“We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect.”
— Anaïs Nin
Nora Ephron, Emma Thompson, Diana Ossana, and Pilippa Boyens share their tips for nailing it when writing a script:
Nora Ephron (Silkwood, You’ve Got Mail, Julie & Julia)
“As a young journalist I thought that stories were simply what happened. As a screenwriter I realized that we create stories by imposing narrative on the events that happen around us.”
– Nora Ephron (Mark IV)
The key element to Nora Ephron’s timeless narrative writing is structure. In her words, if one gets the structure of a story right, the other elements fall into place effortlessly. An effective beginning, middle and end to the story narrative are instrumental to capturing the audience’s interest, with particular emphasis on maintaining a clear distinction between the three components.
Make your characters multidimensional, with hidden layers which get unraveled deeper into the story. Nora says that she writes women characters as they are – complex and interesting; not the usual half-baked characters portrayed on the Hollywood screen. If the movies Julie and Julia, Hanging Up, and This is My Life are any indication, she certainly imparts amazing detail to her characters.
Diana Ossana (Brokeback Mountain)
“I’ve learned that the most important thing to know before sitting down to write is the nature of each of your characters — know them inside and out, through and through, as if they’re real. Know them better than you know yourself.” – Diana Ossana (Screencraft)
Be consistent in the delivery of your characters. Your characters are the sole essence of your film and it’s important to maintain their defining characteristics uniformly throughout the movie. While making any changes to the script, one should first check whether the particular action is true to the character’s nature or not. A good screenwriter should be able to blend seemingly different settings seamlessly into a polished adaptation on the screen. For instance, Ossana’s screenplay of the ‘Brokeback Mountain’ oscillated between two entirely different settings – the beautiful and pristine region of the Brokeback Mt. and the repressive culture of the discriminatorily heterosexual West America. Her screenplay flows beautifully highlighting the contrast between the two settings.
Emma Thompson (Sense and Sensibility, Nanny McPhee)
“I think screenplays are about the ellipsis. It’s all about energy. I know writers who could write really great screenplays in one go. I’ve never done that. Sense and Sensibility was 17.” – Emma Thompson (BAFTA)
The Oscar award winning author and renowned feminist Emma Thompson’s approach to her writing is mainly focused on polishing and refining her ideas to perfection. As evidenced by the 17 revisions to the first draft of ‘Sense and Sensibility’ (over 600 pages long!), Emma works tirelessly to develop the best possible rendition of her screenplay. In her words, “Write everything and then take out as much as you can.”
Adaptations, for Emma, are a combination of “imaginative invention and distillation of the original novel.” Since, it’s not possible to put an entire novel on the screen, she recommends sticking to the core parts of the story. You know you have got the perfect screenplay if it’s dynamic, attention-grabbing and induces an emotional response in your audience.
Philippa Boyens (Lord of the Rings – the Hobbit trilogy)
“We don’t start writing until we know where we are, what we’re doing, and why we’re doing it.” – Philippa Boyens
Philippa Boyens is the co-author of the screen adaptation of the wonderfully intricate novels – The Lord of the Rings. When presented with complex challenges like adapting Tolkien’s novels, Philippa explains that the method followed by her is deconstruction. Read the novel thoroughly, then re-read it. Make a list of characters, their relationships to each other, the continuity of the plot, scenes. This is the best way you can keep things organized and perform justice to every one of your characters.
To make a screenplay as grabbing as possible, Philippa’s techniques include adding depth to the characters, the plot, and even the screenplay by adding elements which the audience can identify with and remember. For Philippa, the aim of a screenplay is: “Creating these moments that I hope are memorable and stay with people. It’s the best fun you can have on film – to go in there and have that blank page and play the story out in your mind: infinite possibilities.”
Which tip would you give to your readers for writing an award-winning script?