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The Art Of Screenwriting: David Lynch

Originality and David Lynch go hand-in-hand, like Halloween and Candy Corn. While some may find his work odd or too surreal for their taste, no one can deny Lynch's uniqueness and what makes his work so remarkable. As writers, learning from the best is essential, and David Lynch is undoubtedly one of the greats.

In this article, let’s discuss what we can discover and learn about Lynch as a writer and filmmaker. Topics will include his interesting index card approach, his structure, general tips he’s given over the years, and more. Even if you’re not a David Lynch fan, there’ll be something worthwhile.

Photo credit: ECG Productions

Index Card Writing

David Lynch’s most unique traits aren’t necessarily his films themselves but rather his writing approach. The story goes that after being accepted into the American Film Institute in 1970, Lynch was mentored by Frank Daniel, a renowned Czechoslovak filmmaker whose teachings on film analysis profoundly influenced Lynch's approach to writing and directing.

Lynch has stated that if you aspire to create a feature film, gather ideas for 70 scenes and jot them down on 3-by-5 index cards. Once you reach 70, you've got yourself a feature film. Even today, although he delegates the task to an assistant, Lynch continues to adhere to this method.

The index card method is an interesting one, but few writers practice it since they adhere to the outline, treatment, and script format. I suppose when you’re a true visionary, you can utilize other methods, especially once the films are crafted and released.

Unusual Structure

Going off his index card writing, Lynch's films, weird or out-of-the-ordinary, are a commonality most fans expect. Generally, not every Lynch story adheres to the conventional three-act structure.

Traditional character arcs don't always bind his characters; his work is unique and often refreshing. It's not always successful, but when it is, you either embrace his style or you don't. That’s the beauty of what makes David Lynch so special.

David Lynch Tips

Plenty of articles discuss David Lynch’s writing tips, many of which are gathered from interviews he’s done over the years. I’ve gathered a few key points from these articles and slimmed them down to give you a sense of what he recommends writing-wise.

Writing vs Revision

It's common for novice screenwriters to become overly critical of their work, which can make completing a first draft difficult. Approach your initial draft with openness; not only will it be simpler to finish, but it will also be easier to revise later on.

Have Creative Freedom

Possessing creative freedom doesn't imply rejecting good ideas from collaborators, but avoiding situations where you feel compelled to accept a flawed idea is wise.


Devote yourself tirelessly to fleshing out every tiny detail that will ultimately converge to breathe life into your film.

Be Positive

The more you prioritize the happiness of both the cast and crew members during your film production, irrespective of their position on the call sheet, the greater the potential for igniting creativity on set.

Don’t Get Distracted

Put simply, to concentrate and accomplish significant work, it's vital to designate uninterrupted time. Consider switching off your phone, avoiding social media, and informing potential distractions that your work time is sacred.

Follow Your Gut

From preproduction to postproduction, remain faithful to the initial emotions and visions you experienced while reading the screenplay. Allow those feelings and concepts to guide your creative choices.

Common Themes

Watch any film directed by David Lynch, and you'll immediately recognize his distinct style. While the subjects of his films may range from chaotic romances to mysterious thrillers, there are consistent themes and atmospheres that the director conjures.

As a result, both critics and fans have coined the term "Lynchian" to characterize films or even real-life occurrences that embody that distinctive Lynch quality. There's a debate about the indescribable aura of his movies; this may hold true to some extent. However, specific tangible elements intertwine to create this ineffable sensation.

American Mythos

In Lynch’s movies, a recurring theme revolves around exploring the dark underbelly of the American mythos. Most of his films portray how danger lurks in seemingly innocent places, which, upon closer examination, may not be so innocent after all.

When you watch any of his movies, you'll notice familiar elements: character archetypes, locations, and unique dialogue. However, these elements are transformed into something alien and even ominous, giving it the Lynchian feel many have grown to love.


You don't have to watch every David Lynch film to grasp that dreams constitute the primary terrain he consistently explores and revisits. In my opinion, none of his emphasizes dreams as much as Mulholland Drive. Set in Hollywood, Lynch subtly suggests the influence of influential figures in the film industry, though everyone’s interpretation of the film may vary significantly.

Best David Lynch Films

I hope you enjoyed The Art Screenwriting’s discussion on David Lynch. Viewing his films is the best way to learn more from the filmmaker. I’ve compiled a few of my favorites and their respective loglines, so enjoy them and remember to keep writing to the best of your ability. There are plenty of ways to dive into his work, with some making lists that mention where to start and end with the filmmaker.

Henry Spencer tries to survive his industrial environment, his angry girlfriend, and the unbearable screams of his newly-born mutant child.

A Victorian surgeon rescues a heavily disfigured man who is mistreated while scraping a living as a side-show freak. Behind his monstrous façade is revealed a person of kindness, intelligence, and sophistication.

The discovery of a severed human ear in a field leads a young man on an investigation related to a beautiful, mysterious nightclub singer and a group of psychopathic criminals who have kidnapped her child.

Anonymous videotapes presage a musician's murder conviction, and a gangster's girlfriend leads a mechanic astray.

After a car wreck on the winding Mulholland Drive renders a woman amnesiac, she and a perky Hollywood hopeful search for clues and answers across Los Angeles in a twisting venture beyond dreams and reality.


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