What screenwriting wisdom can be drawn from the words of Hollywood’s best female screenwriters?
The times have changed — and for the better. We’re seeing more and more features and television shows being written, produced, and directed by women.
Here we feature quotes from Hollywood’s best past, present, and up and coming female screenwriters — accompanied by our own elaboration as to how these wise words apply directly to screenwriting.
“There are stories to be told that are still untold and characters to be portrayed that haven’t been portrayed correctly. So there’s work to be done.” — Shonda Rhimes (Creator of Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal)
Those untold stories and characters that have yet to be portrayed are out there. You just have to find them. And when you do, there’s no better thrill than creating something that hasn’t been done before.
“With writing, I need a lot of time to sit around and do nothing. But now that I have kids, I just don’t have that luxury. I have a babysitter for three hours a day, which is how long I have to write.”— Sofia Coppola (Writer and Director of Lost in Translation and The Beguiled)
You need to find the time to write amidst the crazy schedule of life, whether it’s an hour, three, or five every day or week.
“If you’re actually allowing your creative part to control your writing rather than a more commercial instinct or motive, then you’ll find that all sorts of interesting things will bubble up to the surface.” — Emma Thompson (Oscar-winning screenwriter of Sense and Sensibility)
Even if you’re working on a studio-friendly piece of material, never forget to let that creative side take hold to find some interesting story arcs and characterization to take hold.
“Writing is what I do. It’s like breathing to me at a certain point.” — Nora Ephron (Oscar-nominated screenwriter of Silkwood, When Harry Met Sally, and Sleepless in Seattle)
If you truly want and need to be a screenwriter, you just have to do it. It has to be like breathing. If you don’t breathe, you don’t live. If you don’t write, you can’t survive the day, week, month, or year. That’s what it takes.
“It’s a bit clichéd, but you can’t go wrong by writing what you know. Even if you’re a horrible writer, your own knowledge and experience are unrivaled. Nobody knows what you know like you know what you know. The way you see things is pretty unique.” — Issa Rae (Creator of Insecure)
When you write what you know, it’s not about only writing stories that you’ve experienced. It’s also about injecting what you know into stories that you haven’t experienced so you can connect with the material more.
“I think it’s a mistake to write something you think people will like, or a combination idea, or this year’s version of last year’s movie. I don’t think you’ll ever get noticed doing that. I think you’re only going to get noticed by following your own instincts and doing original work and writing the thing that only you can write.” — Nancy Meyers (Oscar-nominated screenwriter of Private Benjamin, Baby Boom, Father of the Bride, and Something’s Gotta Give)
Only established Hollywood screenwriters can keep up with the current trends because they have Hollywood connections and pull to fast-track projects. As an unknown writer, you can’t possibly keep up with the trends because by the time you’ve written it, marketed it, and have had people read it, the trend is likely over.
While those types of scripts can work as great calling cards, it’s best to create some excellent original material that Hollywood didn’t know they wanted. Be the trendsetter, not the trend-follower.
“My idea of a good fantasy is something that’s absolutely grounded in reality. And there’s a little element that doesn’t belong there — and that’s the fantasy element — that you have to react to and deal with in a completely real way.” — Melissa Mathison (Oscar-nominated screenwriter of The Black Stallion, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, Kundun, and The BFG)
An amazing piece of advice for anyone writing fantasy.
“Your art is stunted when you’re trying to pretend to be something you aren’t.” — Lena Waithe (Emmy-winning screenwriter of Master of None and The Chi)
Don’t worry about being the next Quentin Tarantino, Diablo Cody, or Spike Lee. Be the first you.
“I love to start characters in a place where you think you know them. We can make all kinds of assumptions about them and think they have no redeeming qualities, but like everyone, they’re complex.” — Callie Khouri (Oscar-winning screenwriter of Thelma and Louise)
When you’re developing characters within your screenplay, don’t be afraid to play with assumptions the audience may have when the character is first introduced. Flip those types of characters on their heads and surprise the audience.
“I always write in exactly the same place, which is sitting in my bed, with two pillows behind me. I’ve written 50 television scripts and two books on this one place on my bed! I think the lack of the formality of a desk makes me feel really comfortable, and I’m a creature of habit.” — Mindy Kaling (Emmy-nominated screenwriter of The Office, The Mindy Project, Four Weddings and a Funeral Series)
Find your process. Find your space. Your best writing happens in your happy place.
“It’s okay to be a woman and love dresses and heels and lipstick and also love math and science and want to be a screenwriter.” — Allison Schroeder (Oscar-nominated screenwriter of Hidden Figures, Christopher Robin, and Frozen 2)
Female screenwriters have taken Hollywood on by storm, shattering preconceived notions of what women are best at writing. They’re writers. Plain and simple.
“If there is a scene you could cut out without making any difference to the film, it should go. The same goes for dialogue. If it doesn’t tell anything about the character or move the plot forward, then no matter how witty or deep it is, cut it. Everything should be working hard; every line, every scene. It can feel brutal to cull your favorite bits. But if you don’t, someone else will and it’s easier to fight for the parts you really think should stay in if there is less to get rid of. Learning how to do this comes with time.” — Melissa Rosenberg (Emmy-nominated screenwriter of Dexter, The O.C., and the Twilight franchise)
Whether you want to call it editing, rewriting, or killing your darlings — it’s necessary. Read through your script — every line and every scene — and make sure what you’re reading matters.
Learn how to write great movie dialogue with this free guide.
“I’ve never had a plan, I’ve always done things from instinct.” — Greta Gerwig (Writer/Director of Lady Bird)
The screenplays that are overly planned and outlined and those that clearly follow a tired formula are those that disappear amidst the dense ocean of scripts in Hollywood. The ones that are written on instinct have a true fire about them. It’s evident right there on the page. And as a screenwriter, your best work will come from those moments of authentic instinct.
As screenwriters, it’s important to know, realize, and accept what your strengths and weaknesses are. That way you’ll know what comes natural and what is going to challenge you most — and sometimes challenging yourself brings out the best stories and characters in you.
“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 (Oscar-winning screenwriter of Brokeback Mountain)
Amazing concepts are great — it is a concept-driven industry — but audiences respond most to characters because they are the reasons audiences give a damn. So treat your characters with the proper care and attention.
“In the end, the story is the most important thing. It’s story first and funny second.” — Kristen Wiig (Oscar-nominated screenwriter of Bridesmaids)
The best comedies aren’t just endless laughs and gags — they center on characters that we care about and stories that enthrall us.
“No matter how successful you are, generating your own jobs is going to help keep up the quality of what you do and your enthusiasm and passion — which is going to lead to better work, as opposed to ‘All right, I guess I’ll take the million dollars and do this piece of shit.’ I don’t want to tell you how many people out there are like that.” — Leslie Dixon (Screenwriter of Overboard, Mrs. Doubtfire, The Thomas Crown Affair, Pay It Forward, and Limitless)
Don’t chase the money. For most, it’s not there. For the top one percent that experience the big paychecks, enthusiasm and passion dwindle if you’re not working on quality work.
“Don’t worry about getting it right all the time. Experiment. It’s okay to fall on your face. My wonderful USC teacher Nina Foch used to say, ‘Make failure your friend.’ I wish I’d been better at that when I was young.” — Amanda Silver (Screenwriter of The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Jurassic World, and Mulan)
You must fail before you can prevail. It’s necessary. Failure helps you to become a better writer. Embrace it. Learn from it.
“I’ve always been someone who feels better if I see what I’m going through in a movie.” — Lena Dunham (Creator of HBO’s Girls)
Your screenplays need to be cathartic — that’s the one secret to a successful screenplay. Playing with universal themes and emotions that audience members can relate to is vital to a script’s success.
“Get to page 85, not 25. Move on, and then go back to the first one. You will have found all the ways to solve the problems in your first script by finishing the second.” — Karen McCullah (Screenwriter of 10 Things I Hate About You, Legally Blonde, and Ella Enchanted)
Don’t try to make those first 25 pages perfect before you move forward. Instead, focus on getting to the finish line — The End. And use what you’ve learned in that process for the next script, and the next, and the next. And then go back and use what you’ve learned to fix that very first script.
“Become students of the industry and its citizens. We’re all here to be creative, so always be ready to receive and give help.” — Kirsten “Kiwi” Smith (Screenwriter of 10 Things I Hate About You, Legally Blonde, and Ella Enchanted)
Your screenwriting journey isn’t just about learning how to write screenplays that will sell. And it’s not just about honing your craft so that you can write excellent screenplays.
You also need to study the industry and learn the ropes. Build your network. Read the trades. Know who is who within the industry. And, yes, be ready to receive help. But even more important, be ready to give it when the time comes.
“If I get stuck I watch something that really inspires me… something that reminds me why I wanted to be a writer at all.” — Linda Woolverton (Screenwriter of Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, Alice in Wonderland, and Maleficent)
Writer’s Block is BS. There’s no time for that as a professional writer. If you get stuck, go watch a movie that inspires you. It will reignite that flame within and you’ll be writing before you know it.
“I grew up on action movies. That’s what I write, that’s what I love. And there are not that many fantastic ones with women.” — Geneva Robertson-Dworet (Screenwriter of Tomb Raider and Captain Marvel)
Don’t be afraid to go against the grain of what the industry has already pegged you for. Write what you love — and write it well.
“I grew up in the Midwest; you don’t know any screenwriters. It didn’t seem like a realistic career possibility.” — Diablo Cody (Writer of Juno and Tully)
Anything can happen to anyone from anywhere.
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