What are some of William Goldman’s best pieces of screenwriting advice?
Here we feature the Writers Guild Foundation video The Writer Speaks: William Goldman where they interviewed the great William Goldman (writer of countless seminal movies including Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, All the President’s Men, and The Princess Bride, among others.) We share his best pieces of screenwriting advice, as well as some of our own elaboration on his insightful points.
1. Nobody Knows Anything
“Nobody knows anything. Nobody has the least idea of what is going to work.”
Hollywood development executives, agents, managers, and producers like to think that they know which screenplays are going to be hit movies and which are not. They like to think that they know what should or shouldn’t be included in a screenplay for it to be successful. But they don’t.
This has been proven time and time again. The most prominent industry insiders have not only been responsible for some of Hollywood’s greatest hits, but they’ve also been responsible for many of Hollywood’s greatest box office bombs and lackluster offerings.
So take comfort in knowing that you can take chances, even when you’ve heard or read that said chances are not going to work. If you get conflicting coverage or feedback, know that it’s due to subjective responses to the work — not some general industry rule or declaration. Yes, you need to take the advice of industry insiders. But it’s up to you what advice you follow and what advice you leave behind. It’s all instinct, luck, and bottled lightning that most can’t explain. Some of the greatest movies ever made were passed on by multiple studios and producers. Nobody knows anything in Hollywood.
Just trust your gut and write what feels right. Listen to the industry guidelines and expectations, but don’t hold them as doctrine. Do your best to find a happy medium between what the industry thinks they know, and what you’re prepared to give them — what they didn’t know they wanted.
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2. It All Starts with the Screenwriter
“Screenwriters, I think, are the basis of everything. Because if you have a shitty script, even if you had Bergman or Fellini or David Lean, it’s not going to work as a movie.”
Screenwriters have a huge responsibility, because without a script, there can be no movie. And without a great script, there can be no great film — even if the greatest directors are attached.
So despite how Hollywood sometimes treats screenwriters, know that none of it works without your contribution. But also know that you carry a huge responsibility because of that. You need to do the work. You need to hone your craft. You need to write the best possible script that you can.
3. It’s All About Story
“It’s all fucking story. That’s really all it is. If the story works, if the [audience] is moved by whatever [the story] is, you have a chance to have a movie that works.”
Yes, concept is everything in Hollywood. But the concept doesn’t work if it isn’t delivered through an amazing story. Do your best to craft an excellent story no matter what genre you’re writing in.
Horror movies need great stories, as do slapstick comedies, quirky dramas, thrilling action flicks, suspenseful thrillers, and cool science fiction movies. Story is everything.
Watch this amazing interview with William Goldman in its entirety, full of Hollywood anecdotes from the man himself.
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