Five Writing Tips From Top Writers

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Everyone loves a how-to screenwriting article filled with nuggets of truth. How-to articles give us a window into someone else’s process. We get fresh ideas about how to approach storytelling, and we feel less alone in the struggle to create. It’s all good. But let’s do one better.

Let’s showcase the methods of working screenwriters who are making television shows and movies now. If you’re going to study screenwriting, why not learn from the best?

There are hundreds of working writers in Hollywood, but here are five great screenwriting tips that focus on actual methods used by top screenwriters.

Breaking Bad (2008-2013) Photo courtesy: Sony Pictures Television

No. 1 — Vince Gilligan

We all know Breaking Bad was a groundbreaking show that won dozens of awards. What is Vince Gilligan’s secret sauce? The element of surprise.

“It’s always a conscious choice to surprise people. That is always the mandate. Today, with all the wonderful — and sometimes not so wonderful — entertainment it’s harder than ever to keep things interesting, so you have to surprise people.”

Vince Gilligan (Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul, The X-Files)

The Social Network (2010) Photo courtesy: Columbia Pictures

No. 2 — Aaron Sorkin

Aaron Sorkin is one of those legendary writers who can write dialogue like nobody’s business. His approach? Keep the audience on its toes.

“We started at 100 miles an hour in the middle of a conversation [in “The Social Network”], and that makes the audience have to run to catch up. The worst crime you can commit with an audience is telling them something they already know. We were always running ahead.”

Aaron Sorkin (Social Network, A Few Good Men, Moneyball, West Wing)

No. 3 — Matt Weiner

Ever heard that persistence is key to a writing career? Matt Weiner takes that advice to the next level with some brutal honesty about his own journey:

“It took seven years from the time I wrote “Mad Men” until it finally got on the screen. I lived every day with that script as if it were going to happen tomorrow. That’s the faith you have to have.”

Matt Weiner (Mad Men, Sopranos)

30 Rock Cast (2006-2013) Photo courtesy: NBC Universal Television Studio

No. 4 — Tina Fey

Tina Fey has written one hit television show after another. She even managed to squeeze out a few cult classic movies like Mean Girls. Her advice to perfectionist writers? Hint: it’s pretty fetch.

“You have to try your hardest to be at the top of your game and improve every joke you can until the last possible second, and then you have to let it go. You can’t be that kid standing at the top of the waterslide, overthinking it. You have to let people see what you wrote.”

Tina Fey (Saturday Night Live, Mean Girls, 30 Rock)

Buffy the Vampire Slayer Cast (1997-2003) Photo courtesy: 20th Century Fox Television

No. 5 — Joss Whedon

Joss Whedon is one of the coolest cats working in Hollywood. But even cool cats like Joss get stuck in their writing, and here’s what he does when that happens:

“If something isn’t working, if you have a story that you’ve built and it’s blocked and you can’t figure it out, take your favorite scene, or your very best idea or set-piece, and cut it. It’s brutal, but sometimes inevitable. That thing may find its way back in, but cutting it is usually an enormously freeing exercise.”

Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly, Toy Story, The Avengers, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.)

What is your favorite writing advice? Why does it work for you? Sound off below!

author-avatar

Jennie Evenson is the author of “Shakespeare for Screenwriters” (Michael Wiese, 2013) and the forthcoming “Storytelling Secrets of the Masters.” As a writer in LA, Evenson worked as a consultant for Netflix and developed ideas at production houses from DreamWorks to Focus Features. You can follow her on Twitter: @JM_Evenson

7 Replies to "Five Writing Tips From Top Writers"

  • comment-avatar
    Holly July 17, 2017 (2:39 am)

    Ive spent since 2010 writing a script, re writing it, doing new characters, taking them out. And only now, out of the blue, the whole thing has dawned on me what I have to do – start again! But I now know where it needs to go, so its taken me now 7 years to discover what I wish I knew to start with but now I think I have made all the classic mistakes I needed to make to create something that not only I will like, but something that will sell. Those few . nuggets from the pros’ are so valuable, its made me realise when looking at my scenes, what am I really telling people , how do they feel, and is it necessary to the plot 🙂 . Thanks for Screenwriting U that have consistently nugget by nugget imparted information that is crucial to getting it right they are with me on a journey, and I cant wait to reach the ultimate destination – a first screening 🙂 Watch This Space xxx

  • comment-avatar
    Chris Willis July 17, 2017 (4:18 am)

    So where’s the fifth?

    • comment-avatar
      Martin July 17, 2017 (4:31 am)

      Leave them wanting more…

  • comment-avatar
    JW July 17, 2017 (4:57 am)

    The 5th Tip is, Write like you life depended on it.
    Don’t give a F__K what others say.
    It may have taken Matt Weiner 9 years… It took William Goldman 10 years to get “The Princess Bride” to the screen.
    Nobody really knows anything. They’re all grasping at the elusive money like addicted gamblers.
    You have to write true to yourself and for the love of writing.
    That has to sustain you, and if you’re good, the money will find you.

  • comment-avatar
    Therese Harrold July 17, 2017 (11:19 am)

    Whether or not the first 5 great “makes sense” tips (thank you!) are working for you,
    TIP # 6: SCREENWRITING U PRO SERIES AND MASTER SCREENWRITER CERTIFICATE PROGRAMS !

  • comment-avatar
    Michael James July 25, 2017 (6:38 pm)

    JW and Theresa are spot on. I’m a graduate of Screenwriting U Boot Camp PS38 (pro-series), best thing I’ve ever done. Elevated my sci fi script (www.Facebook.com/roswellthebeginning) with a rewrite that caught a Producers eye.

    If you can swing the cost, Screetwriting U, if not read Syd Field’s books.

    JW, sounds like you’ve been around the block a while, like me. The whole write what’s hot is streaming crock of crap, by the time you finish writing your post apocalyptic zombie vampire love story thriller musical Hollywood has moved on to something else. Write what YOU’D PAY TO GO SEE.
    The only people that write for the market are the top Pros giving the advice cos they are shaping the industry.
    You, me, and all unproduced screenwriters should write what moves you. The passion will shine through and that means more than coolness.

    It took Forrest Gump TEN YEARS from script to screen. Reminder: you’re a writer, you don’t have look or be young…ask William Goldman, he was way old and still writing killer scripts.

    Write on, right on. 👍✌💐🍀

  • comment-avatar
    Peter Howard September 25, 2017 (2:38 pm)

    Have a STORY to tell. If your story is like a rash that won’t go away, or an old girlfriend that you can’t get out of your mind,…if you execute it well, then it will be a story others will want to relate to and be a part of.
    So I hope I can finish MINE!!! —peter

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