101 Six-Second Screenwriting Lessons from Brian Koppelman
Can you learn screenwriting lessons in just six seconds? According to Hollywood screenwriter, producer, director and showrunner Brian Koppelman, you can.
Koppelman is a successful screenwriter best known for writing Ocean's Thirteen and Rounders. But he's had an amazing career beyond those two titles.
He is a jack of all trades, starting out in the entertainment business by managing local Long Island bands when he was just a teenager. Later, through booking bands for a local nightclub, he came across a young Eddie Murphy, eventually helping to arrange Murphy's first record deal. During college, he discovered singer and songwriter Tracy Chapman, later executive-producing her first album. He would go on to become an executive in some of the biggest record labels in the business.
But by 1997, he extended his reach to screenwriting by co-writing the underrated Rounders, the poker movie starring Matt Damon and Edward Norton. He also wrote Knockaround Guys, Runaway Jury, Walking Tall, The Girlfriend Experience, Solitary Man, and Runner Runner. He then became the creator, writer, and showrunner of Billions.
A few years ago, Koppelman, frustrated by the secondary market of screenwriting gurus, began to record and share six-second screenwriting lessons through his Vine account. Although Vine is now defunct, you can find his screenwriting lessons by following him on Twitter . The videos can also be found on Youtube and through his blog.
We've gone through all of his lessons and have picked our top 101.
So without further adieu, with no elaboration to keep with the spirit of six-second screenwriting lessons, here are 101 nuggets of wisdom and knowledge for screenwriters.
1. "Write what you know" works, but it’s limiting. Write what fascinates you. Write what you can’t stop thinking about.
2. Calculate less. Don’t try to game the market. Write what you want to write. And drink plenty of coffee.
3. Instead of reading screenwriting books, read about your subject. The subject that fascinates, compels, and interests you.
4. Every writer should read Haruki Murakami’s What I talk about when I talk about running. It’s a great book on running and even better one on writing.
5. When I’m stuck on a first draft, I remind myself that no one gets to see this ’til I say they can, which gives me persuasion to finish.
6. Let me use fewer words than the books do to explain three-act structure. Beginning, middle, and end. So stop worrying and start writing.
7. Self-doubt goes hand in hand with self-expression. Tune it out for two hours a day. You’ll have a finished screenplay.
8. Look, I’m not saying form and structure don’t matter. They do. But it’s forming an emotional connection with the reader that sets you apart.
9. The first screenplay that my partner and I wrote was rejected by every agency as unsellable. It was Rounders.
10. I can’t tell you how to write dialogue and build a character. No expert can either. You have to love writing enough to figure it out for yourself.
11. The "realist" in the spirit of "friendship" always wants to tell the writer the "real" odds of getting something made. Tune ’em out.
12. Try and write your first draft as fast as you can so the doubts don’t have a chance to creep in.
13. The more rules you’re trying to remember or beats you’re trying to hit, the harder it is to get in a state of flow. Just write.
14. Always write for yourself but don’t be self-indulgent. Define your audience and write for them too.
15. Know this... whatever your favorite movie is, at some point during the writing of it the screenwriter felt completely lost.
16. Don’t stress about making your main characters likable or relatable. That’s development speak. Just make them fascinating, and we’ll care.
17. Should I outline or not? And which genre? Better question, "What can I do today to put myself in the best state of mind to create?"
Read ScreenCraft's Outlines, Treatments, and Scriptments, Oh My!
18. Screenwriting is not a competition, but somebody’s out there not daunted by the odds, writing every day, dreaming big. Is that you?
19. I promise you this. If you write every single day, a year from now, you’ll be a much better writer than you are today.
20. The time you set aside to create is one of the only things you can control. Luckily it’s also the most important factor in getting things done.
21. There’s no one creative endeavor I’ve tried that hasn’t been met with resistance and rejection at first. The trick is to ignore those things.
22. I was beating myself up about spending a Saturday reading, watching movies, instead of writing. But then I remembered input – as important as output.
23. What if I’m a good writer, I just don’t want to deal with all that politics? What if I’m a good swimmer, I just don’t want to deal with all that water?
24. If you want to model a character after your cousin, your aunt, your uncle, your friend, do it. You can disguise them later. Make them real now.
25. Do professional writers ever feel like they’re banging their heads against the wall and everything they’re writing is useless? Of course, we just stay at our desks anyway.
26. For one week, track how much television you watch. Next week, spend one-third of that time creating something.
27. If you wanna be an artist, you better learn to say NO — to the temptations pulling you away from your work, to the wrong people, to your inner critic.
28. People ask, "How do you know when your stuff is ready to show to other people." This isn’t science. Part of writing is developing that instinct.
29. Once you’ve written a first draft and you’re on to the rewrite, strive for clarity. Even if your narrative is opaque and twisty, your prose shouldn’t be.
30. Here’s a basic truth I like to remind myself of. If you write one page a day, you’ll have a first draft in three and a half months. Two, in fifty-five days.
31. There is no secret. Writing is all about hard work, persistence, and discovery. Anyone who says different is selling something.
32. No one in Hollywood woke up this morning wondering how they can help you. But they did wake up desperately in need of great material.
33. The next time that someone laughs at your dream. Remind them that Paul Haggis’s Crash script was rejected for five years straight.
34. If rule number one is "write every day," rule number two is "take creative risks." Even when they fail, you get stronger.
35. The greatest shooters in the history of the NBA all shot the ball differently. Just get it in the hoop.
36. Your imagination is more powerful than any critic, agent, or studio boss in the world.
37. Is it possible you won’t sell that novel you’re working on or screenplay or painting you’re trying to finish? Yeah. Isn’t it awesome you’re doing it anyway?
38. Whenever you think you’re the only one struggling to get it right, pick up a biography of any artist you admire. You’ll find they all struggled.
39. There’s not one exec in Hollywood who knows what audiences want to see next year. So write what you want to see.
40. Writers look for reasons not write, so make a list of all the reasons you need to write and put it next to your computer.
41. If you love giant commercial blockbusters, that’s what you should try to write. But if you love small personal films, write those.
42. Protect your writing time. Establish rituals around it. Take a long walk, make a particular kind of coffee to get you in the state to write.
43. I was a blocked writer until I was thirty, so I know how painful it is. I also know it’s worth it to fight through it.
44. If you power through and finish a screenplay, you’ve accomplished more than 99% of the people who ever have a movie idea do.
45. I find that nothing can change my state faster or get me in a creative state of mind quicker than listening to one of my favorite pieces of music.
46. I don’t know any professional writers who’ll tell you it’s easy. It’s worth remembering that. It’s hard for all of us.
47. The best writers I know are led by their curiosity. And they follow it until they find the story they want to tell.
48. Resilience is a writer’s best friend. Train like a marathon runner. Move a little further each day, despite the pain.
49. Failure is a huge part of any writer’s life. So you have to redefine the term so any day you write is a success.
50. The best moments in writing are the ones you can barely remember. It’s like they happened in a dream. But the only way to earn them is to grind every day.
51. So what’s the trick to finding an agent, to finally breaking through? The trick — don’t let that stuff distract you.
52. If you’re trying to decide what to write and you have one idea that scares you because you don’t know what people will think of it… write that one.
53. When we celebrate risk takers, we’re talking about mountain climbers and cliff divers, but I know creative risk takers are just as brave.
54. When I say write what fascinates you, that’s because it’s easier to show up every day and do the work when you’re truly passionate.
55. If you only have an hour a day to write, look at that as a positive. Because it forces you to focus and work with intensity.
56. Do I have to move to L.A. to make it as a screenwriter? Do I have to be tall to work in the NBA? No, but you better outwork everyone else.
57. Whether or not to outline is really a question of how comfortable you are with uncertainty. Which is also the answer to whether this is the career for you.
58. If you find yourself insulted by someone’s reaction to your work. Just use it as fuel, just like every other writer who ever lived.
59. It’s easier to deal with something if you anticipate it. So know that somewhere in the middle of your script you’re going to think it’s worthless and fight on.
60. Sometimes you’re stuck because you don’t know what’s supposed to happen next in your story. Here’s a trick, just think of what your characters might do next, and write that.
61. Nobody chooses to become a writer or any kind of an artist because it’s easy. You do it because you have too.
62. Is writing sometimes lonely? Yes, but it's worth it for those moments where time disappears and you feel connected to everything.
63. So, what’s more important: inspiration or discipline? Honestly, you need to use 100% of both.
64. If you’re going to become an artist of any kind, you have to know it’s almost impossible to succeed and then work like you know you will.
65. Don’t share your draft with anyone else until you can’t think of any ways to make it better on your own first.
66. But how do I know if I’m just wasting my time? How do I even know what I’m doing is even any good? Nobody ever knows. Do it anyway.
67. Professional artists don’t expect to create museum-quality work with the first sketch of a new project — they just want to get something down on canvas.
68. There’s nothing wrong with self-promotion — it’s show business, after all. Just make sure when you do it, the work is there to back it up.
69. Runners have a saying: "Plan your run and run your plan." For writers, it’s the same, whether it’s word count, page count, time at your desk.
70. You can’t silence you critics — not the parent who wants you to get a real job, not the friend who’s secretly jealous — but you definitely don’t have to believe them.
71. Almost every real creative breakthrough is so scary — you’ll try like hell to try to avoid it. Don’t. Power through. See how good that makes you feel.
72. Is luck involved in a Hollywood career? Of course it is. But since you can’t do anything about don’t worry about it. Just create something undeniable.
73. When people talk about a writer’s voice, they’re talking about the writer’s distinct point of view. So know what you think of your characters and the position they’re in.
74. It’s easy to get bitter and decide that everything Hollywood makes is crap. Fight that impulse — remember what you love about the movies, why you start in the first place.
75. When I say write every day, it doesn’t mean if you have a job that only allows you a couple of days a week you can’t make it happen. It means have a writing routine and stick to it.
76. When you do take notes and begin a rewrite, remember, the criticism of the work is not a judgment on you.
77. One more thing about notes and criticism — just because they say it, doesn’t mean it’s true. You decide what you want to believe. Take what’s useful, discard the rest.
78. No matter how you are in your real life, don’t be timid on the page. Take big risks. Swing for the fences.
79. I hate Times Square because it’s calculated, fake and inauthentic. Just like a screenplay written from a how-to book.
80. But when’s the inciting incident? How long can the first act be? How short can the third act be? What’s the low-point? Only you know what your story needs.
81. If writing a first draft requires boundless enthusiasm, reading it and making notes requires brutal honesty. Cut yourself no slack.
82. It’s easier to not write than to write. It’s easier to give up than to believe. Do the hard thing, and do it again tomorrow.
83. Can I promise if you write every day you’re going to end up world famous? Of course not. But I can promise you’ll learn to write better.
84. Here’s a good and simple thing to remember — you only need one buyer, one believer, to change everything.
85. Remember this — there’s no one way to write a screenplay, no one way to tell a story, and any expert who says there is, isn’t one.
86. Hey, I know that when inspiration strikes you know what to do, but don’t wait for it. Work every day so it knows where to find you.
87. What we’re all after is that feeling of creative momentum, like we’re skiing downhill. It takes will and discipline to get to that place, but it’s worth it.
88. When you see a great movie, it can seem like magic. Trust me, the people making it had as many frustrating days as you, they just kept at it.
89. Hey, it is really hard to get someone to read your script. It’s really hard to break in. But almost everyone who has, started where you are.
90. I think it’s important for creative people to still the mind and be unconnected. For me, it’s meditation and long walks.
91. The more ambitious the creative idea, the quicker the self-doubt comes. Train yourself to recognize it as fear and keep going.
92. The safest thing anyone in Hollywood can say is "no." So that’s what they say all the time. It’s just a reflex, don’t believe them.
93. Constructive criticism can be amazingly helpful at the right time, but a momentum killer if you’re not ready. Make sure you can handle it when you ask for it.
94. Before stressing about who you know to get ahead, develop a clear point of view, a unique voice, a clarity of purpose in your art.
95. Sometime in the first week of a new creative project, write down all the reasons you’re excited about it. Refer back to it during the long slog through the middle.
96. Sometimes you lose perspective finishing a first draft. That’s why you should put it away for two weeks, then read and revise, and then send it out.
97. Say you have a day job and want to be a full-time artist and you have one hour a week to devote. Spend fifty minutes making art, ten marketing, zero complaining.
98. Sometimes when you hear a successful artist interviewed it can feel like they were predestined to it. They’ll say it was "a calling" or "meant to be!" Believe me, they struggled.
99. Yeah, it’s really really hard to find an agent. So keep doing the work until it’s so undeniable that they find you.
100. For the next twenty-four hours anytime you want to complain about how hard it is to break in, think about your work instead.
101. Hey, writers, artists — what would happen if instead of doing what’s safe, what’s been done before, you tried that idea you’re almost afraid to say out loud? How would it make you feel?
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