What screenwriting lessons can we draw from the wise words of Genre Icon John Carpenter?
Writer/Director John Carpenter attended the University of Southern California’s School of Cinema in the 1970s. It was here where Carpenter directed the short film Dark Star, a science fiction comedy short. Carpenter would go on to expand the short into a feature length film in 1975, later becoming a cult hit.
In 1976, he directed Assault on Precinct 13, a film that was Carpenter’s urban take on the Howard Hawkes classic Rio Bravo. His major breakout film was 1978’s Halloween. Produced for just $300,000, it would go on to become the most profitable independent movie of its time — launching multiple sequels.
Carpenter would go on to become one of the most prolific genre directors of all time, mastering the genres of horror, science fiction, action, and fantasy.
His horror staples include The Fog, Prince of Darkness, In the Mouth of Madness, Christine, Village of the Damned, Vampires, and The Ward.
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He tackled science fiction and action in Escape From New York, Escape From L.A., The Thing, Starman, and They Live.
And his cross-genre hits included the science fiction/horror flick Ghosts of Mars, action/fantasy cult hit Big Trouble in Little China, and the science fiction/horror/comedy Memoirs of an Invisible Man.
On television, Carpenter presented the thriller Someone’s Watching Me, the miniseries Elvis, the Showtime horror trilogy John Carpenter Presents Body Bags, and two episodes of Masters of Horror.
Here we feature some of Carpenter’s best quotes about writing, directing, and producing, and apply them directly to screenwriting with our own elaboration.
“I don’t want to be in the mainstream. I don’t want to be a part of the demographics. I want to be an individual. I wear each of my films as a badge of pride.”
Whether it’s following some universal beat sheet or chasing current Hollywood trends, screenwriters get stuck in this trap of trying to be mainstream, because that’s where the money is.
The problem with that train of thought is a majority of novice screenwriters are trying to do that very same thing. The spec script market is saturated with the same types of scripts. In order to stand out, you want to be an individual. And that is what Hollywood is truly looking for.
“There are two different stories in horror: internal and external. In external horror films, the evil comes from the outside, the other tribe, this thing in the darkness that we don’t understand. Internal is the human heart.”
All protagonists must have external and internal conflicts that they are dealing with at the same time within the events of your screenplay’s concept and story. This is what gives your writing depth.
It’s very easy to have an external threat haunt or terrorize a character. But it gets boring. You need your protagonist also to be struggling with something internal as well.
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“What scares me scares you. We’re all afraid of the same things. That’s what makes horror such a powerful genre. All you have to do is ask what frightens you and you’ll know what frightens me.”
Never try to determine what others will respond to. The writing will come off as hollow. Write what affects you. If you’re writing a horror story, write what scares you. If you’re writing a comedy, write what makes you laugh. If you’re writing an action movie, write what excites you. If you’re writing a drama, write what emotionally affects you.
Chances are a majority of what affects you affects millions of others.
“The strongest human emotion is fear. It’s the essence of any good thriller that, for a while, you believe in the bogeyman.”
No matter what genre you are writing for, fear is the best and most relatable emotion.
In Jaws, it was the fear of what lurks underneath the surface of the water.
In The 40-Year-Old Virgin, it was the fear of losing one’s virginity and not knowing how to do that properly.
In The Shawshank Redemption, it was the fear of false imprisonment.
In Arachnophobia, it was the simple fear of spiders.
Fear is the best place to start as you begin to find the next concept that you want to tackle in your screenwriting. What scares you?
“[The horror genre] never dies. It just keeps getting reinvented and it always will. Horror is a universal language; we’re all afraid. We’re born afraid. We’re all afraid of things: death, disfigurement, loss of a loved one. Everything that I’m afraid of, you’re afraid of and vice versa. So everybody feels fear and suspense.”
Horror movies are the most consistent performers at the box office. And because of that, Hollywood loves the horror genre. Those are the types of scripts that most companies are looking for because they are cheap to produce, easy to market, and the profit margins are outstanding.
It’s no longer about endless sequels, either. Get Out and A Quiet Place were original screenplays that were produced for cheap and managed to reap significant acclaim and box office numbers.
But you can’t just write your version of what has come before. You need always to be reinventing the genre — just like those two scripts did.
Even if you’re usually a comedy writer (as was Jordan Peele before Get Out) or drama writer, challenge yourself by taking on the horror genre and adding that type of script to your stacked deck of specs.
“Movies are pieces of film stuck together in a certain rhythm, an absolute beat, like a musical composition. The rhythm you create affects the audience.”
The same can be said for the screenplays that movies are based on. There’s a beautiful and masterful beat to the best films. It’s like an outstanding musical composition that affects the audience.
Too many screenwriters just add scene upon scene to get through the plot of the story. They’re missing that key element to an excellent screenplay — the rhythm that is created by how the scenes are arranged.
The scripts that are sold, or those that get the writer the notice they’ve been dreaming of, have that beat and rhythm to them.
“I’m pretty happy with who I am. I like myself and what I’m doing. I don’t need to be the world’s greatest director or the most famous — or the richest. I don’t need to make a whole lot of great films. I can do my job and I can do it pretty well. This is the realization I’ve come to, later in life. It’s called growing up.”
Too many screenwriters strive to become the most acclaimed or the most successful. It’s understandable because that’s the dream we strive for as we watch our idols enjoy the spotlight.
But as you grow more mature through your screenwriting journey, you learn that all you need to do is be the best you that you can possibly be. You don’t need to write the latest Best Picture. You don’t need to be in the headlines for how much your script was sold for or how much money the eventual movie version of it made at the box office.
Just write your stories. And when you’re assigned to write a script, have fun with it and do the best you can. That’s more than enough in life.
“A lot of [success] is luck. That’s a huge part of it that no one wants to talk about. You just got to be in the right place at the right time.”
Early on, novice screenwriters think that it’s about who you know. Who you know only opens doors. You still have to be at the right place, at the right time, with the right person.
And you have no control over any of that. The only thing that you can control is what you write, how you write it, and how you get it out to the industry to increase your odds of being at the right place, at the right time, with the right person.
“To survive you have to withstand the changes in the business. This business has gone through so many changes since I was young and now it is on to something else. It is all weird today, for me, because I am from the old times. You just have to keep adapting. Isn’t that Darwinism? The creature that adapts to its environment survives.”
That’s the key to survival as a screenwriter. If you read books from professional screenwriters that made money back in the screenwriting boom of the 1990s, that was a completely different type of Hollywood. It doesn’t exist anymore so you can’t expect to abide by those directives.
When the one-two punch of the 2007/2008 Writers Guild strike and Economy Collapse hit, Hollywood changed. Over a decade later, we’re still feeling the ripples of those difficult times. And now with the advent of streaming channels and this fantastic age of television storytelling, the industry is changing once again. Agents and managers want clients that have TV projects to sell.
Adapt or die.
Read ScreenCraft’s Screenwriting Wisdom from the Master of Suspense!
Ken Miyamoto has worked in the film industry for nearly two decades, most notably as a studio liaison for Sony Studios and then as a script reader and story analyst for Sony Pictures.
He has many studio meetings under his belt as a produced screenwriter, meeting with the likes of Sony, Dreamworks, Universal, Disney, Warner Brothers, as well as many production and management companies. He has had a previous development deal with Lionsgate, as well as multiple writing assignments, including the produced miniseries Blackout, starring Anne Heche, Sean Patrick Flanery, Billy Zane, James Brolin, Haylie Duff, Brian Bloom, Eric La Salle, and Bruce Boxleitner. Follow Ken on Twitter @KenMovies