85 writing tips for play writers and screenplay authors
What is the one piece of advice you’ve received as a play writer or screenplay author that you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? That question was posed to a writer’s discussion group I belong to and here are over 85 answers.
Many of these are basic 101 type insights but I think even seasoned writers will find a few that will give them pause for thought. There are a few that say the same thing in different ways that I have kept in for reinforcement. To a writer, a piece of advice worded in a new way can lead to a different thought process and outcome.
Also, there’s at least one tidbit on this list that most people would say is “wrong”; so keep your critical eye on these and consider each one not as a rule, but as an element to consider absorbing into your creative process.
Less is more
Kill your darlings
Not yet (regarding when information should be revealed in the play)
Start in the middle
Keep it present tense or future tense
Let the characters talk; you edit
You don’t have to take, or agree with, every note
Write what you’re afraid to write about
Just stick to questions. If someone asks a question, don’t answer it for a while or ever
Don’t be sentimental about your work
Every scene should be a fight, a seduction or a negotiation
If a word or line doesn’t serve to further the action or story, cut it
What a character wants and what a character needs are virtually never the same thing
Listen to your characters. They will tell you what they believe to be true.
Learn the rules so you know how to break them
Start as late as you can in the action, so the audience is immediately engaged and trying to get up to speed
Full length, by the end of page two we should know what the play is about. Ten minute play, by the end of page one.
Exposition is ammunition – only fire it off when you need to.
Nothing is good or bad until you write it. Never be afraid to write anything.
Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.
Where/What is the danger?
Love scenes are murders, murders are love scenes.
Come into scene at the latest possible moment.
Write YOUR play
Show don’t tell
Put your characters in danger
You need to know three things before you ever write a line: What you want, what the characters want and what the characters actually do about it
Always tell the truth and then lie about it.
Your characters are real people, not imagination, and this is their story, not yours
If you are writing a comedy, keep your funniest scene for the last act
Listen to the characters’ silence
Run towards the questions the audience has (If the audience has a question about a character or action, don’t gloss over it; address it so the audience won’t get hung up on the small details)
Write characters that actors would kill to play
ALWAYS order the second drink
Give the actors something fun to do
Shock is good. The answers and endings don’t always have to be good.
Give your characters secrets
Character is story and story is character
You’re making a blueprint from which a team of creative people will build. NEVER explain. If it reads easily, it’s probably over-written.
Read one’s character’s lines all the way through when you’re editing – and end on an action.
If you have a scene that isn’t working then you should ask yourself three questions: Who wants what from whom? What happens if they get it or don’t? And why now?
Cut extraneous words; be merciless
Audiences care more about WHY someone does something than the actual behavior itself
Don’t talk to much about what you are writing until you’re ready to share it
Let the first draft suck
Don’t be afraid to make them feel
Every line in a play needs to add to a character, add to the plot, or be really really funny
Tighter is better. Never let your audience get in front of you
Pinter: A character, a place, a line of dialogue. You’re off.
Don’t show your work to anyone until it’s finished. Then only to someone who can progress it in some way.
Sometimes dialogue is not spoken
If a character should cry but doesn’t, sometimes the audience will for them
Love is in the details
Don’t let a page or two go by without a change in beat and/or a new action
Don’t ever invite the “editor” in until the “writer” is finished
That son of a bitch keeps interrupting me while I’m working
Do not start without a plan
I like writing without a plan. The characters tell me what happens next.
More needs to happen in less time
A play should be able to be produced with two chairs and a hanging lightbulb, and still make sense
No matter how small the beat, what just changed?
If there’s a gun on the will it better go off by the end of act one
If there’s a paper shredder onstage, someone’s necktie has to get caught in it
Learn how to hold the situation
Writing is rewriting
Keep it in the present tense
Only you can judge your work
Never write a character who is dumber than you
Let a play be as long as it’s meant to be, don’t telescope it into a perceived requirement
Everybody in the scene wants something
There are no rules
Write crap, then revise the hell out of it
Never give anybody anything the first time they ask
First draft is your gut, second draft is your brain, everything after is your heart
Start where the action starts
Being a screenwriter means you have to kill your “babies”
I never met a script I couldn’t cut 10% out of