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Writing Tips from the 2021 Oscar-Nominated Screenwriters

by Britton Perelman on April 26, 2021

Get some invaluable screenwriting insight from this year's Oscar contenders.

Last night, Christopher Hampton and Florian Zeller (The Father), and Emerald Fennell (Promising Young Woman) took home this year’s little golden men for Best Adapted and Best Original Screenplay, respectively.

But regardless of who was crowned “Oscar winner” and given that shiny statue and who simply returned home with a gift bag, there’s plenty to learn from this year’s nominated screenwriters.

Read on for writing tips from some of the 2021 Oscar-nominated screenwriters

Stay Curious

Nomadland

Writer/Director Chloé Zhao and Frances McDormand on the set of 'Nomadland' (Credit: Joshua James Richards)

“I have to be in love with my subject matter and want to learn more about it,” said Nomadland writer/director and Oscar-winner Chloe Zhao in an interview for IndieWire. “Someone once said to me that passion doesn’t sustain, but curiosity does. I have to be excited by little things I discover along the way. 

Whether that curiosity is for an idea that won’t leave you alone, interesting conversation overhead in line at Starbucks, minute facts and details that will add texture to your story, or sticky situations to throw your characters into, make sure that you’re always paying attention during the writing process. And once you find something that piques your curiosity, follow it along for the ride.

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Embrace Your Point of View

Once the idea for Aaron Sorkin’s latest movie The Trial of the Chicago 7 was planted (by none other than Steven Spielberg, I might add!), Sorkin started somewhere most of us are familiar with: Wikipedia. 

The Trial of the Chicago 7

'The Trial of the Chicago 7'

In the beginning, he compared what he was doing to journalism — gathering facts and compiling them into a narrative. But, as he explained in an interview for GQ, eventually he had to take it one step further:

“[The story]’s no longer going to be a photograph; it’s going to be a painting now. In other words, it’s going to be subjective. It’s going to be my point of view, which shouldn’t be confused with my using characters as delivery systems for something I want to say. I’m the one telling the story, and if you lined up 10 screenwriters and asked them to write a movie about the early days of Facebook or write a movie about the Chicago 7 and their trial, you’d get 10 different movies, all of them worthy.” 

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Go Back to Basics

We all know it’s impossible to tell a new story nowadays. After all, Shakespeare wrote everything first. But maybe that’s not a bad thing. 

The White Tiger

'The White Tiger'

“This was an epic battle between master and servant, rich and poor, which has been going on for centuries,” Ramin Bahrani said of The White Tiger in an interview for IndieWire.

At the core of every movie is a tale as old as time. Rags to riches, good versus evil, rich versus poor, the incredible quest, star-crossed love — once you identify what’s at the heart of your movie, your script will come into clearer focus.

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When in Doubt, Begin to Remember

Lee Isaac Chung’s journey to Minari began while sitting in his favorite coffee shop in South Pasadena and following the voice in his head. 

Minari

'Minari'

That voice led him to Willa Cather, a writer whose work was in the public domain. Though he didn’t adapt any of her novels, Chung did follow a piece of advice from Cather. “Life began for me when I ceased to admire and began to remember.” 

So Chung began to remember. He devoted an afternoon to writing down memories from his childhood. 

“With each memory, I saw my life anew, as though the clouds had shifted over a field I had seen every day,” he wrote for the LA Times. “After writing 80 memories, I sketched a narrative arc with themes about family, failure, and rebirth.”

Those memories became Minari. So, when in doubt, just begin to remember. 

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Explore Your Imaginary Lives

Promising Young Woman writer/director and Oscar-winner Emerald Fennell isn’t afraid to admit that she loves fanfiction. As a kid, she would write her own versions of her favorite movies and TV shows. Sometimes she would even write her own life into the story. 

Promising Young Woman

'Promising Young Woman'

“So many people and writers I know have their life, then they have a few imaginary lives,” Fennell said in an interview with PopSugar. “They live in an imaginary house with an imaginary boyfriend or girlfriend with an imaginary pet, and it’s set in Victorian England or they live in an apartment in Paris. I’ve always felt that my real life just runs parallel to the imaginary ones and they feed into each other.” 

Writers always embed their own lives, their own experiences, into their stories. Knowing that, embrace and explore your imaginary lives with your writing. If you’re as good at it as Fennell, you might just end up with an Academy Award nomination.

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One Night in Miami...

Every year, five screenwriters know the intense difficulty of taking an existing work and adapting it for the big screen. Kemp Powers is one of those five. 

One Night in Miami...

'One Night in Miami...'

He adapted his own play into what would become One Night In Miami, so not only was he undertaking an adaptation, he was doing so with his own words.

“The hardest part was not being precious about your own writing,” Powers told The Wrap. “You know the expression killing your babies? A lot of things that I loved most about the play didn’t make it into the film.” 

In fact, one of the most popular scenes in the play didn’t make through to the final cut. 

It’s a great reminder that story must come first, no matter how much you love a particular scene or line. If Powers can cut the most popular part of the play, nothing’s off limits! 

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Know Your Ending

As all gymnasts and screenwriters know: to get the highest marks, you have to stick the landing. 

Sound of Metal

'Sound of Metal'

Because when those credits roll and the movie’s over, you want the audience to feel satisfied, which is exactly what Darius Marder worried about when writing Sound of Metal

“We had written the final act many times over. But it wasn’t landing,” Darius Marder wrote for the LA Times. “Endings are everything. You have to stick them. I have always said: If you don’t know your ending, you don’t understand the story you’re telling.” 

Thankfully, Marder found his ending. He stuck it, and you can too. Dig into your story and you’ll find the ending that’s just right. 

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Download all 10 of the Academy Award-nominated scripts for Best Original and Best Adapted Screenplay for FREE from the TSL Screenplay Library

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