17 Must-Read Screenwriting Lessons from Stephen King
Stephen King’s On Writing is one of the best writing resources that any writer can get their hands on — even screenwriters. Yes, King’s wise words are written primarily in reference to writing literature, however, many of his now famous quotes from the book can be easily applied to screenwriting.
From a screenwriter and former studio script reader/story analyst’s perspective, here’s how the master’s words can help any and all screenwriters.
1.“Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well. It’s about getting up, getting well, and getting over. Getting happy, okay? Writing is magic, as much the water of life as any other creative art. The water is free. So drink.”
If a screenwriter’s eyes are set on the prize of seven-figure paychecks, Oscars, and fame (Quentin Tarantino, Aaron Sorkin, etc.), it’s going to be a very difficult and frustrating journey. It should be about engaging an audience and getting those stories bouncing around in your head onto the page, fully realized. It’s a magical experience to take what you see in your mind’s eye and apply it in a way that others can see what you’ve seen.
2. “If you do need to do research because parts of your story deal with things about which you know little or nothing, remember that word back. That’s where research belongs: as far in the background and the back story as you can get it. You may be entranced with what you’re learning about the flesh-eating bacteria, the sewer system of New York, or the I.Q. potential of collie pups, but your readers are probably going to care a lot more about your characters and your story.”
It’s great if you’ve done your research. It’s even wonderful if you have a pre-existing knowledge base as a doctor as you write that medical drama. That research or knowledge base, however, needs to be kept in the background. It needs to pepper the story, not over-salt it. Nobody is going to care if your script showcases excellent research or the fact that you may know exactly what happens in a certain medical situation. Just tell an interesting and engaging story. Use that research or knowledge base to simply enhance your story and characters.
3. “If you’ve never done it before, you’ll find reading your book over after a six-week layoff to be a strange, often exhilarating experience. It’s yours, you’ll recognize it as yours, even be able to remember what tune was on the stereo when you wrote certain lines, and yet it will also be like reading the work of someone else, a soul-twin, perhaps. This is the way it should be, the reason you waited. It’s always easier to kill someone else’s darlings that it is to kill your own.”
When you’ve finished that first draft, what should you do? The first thing is celebrate. It’s a major accomplishment. Too many screenwriters jump the gun however, by trying to take their script out right away or jumping right into the next rewrite.
The best thing to do is to step away. Not for just a few days, either. Take four to six weeks away from it. Don’t think about it. Don’t look at it. Don’t have anyone read it. Take a vacation. Then come back to it. It’s an often exhilarating experience. It really is. It will be like reading someone else’s script while at the same time seeing your own toddler taking their first steps.
All too often, you’ll be able to look at your script more objectively as well. You’ll see what doesn’t work, what needs to be cut, what needs to be enhanced, etc. It’s an amazing experience. And a necessary one.
4. “One cannot imitate a writer’s approach to a particular genre, no matter how simple what the writer is doing may seem. You can’t aim a book like a cruise missile, in other words. People who decide to make a fortune writing like John Grisham or Tom Clancy produce nothing but pale imitations, by and large, because vocabulary is not the same thing as feeling and plot is light years from the truth as it is understood by the mind and the heart.”
It’s great to have heroes. It’s great to have writers that you look up to. It’s great to be inspired by them. But know that you’ll never be them. Stop trying. Don’t work to be the next Quentin Tarantino, Aaron Sorkin, Shane Black, Paul Thomas Anderson, etc. Instead, work to be the first you.
5. “A radio talk-show host asked me how I wrote. My reply—’One word at a time’—seemingly left him without a reply. I think he was trying to decide whether or not I was joking. I wasn’t. In the end, it’s always that simple. Whether it’s a vignette of a single page or an epic trilogy like The Lord of the Rings, the work is always accomplished one word at a time.”
Greatness isn’t something that comes in one 110-page writing session for screenplays. It happens one word, one line, one scene, one sequence, one character, and one moment at a time. Some writing sessions will give you 10 pages. Some will give you 5. All too often, you may only get a single page. There’s nothing wrong with this. It all happens one word at a time.
6. “The first draft of a book—even a long one—should take no more than three months, the length of a season.”
No matter what most will say, taking a year to write a single script is too long. If a screenwriter wants to eventually become a professional, they need to learn to write like one. With most assignment contracts, the writer is given 10 weeks to finish the first draft of a script, and then 2 weeks for each additional draft. That’s it.
If screenwriters can master the idea of finishing a script in three months, they’ll be ahead of most and will ready themselves for the storm to come.
7. “Reading at meals is considered rude in polite society, but if you expect to succeed as a writer, rudeness should be the second to least of your concerns. The least of all should be polite society and what it expects. If you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered, anyway.”
In the end, screenwriters need to focus on telling their story. While it is necessary to follow the general guidelines and expectations of the film industry, in the end, you need to tell the story the way you feel it should be told. Sure, changes will likely come with studio notes and what not, but creating an original voice is key. You can’t make everyone happy, and you have no control over how others feel, so the best you can do is stay true to yourself.
8. “The adverb is not your friend. Consider the sentence “He closed the door firmly.” It’s by no means a terrible sentence, but ask yourself if ‘firmly’ really has to be there. What about context? What about all the enlightening (not to say emotionally moving) prose which came before ‘He closed the door firmly’? Shouldn’t this tell us how he closed the door? And if the foregoing prose does tell us, then isn’t ‘firmly’ an extra word? Isn’t it redundant?”
9. “I’m convinced that fear is at the root of most bad writing. Dumbo got airborne with the help of a magic feather; you may feel the urge to grasp a passive verb or one of those nasty adverbs for the same reason. Just remember before you do that Dumbo didn’t need the feather; the magic was in him.”
For screenwriters, this goes above and beyond mere adverbs and passive verbs. Screenwriters often utilize the crutch of flashbacks, voiceover, and bad exposition. You don’t need it. Trust your concept, story, and characters. Trust yourself. Sure, sometimes those things work, but use them few and far between, if at all. Better yet, explore each and every way possible to avoid them.
10. “Timid writers like passive verbs for the same reason that timid lovers like passive partners. The passive voice is safe. The timid fellow writes “The meeting will be held at seven o’clock” because that somehow says to him, ‘Put it this way and people will believe you really know. ‘Purge this quisling thought! Don’t be a muggle! Throw back your shoulders, stick out your chin, and put that meeting in charge! Write ‘The meeting’s at seven.’ There, by God! Don’t you feel better?”
In screenwriting, this can be best applied when talking about writing dialogue. Too many scripts suffer from too much dialogue that relies too much on passive voice. Each line has to be strong. Each line has to matter. Each line has to not necessarily sound real, but at least an entertaining version of real.
11. “You have to read widely, constantly refining (and redefining) your own work as you do so. If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write.”
Screenwriters need to read. The best education in screenwriting that I’ve ever had was as a studio script reader and later as a judge for major screenplay competitions. You learn more so what not to do, and why. And reading excellent produced scripts gives you a benchmark for what is possible and how you can apply it to your own writing.
Furthermore, since screenwriting is a visual medium, screenwriters need to watch movies. They will teach you, inspire you, and make you want to be a better writer. They will give you that feeling that you want others to feel when they read your scripts or watch movies that you wrote.
12. “Most exercise facilities are now equipped with TVs, but TV—while working out or anywhere else—really is about the last thing an aspiring writer needs. If you feel you must have the news analyst blowhard on CNN while you exercise, or the stock market blowhards on MSNBC, or the sports blowhards on ESPN, it’s time for you to question how serious you really are about becoming a writer. You must be prepared to do some serious turning inward toward the life of the imagination, and that means, I’m afraid, that Geraldo, Keigh Obermann, and Jay Leno must go. Reading takes time, and the glass teat takes too much of it.”
What Stephen is saying here is simple. It’s all about the fact that writing isn’t always typing. Most of the time it is not. You should be constantly writing during long drives to work, while mowing the lawn, while taking a walk, while going for a run, etc. Don’t let television or the radio get in the way. Look inward.
13. “When I’m asked for ‘the secret of my success’ (an absurd idea, that, but impossible to get away from), I sometimes say there are two: I stayed physically healthy, and I stayed married. It’s a good answer because it makes the question go away, and because there is an element of truth in it. The combination of a healthy body and a stable relationship with a self-reliant woman who takes zero shit from me or anyone else has made the continuity of my working life possible. And I believe the converse is also true: that my writing and the pleasure I take in it has contributed to the stability of my health and my home life.”
Screenwriters need to take care of themselves, physically and emotionally. It serves your writing and your writing serves your life.
14. “There should be no telephone in your writing room, certainly no TV or videogames for you to fool around with. If there’s a window, draw the curtains or pull down the shades unless it looks out at a blank wall.”
No distractions. It’ll always be tempting to check that email, check those texts, watch those shows waiting on your DVR, etc. Don’t. Just write, baby.
15. “When, during the course of an interview for The New Yorker, I told the interviewer (Mark Singer) that I believed stories are found things, like fossils in the ground, he said that he didn’t believe me. I replied that that was fine, as long as he believed that I believe it. And I do. Stories aren’t souvenir tee-shirts or Game Boys. Stories are relics, part of an undiscovered pre-existing world. The writer’s job is to use the tools in his or her toolbox to get as much of each one out of the ground intact as possible. Sometimes the fossil you uncover is small; a seashell. Sometimes it’s enormous, a Tyrannosaurus Rex with all the gigantic ribs and grinning teeth. Either way, short story or thousand page whopper of a novel, the techniques of excavation remain basically the same.”
The stories are already there. It’s just about digging deep and finding them.
16.“Mostly when I think of pacing, I go back to Elmore Leonard, who explained it so perfectly by saying he just left out the boring parts. This suggests cutting to speed the pace, and that’s what most of us end up having to do (kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.)”
17. “You don’t need writing classes or seminars any more than you need this or any other book on writing. Faulkner learned his trade while working in the Oxford, Mississippi post office. Other writers have learned the basics while serving in the Navy, working in steel mills or doing time in America’s finer crossbar hotels. I learned the most valuable (and commercial) part of my life’s work while washing motel sheets and restaurant tablecloths at the New Franklin Laundry in Bangor. You learn best by reading a lot and writing a lot, and the most valuable lessons of all are the ones you teach yourself.”
Look, knowledge is power. There’s nothing wrong with feeding the brain something great to chew on. But the fact is, no seminar, workshop, class, or guru book is going to teach you how to be a great screenwriter. Only you can decide that by reading, watching movies, and writing scripts. Plain and simple.
These are but a few of the lessons learned for all writers in Stephen King's amazing book On Writing. Read it. Apply it to your own writing. I'll take this book over any screenwriting guru book seven days a week and twice on Sunday.
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
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