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.

Get angry

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.

Why today?

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”

Finish it

I never met a script I couldn’t cut 10% out of

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