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