reason why my brain begs me to recreate New York in the winter time for the perfect writing environment.

Whatever space makes you feel writer-ey try to recreate it. It seems like fluff advice, but it makes a huge difference. It’s like you’re giving your brain a comfortable therapist chair where it can safely tell you all of its crazy.

5. Don’t Be Afraid to Kill Your Babies.

This isn’t so much writing advice as it is an important life lesson… kill your babies.

Hear me out.

When I wrote my first full-length play, I put it up at my college and my drama teacher (not Carla Zilbersmith, but a gruff, old man who everyone worshipped but who I thought was a terrible, terrible director) gave me the only good piece of advice he ever gave: “Don’t be afraid to kill your babies.” Just smash their skulls against a rock.

What he meant was, don’t fall in love with your jokes, your precious moments, your plot points — anything (at least I assume that’s what he meant, he could’ve just thought I’d have ugly babies). I’ve found myself thinking of ways to wrap my script around a single scene that I love — only to find out that the script was in fact far stronger when that scene was cut. I’ve written around jokes because I thought they were too brilliant to get rid of. I’ve stuck with a plot point because I thought it was perfect only to realize that, in the end, it was the main problem with the script. Every time I have stubbornly fallen in love with a piece of my own writing at the sake of the rest of the story, I’ve been shown the error of my ways. Namely, the script is far weaker because of it.

Just remember: There’s no joke that is too funny to cut. There’s no moment too good that you can’t find a better one. There’s no line too powerful that it’s worth hurting your script for.

Kill your babies.

6. When Creativity Fails, Get Life’s Help.

Life tends to be way more interesting than art — if your brain freezes, look at life for help. Read stories, talk to friends, randomly Wikipedia things, go out and watch people. Let your brain wander and look for motivation and ideas in life — it is, after all, your muse.

7. Talk it Out.

If you’re stuck, talk to someone you trust about the script. I tend to go to my brother when I’m stuck on a script point — there are very few things that he and I can’t brainstorm through. Sometimes, you get stuck in your own brain and it becomes increasingly hard to solve a problem in there. Talk it out. Even if it’s telling people who could care less — it might get your brain working. I find homeless people are perfect for this — they’ll tell you about ‘Nam, you tell them that you’re not sure how to get the two lovers together, and somewhere in the middle, you’ll both figure out the answer to your questions. Which will generally be, “We need more crack.”

8. Know When To Give Up.

You should never give up… on writing. But, sometimes, your idea is just… well, bad. You think it’s great, you think that it’s going to change the world and you’ve already imagined the flock of women/men surrounding your limo, begging for you to sign their breast/testicle — but, somewhere in the middle you may realize that, no… your idea is just terrible.

Don’t give up immediately of course. Write different drafts, show it around, try and change what you’re writing, shake up the story, whatever. Try everything. But in the end, if nothing works — stop. Just… stop.

There are bad ideas. Not all art is art, some art is garbage (and not in that artistic way that people use garbage). So, trash the idea and start over. Perhaps, the genius moments in this script will be even better if used in a new idea, a new concept, a new page. Or maybe not.

If you’ve learned how to kill your babies, you should also learn to drown your full-sized children.

But don’t actually do any of that because it would be murder and stuff.

9. Don’t Edit Forever, Know When To End.

Because brevity is the soul of wit, because you can tinker with a script forever, because it’s only appropriate that I end this article with this simple idea:

Know when to end.

Fin.

Blackout.

Fade Out.

Whatever.


(…if you have any questions, email me or leave a comment, I’ll gladly answer!)

Written by

I am a writer, director, producer and co-founder of HLG Studios.

23 thoughts on “The Greatest Scriptwriting Tips You Will Ever Read

  1. This post couldn’t have come at a better time for me Yuri- I on the final(ish) rewrite stage of a 15 ep series that I’ve written and I’m starting to feel the fatigue set in. It’s my first project that I’ve taken to Final Draft but the 1st set of drafts came fairly easily and have been really well received. Now it’s the grunt work, re-write after re-write, and I’m starting to question why I decided to throw my hat into yet another creative ring where no one pays you at the spec stage.

    Your post, however, gave me a ‘thumbs up’ and made me remember why, in a way, I chose to begin script writing- because I already do those things you listed above, I actually want to do them. I was ‘precious’ about my acting for too long, caring about being ‘good’…now I just want to write kickass stories that take no prisoners and make people feel. I’ve been ‘killing babies’ the past two weeks, torturing character (and myself as I write).. and I will write something every day, even if it’s a blog post at 1am. I learned as an actor you have to act every day- and that can be hard as delivering a monologue to your cat is lame- but as a writer there is no excuse not to put pen to paper, fingers to keyboard.

    A lot of my actor friends have asked me how I started producing and now writing…my answer is always ‘I don’t know I just did it’. It’s not that simple but two years ago I started writing a series bible for a big fantastic tv show (still not done!), the first time I’ve ever endeavored to create something, and a year ago I decided to start blogging about random media and entertainment topics that struck my fancy…and I forced myself not to censor. In fact when I went back to edit, I barely ever cut the text I would have originally censored; it was always the most interesting stuff. Because of blogging, I ended up ‘discovering my voice’.

    So if there is one ‘tip’ (amidst all my ramblings) that I can make, it would be to suggest using blogging as a transition into screen writing. For many new writers, especially those coming out of college, they are hamstringed by the rigid structure forced upon them for the past four years. Their individual voice and personal experiences are paramount to their creative success, so if they can’t both articulate and share them in the free form format that is a blog, how will they do it in Final Draft?
    When it comes to me- I must learn tip #9-
    Thanks for the post Yuri
    Taryn

  2. First of all, having been forced to write almost 40,000 words this semester alone by my various writing classes, I completely agree with all of these things and think you are a genius. Strike that. CONTINUE to think you are a genius. It’s not like this is some big revelation.

    Yuri, and I mean it when I say this, you would be exponentially better at teaching the Freshman “Storytelling Strategies” class than any of the teachers that are currently teaching.

    Take mine for example. He is somewhere between the ages of 65 and 100 (maybe). He has Parkinsons and a naturally quiet voice. Combine those two and you have a recipe for a teacher that you never understand. Oh, did I mention he claimed the first day of class that they “threw this class on him at the last minute” and that “no good cinema has been created since 1964”

    Yeah.

  3. hahahaha, that’s hilarious (and unfortunate) anna. did they throw him the job after mr. daniels had a stroke?

  4. Great post, Yuri, and an important reminder for us writers who often don’t write until the mood strikes, edit page one to death before we even get to the plot, and keep our rotten babies on life support in a petulant creative fit of unwillingness to give up on a bad idea.

    The only addition I would make would be to pick an idea and FOCUS FOCUS FOCUS on it. I’ve been writing my entire life, literally since I created my first 3-act play at the ripe old age of ten about the battles of good and evil set in hotel that was a metaphor for purgatory (I went to Catholic School). The main characters names were Angelica Havenly and Daphne Stantan. Get it… angel and devil? Hey, I was ten. But I remember diligently focusing on it, day and night, creating vivid character descriptions and plot twists and spending every waking minute fine-tuning it (on pink looseleaf paper, no less).

    Obviously, most of us don’t have that kind of time to devote to our craft, much as we wish we did. Writing is often a side project while our pay-the-bills day jobs pull us in a multitude of directions, so when we do find the time and space to put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard, it’s important to focus on that one idea, and for lack of a classier euphemism, ‘git ‘er done.’

    If any of you reading are like me, I always have about a dozen ideas for a new web series or screenplay or book or TV show flitting through my mind, and I spend precious time noodling each of them (that now sit in the cyber equivalent of a pile of crumpled, unfinished papers on my desktop) instead of focusing on one and seeing it through to completion. Entrepreneurs are similarly afflicted, spreading themselves thin with an array of new ventures instead of honing that one start up that will be the next big thing.

    While it’s important to cultivate ideas, and new experiences and thoughts inform our writing and add depth of our creations, if you don’t focus on following through on a single idea, you won’t grow as a writer. Or, have anything to show for all your writing.

    Finish it, screw up, start again, rinse, repeat. You’re never going to write the script that lands you at the star-studded premiere if you don’t at least have one finished disaster you can learn from.

    In short, pick an idea and go with it (unless of course it’s a real stinker which Yuri covered above).

    Thanks again for the smart insights and inspiration. Off to dust off and finish that screenplay I’ve been working on for over 2 years!

    Gennefer
    http://www.twitter.com/Gennefer

  5. I was Yuri’s muse for this post, and I’ve been tasked with taking my follow-up questions to this venue.

    Yuri, I’m curious in particular about your personal process. What generally happens from the moment you get an idea to the moment you have a script and decide it’s ready to put in front of a camera? Sub-question: how, if at all, has this process changed from when you started writing to today? Have most of the initial planning and structural steps subverted themselves into one big mush-ball in your mind so that they’re entirely second-nature and to the outside observer almost non-existent, or are there still identifiable steps you follow before hitting Final Draft (or Celtx, or what-have-you)?

    Your initial post is full of good advice, and one I will bookmark as a reminder when I can’t figure why I haven’t written anything for two weeks, but I can’t say I know why I’m curious about your process. I guess… I guess I’m just curious?

  6. Man, I know how hard it is to let a precious joke go. I too have spent many hours trying to write around a “good” one. It gets harder as the script changes. “What’s with this Don Quixote joke in the second act?” “Well, you should have read the first draft. …There were a lot more windmills in that version.”

    Oh, and I’m counting this comment as my writing for today. Lollypop please!

  7. Similar to step 9 (thought it would be more like step 1.5 in the chronological sense), I would add “Don’t Research Forever,” which is definitely something I’ve struggled with on some projects.

  8. Oh, Drew, you’re my muse for everything.

    My general process is this — I get an idea and I let it linger a bit. I tend to need a beginning and ending before I put anything on paper — it helps me know where I’m going. To be especially detailed, it really helps me to pick out music that fits the style of whatever I’m writing and play it on my iPod when I go somewhere. It almost puts me in the world of my characters and I, honest to God, just let scenes float into my head. This results usually in me muttering lines of dialogue (I basically improvise with myself) while walking places — which, thankfully, I live in San Francisco so it’s fairly normal behavior (I say this as I sit in a coffee shop with a guy nearby who’s having a fantastic conversation with absolutely no one next to him).

    Once I have a basic idea, a beginning and an end, I write out the characters. I do it quickly, but I like knowing who they are so I can write them. It can be as simple as, “based on…” and write a friend’s name. Or give them a few descriptions.

    That leaves me with — a beginning and an end (which may or many not change up over time), my characters and, as a result of both, a general style to what I want to make. From here I’ll do one of two things: I’ll either start freewriting and hope something comes to me (and sometimes it does), or I outline the script VERY basically.

    I usually break it down into a three-act structure, and just make it very simple. For Break a Leg, The Pilot, it’d be something like:

    Central Question: Will the cast get the money to make their show?

    Act I: Introduction to characters, world, problem (Producer has no money).
    Act II: Attempt to fix the problem (Fundraiser).
    End of Act II: Failure to fix problem, with one last ditch effort (ask the mysterious network head.)
    Act III: Characters go talk to the head and solve problem.

    Not that the Pilot was an amazing piece of writing or anything, but that’s how it can be broken up. It helps because then every act has a beginning and an end, much like the script, and I have something to write toward.

    One thing I ALWAYS try to think of before I write anything down is the central question. I wrote this before and if you’ve read any scriptwriting books you know what it is, but — it’s a one sentence yes or no question that is the basic theme of your entire script. Will the cast get the money? Will David Penn stop the cast from quitting? Will Marty McFly get back home? It’s always very simple, but it really helps narrow the focus. Once I have the central question it’s easier for me to write a scene and go — how does this scene help us get closer to solving that question?

    Then I start writing. Sometimes, it’ll flow smoothly without any real structural breakdown, other times it feels like I’m pulling teeth because I’m not really sure where I’m headed. When the latter happens, I’ll literally break up the acts, scene by scene. It’s easier to see where you’re headed that way. If you know what you want to happen in Act I, how you want it to start and end, then it’s easy to write it scene by scene, with one sentence descriptions of each scene. Generally, I hate doing it because I just want to get to writing, but I always end up thanking myself for it.

    Once I have enough to actually write, I just try and write until the end. It doesn’t always work. I’ll often write all night and not read it over then sit back down to write the next day and just absolutely hate everything. If I have the willpower, I keep writing, but often I’ll start rewriting and break one of my own rules. I really, really recommend just finishing the damn thing.

    If I was giving advice for someone’s first project, I’d say:

    1. Figure out a beginning and end (nothing is set in stone, but it’s a good start.).
    2. Figure out your central question.
    3. Figure out who your characters are and how they change from beginning to end.
    4. Break down your script into basic film structure.
    5. Break down your acts into basic scenes.
    6. Write, write, write, write, write, write.

    I hope that helps.

  9. As for everyone else:

    Thanks for all the good comments! I’m glad you guys enjoyed the blog. A quick question for you: Is there anything else in this general subject that you guys would like me to write about? These blogs seem to get a good response and I’d love to continue on this sort of tangent.

    Gennifer: I agree with keeping focus. It’s tough to do in this business, though, isn’t it? I find myself focusing on one story then having the opportunity to pitch to companies or other places and realizing my story does not at all work with their product, so I start writing new ideas and… fact is, if you’re a scriptwriter, you’re always going to get: “good script. What else do you have?” and if you have nothing, you’re in trouble. So, it’s a balancing act. Definitely try and finish what you’re working on but don’t spend years perfecting one script unless it’s the next Schindler’s List. It’s a rough business and it’s even rougher if you put all your writing eggs into one delicious egg-ey basket.

    Taryn — I agree with you, definitely. I think it’s not even just blogging as much as it is just writing ANYTHING. It drives me nuts when people who have never written anything tell me they’re writing a screenplay. There’s so much that goes into the art that unless you’re some kind of genius, you’re not going to create brilliance on the first try. I definitely agree — writing, any form of writing, is always going to help.

    Anna — Your teacher sounds like the most amazing teacher in the entire world. I don’t think I can top that.

    The guys who said I should teach — Sure, why not? Or a book deal, you know. Whatever comes first!

    Thanks, all!

  10. Here are my two cents:

    – Rewriting your script may seem… like a pain in the ass. But it can be very fun, as well. It can be like adapting somebody else’s play. Often times when I rewrite, I see and find ways to exploit the subtext that I didn’t even know was there in the first place (on my latest play, I completely changed the entire scene by adding one line).

    – It’s okay to fall in love with your babies. It really is. That way, when you have to kill them, you’ll have a better understanding of what makes good writing good writing.

  11. Great tips. Thank you! Paying special attention to #2: Don’t Edit Yourself. Recently lost some time by going back to the beginning on a 3/4-finished script. Just now getting back on track. You’re absolutely right – better to get to the end before going back and editing.

  12. Yuri, I’m loving your posts. Perfect timing as I’m sludging through a pilot killing babies left and right. God, that makes me sound so psychotic, and I kind of like it:) Thank you, thank you, thank you.

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  15. Dear Uri,
    I got the link to your blog from twitter and what a blog.
    The main Block is when you start writing on your original idea, you feel/remember/discover that this has already been said by somebody, somewhere. How to counter this? By style alone?

  16. Rajeev,
    You can’t let this get to you, or how do you write anything, you know? If you are originial, people will see that, and the dumb ones won’t and you have critics.

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