The Art of Screenwriting: Nora Ephron
Not too many screenwriters can say their writing career began as a journalist, but that’s undoubtedly the fate Nora Ephron experienced in her life. Initially working as a newspaper reporter in New York City, Ephron made a name for herself as a scriptwriter with Silkwood (1983), When Harry Met Sally... (1989), and Sleepless in Seattle (1993), all of which were nominated for the Academy Award for Best Writing.
It’s quite remarkable to see anyone transition from one prestigious career to another. Still, Ephron is an embodiment of showcasing talent has a way of making it through. Nevertheless, if you’re interested in learning what makes Ephron such a treasured writer in the screenwriting world, continue reading as we discuss the art of Nora Ephron’s screenwriting.
Photo credit: Times of Israel
Write From Experience
Not writing from experience is one of the most significant issues novice writers find themselves in. Although it’s certainly possible to write a fully-fledged story that has nothing to do with any of your own personal experience, most writers use bits and pieces of their life, so they’re writing in a way that’s familiar to them.
For instance, when Ephron wrote Silkwood (a film starring Meryl Streep as Karen Silkwood, a film about a whistleblower at the Kerr McGee Cimarron nuclear facility who dies under suspicious circumstances), Ephron knew what a union negotiation looked like because she reported on several of them when she worked as a journalist.
It’s not like Ephron wrote a direct synopsis on her life but instead knew how to utilize her experience with unions for the script. Many writers do this in subtle ways because it’s not as apparent as an auto-biography. It’s more or less using life as a direct influence on the writing itself.
Stories Are Developed From What’s Around Us
Ephron has gone record stating how writers create stories by imposing a narrative on events around us. It may seem like a complex notion but think of it like this: Imagine you’re at a coffee shop and see two people arguing. Why are they arguing? Start to develop the answer to that question and see where it leads.
Obviously, the answer to that question is almost impossible for you to accurately predict, but that’s the beauty of storytelling. It’s entirely up to you to come up with an exciting premise surrounding that argument. Inspiration is all around us, and making those interesting events truly special is where a great story can come from.
A Great Script Has Structure
One can argue that Ephron’s belief in a script having structure has to do with her previous work as a journalist, a job that requires great detail and structure for whatever writing style the news agency follows. As for Ephron’s screenwriting, it follows the path of the story closely without adding an excessive amount of details.
For example, the script of When Harry Met Sally… begins with a straightforward explanation of a man and woman looking at a camera. Within a sentence, the man begins to speak, and the story goes from there. It didn’t require an essay to introduce every character. Instead, it followed the screenplay structure of less is more.
Writing Takes Time
Like most efforts in life, writing takes time. Ephron is a prime example of someone who didn’t step foot into the screenwriting world until the 1970s when she was in her thirties. While working as a journalist, Ephron wrote a script for All the President's Men, and although the script wasn’t used, it eventually led to her first screenwriting job.
Similar to her position on how writers develop stories, Ephron is also a firm believer that writing takes time. Seeing as Ephron worked as a journalist for eight years before she had a knack for screenwriting, novice screenwriters need to understand success isn’t going to happen any night. It can take years, so stick with it just like Ephron did.
The Story is Up To the Writer
More often than not, writers get worried about what the audience is. Ephron is a writer who believes that sometimes the audience doesn’t know what they want, so you might as well write a story that you get excited about. Now, this doesn’t mean you should ignore all screenwriting principles and develop an overly arrogant avant-garde script.
All it means is understanding why you’re writing a story, how you can develop it, and what you can do to master it. Going back to the notion of structure, Ephron had a very studious nature with writing, declaring that if a writer can have a base and structure to their story, it’ll come out much better in the end.
Make the Audience Care
On its base, Silkwood sounds like a story that could be a bore to sit through. Instead, it’s a biographical drama that entices the audience along every step of the way. There are many ways to make the audience care, and Ephron developed a knack for writing so that her scripts were either quirky, obstinate, or thoughtful enough to evoke an emotion.
● Julie & Julia (2009)
● When Harry Met Sally (1989)
● You've Got Mail (1998)