The Art of Screenwriting: Martin McDonagh
Learning from the best in screenwriting is a sure-fire way for all writers to improve their writing drastically. Take Martin McDonagh, for example, someone who has made his name with In Bruges (2008), Seven Psychopaths (2012), and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017).
With a screenwriter and director as popular and successful as McDonagh, why wouldn’t you want to take a few screenwriting lessons from one of the best? Nevertheless, below will discuss what makes McDonagh such a captivating writer, particularly when it comes to those three films.
Photo credit: The Playlist
Don’t Follow Formulas
Don’t get me wrong, the formulaic way to craft a script does have some merit to it. It’s especially the case if you’re starting in the field and have never written a script before. You should know about act breaks and writing your beats so that your script flows the best it can.
However, with all that being said, McDonagh takes the opposite approach and feels writers shouldn’t get worked up in that regard. McDonagh has often gone on record that you shouldn’t follow any of the conventional structures with writing a script.
It’s best to get your story on paper and see where it goes. Though your first several scripts will suck, it’s ideal for keeping pushing ahead for the practice. Eventually, you’ll get to a spot you didn’t think was possible, all from practicing your craft and learning from others.
Love Your Characters
Like many popular screenwriters, McDonagh’s most significant strength comes down to his characters. For example, in In Bruges (2008), the story focuses on two assassins, Ray (Colin Farrell) and Ken (Brendan Gleeson). Both of these characters are incredibly likable and relatable, even though they’re both hitmen.
Part of that relatability and likability centers around McDonagh crafting characters he loves. McDonagh believes that every character you have in a script should be beloved. Even if it’s an antagonist, you should know everything about that character to get the most out of your writing.
Ray and Ken live a dangerous life, have killed many people, and have made mistakes, especially Ken. We feel sympathy for the two characters, which is a challenging emotion to evoke from the audience when the two characters are literal hitmen. How often is it for us to feel this way about two characters who are clearly in the wrong?
For whatever reason, there is an old expression that you need to do under a substance to get the most out of your writing. McDonagh feels that is a load of hogwash, claiming he’s never had a drink during his writing process. Though McDonagh claims they never did from the start, he feels it’s essential for writers to have that clean mindset.
McDonagh feels plots are mathematical, and writers need a clean and sober mind to focus on the logistics of that matter. Writers tend to be more honest when sober, whereas they may lie to themselves about their writing quality when drunk. Everybody is different, but it doesn’t hurt to stay clean while writing.
The most prominent issue novice screenwriters have with screenwriting is the process of writing itself. As great as it is to learn the rules of screenwriting, formatting a screenplay, and developing a story, none of that matters if you’re not writing frequently. McDonagh is a big advocate of writing a lot, claiming that writing as often as possible is the only worthwhile exercise.
Some may benefit from plotting it beforehand, but McDonagh feels it's best to jump right in. Some writers need to get pushed into it because they spend too much time prepping. As great as being prepared is, none of that matters if you’re not ready to take the next step
Dark Yet Funny
The common characteristic you’ll find throughout all of McDonagh’s scripts is the ability to combine dark subject matter with hilarious dialogue. Whether it’s Ray making fun of American tourists while feeling guilty over what he did or Mildred (Frances McDormand) setting the police station on fire, it is dark yet funny.
Dark comedies are a challenge that not everyone fully grasps how to make. All three of McDonagh have elements or are full-blown dark comedies, making his scripts the perfect for analysis. It’s a way of combining tragic and dark subject matter with hints of comedy.
Travel and Listen
Part of the reason McDonagh is such a master at screenwriting is his dialogue. His characters feel extremely real, even if they’re in a story setting that seems so otherworldly. Part of that success with crafting dialogue comes down to McDonagh traveling and listening to others in real. McDonagh believes that writers should take in what’s around them, especially while traveling. You never know what you may come across, especially if you add travel into the mix.
Best Martin McDonagh Scripts
● In Bruges
● Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
● Seven Psychopaths