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5 Lessons from Famous Screenwriters: Insights from the Masters

Learning from the best is crucial in any pursuit, especially in screenwriting. The craft of screenwriting breathes life into countless memorable stories, and without these writers' dedication and creative brilliance, your favorite films would never have come to fruition.


Nevertheless, if you aspire to become a screenwriter, here are a few general insights from some of the best, including the use of voiceovers, unconventional narratives, preparation, knowing where you’re going, and excellent writing. The list is curated based on interviews, articles, related themes amongst their works, and analyzing their scripts.


Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons


Paul Schrader - The Use Of Voiceover


When "narration" is mentioned, many worry about spoon-feeding the plot to the audience through voice-overs. While voice-overs have their purpose, don’t feel like you have to avoid voiceovers out of fear. Shrader is a master of voiceover, which is prevalent in many of his scripts, such as Taxi Driver, First Reformed, Bringing Out the Dead, and many others.


Regardless, ensure you pair your voiceover with a character who has a problem. The importance of conflict in a script is a well-discussed concept, emphasizing the need for a continuous source of tension for a script to function effectively.


It's crucial to recognize that conflict doesn't always entail physical confrontations; it can manifest as an internal struggle within a character. As demonstrated in Schrader's scripts, the art of characterization plays a pivotal role in crafting a compelling narrative, which voiceovers can enhance.


Charlie Kaufman - Unconventional Narratives


Screenwriters often differ in their adherence to writing rules, and in Kaufman's case, it's evident that he doesn't align with traditional storytelling conventions. This divergence is reflected in the distinctive nature of many of his scripts, deviating from the conventional storytelling methods.


Part of finding an unconventional narrative is through discovering your unique voice. As you embark on your screenwriting journey, you might not initially pinpoint the style or genre that suits you best. Therefore, it's advised to immerse yourself in the scriptwriting process, allowing yourself the freedom to explore. With no rigid rules, let your creative journey unfold organically and see where it leads you.


Furthermore, while not all of Kaufman's scripts have achieved the same acclaim as his most celebrated works, he has consistently emphasized the importance of not focusing too much on the audience. According to Kaufman, being overly concerned with the audience's perspective can hinder your script and impede creative writing.


Ingmar Bergman - Thorough Preparation and Execution


Preparation is critical to developing a great script, and Ingmar Bergman is one of the best examples of working hard at your script. It’s noted that Bergman follows a distinctive process in crafting his scripts, progressing through three phases with an initial handwritten draft, a subsequent typed working script, and a series of revisions leading to the shooting script.


Many regard Bergman's scripts as longer, more detailed pieces from his thorough preparation and execution. While debates persist about the need for concise scripts that avoid reading like a book, Bergman, as a proven auteur, challenges this notion.


In contrast to traditional filmmaking practices, Bergman's screenplays undergo fewer revisions, particularly in terms of phrasing and stylistic changes. These elements experience minimal alteration from the initial handwritten draft to subsequent versions, meaning he has less work to do down the line, hence the importance of the initial work.


Billy Wilder - Knowing Where You're Going


Billy Wilder is best known for having such an acclaimed, successful, and lengthy career, mostly related to his ability to know where you’re going. Wilder was meticulous in charting out every plot point and character before delving into the screenwriting process. While some filmmakers adopt a more spontaneous approach, allowing the story to unfold organically, Wilder's method is often considered ideal, particularly for beginners.


According to Wilder, thorough planning is crucial to avoid inadvertently steering characters away from their goals or well-defined lines of action. If characters deviate aimlessly, the audience is likely to follow suit. In Wilder's notable films, characters consistently uphold their goals and aspirations, contributing to the overall success of the narrative.


Jane Campion - Great Writing


Many filmmakers underestimate the importance of writing, prioritizing the technical aspects of filmmaking. As a great example, despite being an exceptional filmmaker, Jane Campion's true prowess resides in her writing skills, recognizing the crucial role of a compelling script.


In contrast to some filmmakers, Campion delivers a fully developed script. Her method treats it as a complete story from the story with various ideas, methodically arranging the pieces to achieve the desired outcome. She excels in making subtle adjustments that, when combined, result in significant and impactful storytelling.


Her outstanding writing excels at planting the seed of an idea in the audience's mind, skillfully steering their attention toward elements that will later resonate with them. Creating momentum and a gradual build-up is essential in any film, regardless of genre or writing style.

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