10 Screenwriting Tips From Billy Wilder

by Jason Hellerman on September 10, 2014

Billy Wilder gave us such classics as The Lost Weekend (1945) (Oscars for Best Picture, Director and Screenplay) and Sunset Blvd. (1950) (Oscars for Best Screenplay), Double Indemnity (1944), Some Like It Hot (1959), and The Apartment(1960) (which won him Best Picture and Director Oscars).

When it comes to writing he's a true master.

One of my favorite Wilder quotes about writing captures what we struggle with on a daily basis . . .

"It was a hell of a time but afterwards? It was wonderful."

Even as Hollywood changes most of his tips for telling a good story are relevant today. Wilder worked with the greatest actors of his generation, constantly won awards, and never tired of his craft. Even when he "retired" in 1981 he was actively working to develop new ideas and mentor others.

Wilder's tips from Conversations with Wilder by Cameron Crowe.

1. The audience is fickle.

You're never going to make a movie based on a "sure thing" or something that everyone loves. The existence of Armond White is enough to prove that there's always a contrarian waiting to be heard. Make movies about things YOU care about. Write things that matter on a personal level and people will pick up on that and it will never seem like work.

2. Grab ‘em by the throat and never let ‘em go.

You need to win the battle in the opening scene so craft something that will stick with the reader for all 120 pages. An opening they'll never forget. Think about your favorite opening scenes - one of mine is from the first Harry Potter. An old Wizard on a suburban lane, waiting for a magical motorcycle. The rest of the story begs to be told!

3. Develop a clean line of action for your leading character.

Where are we going and why? What does Jane/John Doe need to accomplish and how will they do it before time runs out? Indiana Jones wants the ark, The Guardians of The Galaxy need an orb, Katniss has to survive.

4. Know where you’re going.

Many people who work with notecards or off extensive outlines will tell you mapping out the turns and acts can really help you when you;re writing. Remember you also want to keep the readers engaged so make sure the characters don't meander. They need purpose.

5. The more subtle and elegant you are in hiding your plot points, the better you are as a writer.

Predicability is the key word here. It's what kills scripts and films. Always be thinking about how you can subvert the norm and tell a better story.

6. If you have a problem with the third act, the real problem is in the first act.

This goes back to outlining and mapping the story. Build a great foundation and the house will stand forever.

7. A tip from Lubitsch: Let the audience add up two plus two. They’ll love you forever.

Don't make it too easy - never underestimate the intelligence of the reader or audience. People nowadays are smarter. Use this as a shorthand to get in and out of scenes more efficiently. Think Shyamalan's Sixth Sense - the payoff feels great because we put together the clues.

8. In doing voice-overs, be careful not to describe what the audience already sees. Add to what they’re seeing.

Voice Over is tricky. Some people hate it and some people love it. The main thing about it and the way it works best is if it adds a layer to the movie that cannot be seen. It should add dimensions not take any away. Red in Shawshak is the general rule.

9. The event that occurs at the second act curtain triggers the end of the movie.

Although structure needs to be loose for you to play around in remember that things need to happen, especially in the second act, so we keep a good pace and people interested. Indiana gets the ark but the Nazis take it away.

10. The third act must build, build, build in tempo and action until the last event, and then—that’s it. Don’t hang around.

Don't end the movie ten times. Write one great one and you'll be lauded later. The last 30 pages should turn the fastest, wrapping up the leads presented in the beginning but also paying off what the audiences have been waiting for - let the drama fly here!

Lastly, enjoy this video of Wilder giving an hour-ling conversation on his work. Then get writing!!!

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