33 Screenwriting Lessons from the Philosophy of Bruce Lee
Bruce Lee passed away suddenly in 1973, at the young age of 33, shocking the film industry and martial arts community. Over forty years later, his legacy lives on as one of cinema's most iconic film stars and as one of the greatest martial artists of all time.
Yet many forget that beyond the movies and the lightning-fast kicks and punches, Bruce Lee was also one of our greatest philosophers of these contemporary times. So let us turn to the master, the Dragon, for words of wisdom, strength, and perspective.
Here are 33 philosophical quotes from Bruce Lee — one for each year of his life — and how they can be applied to your screenwriting journey.
1. “Empty your mind, be formless. Shapeless, like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle, and it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now, water can flow, or it can crash. Be water, my friend.”
Screenwriters must never allow themselves to be imprisoned by any single style of screenwriting or any single genre. The great screenwriters can change their style and process on a whim, depending upon the need of each project at hand. They can jump from genre to genre, either by going where the work is or challenging themselves for the better of their own writing. Be water, my friend.
2. “Mistakes are always forgivable if one has the courage to admit them.”
Greatness in screenwriting comes with years of failure. You will make mistakes in those first scripts — it is necessary — and your growth as a writer will depend on whether or not you are willing, and have the courage, to realize and admit those mistakes. It may be poor scene description, overwriting, bad character development, bad dialogue, bad conceptualization, and even something as simple as bad grammar and poor attention to detail. Instead of pointing fingers at others, one must look in the mirror and examine their own work under a microscope and have the courage to admit those mistakes and failures — and then learn from them.
3. “Adapt what is useful, reject what is useless, and add what is specifically your own.”
To follow a single guru, whether it be to Save the Cat! or focus on Story, can only hurt you. It can only narrow your horizon as a screenwriter. You need to seek out your own style. Instead of subscribing to just one, it's much better to feed your brain with many different teachings, viewpoints, and perspectives. Take what works best for you from each, if any, and discard the rest. Yes, adapt what is useful to you, reject what is useless to you, and add what is specifically your own.
4. “To hell with circumstances; I create opportunities.”
You must strive and work to create your own luck and opportunities in Hollywood. The world knows that the screenwriter's journey is a tough one with seemingly impossible odds against you. Most fail. Rather than complain or succumb to the circumstances, it's best to go in with the mindset that you are going to crash through or climb over those walls and make your own path.
5. “The doubters said, 'Man can not fly.' The doers said, 'Maybe, but we’ll try,' and finally soared in the morning glow while non-believers watched from below.”
There will always be naysayers that look upon your screenwriting journey with a condescending smile or nod. All too often those are the people that perhaps once had a dream, but never dared to "try and fly." So soar, you screenwriters, as the naysayers and doubters watch from below. The mere fact that you tried means that you've done something most people never have the courage to do — you're following your dream, and when you are at the brink of passing on after a long life, there will be peace — whether the dream comes true or not, you tried.
6. “If you spend too much time thinking about a thing, you’ll never get it done. Make at least one definite move daily toward your goal.”
One of the truths in Hollywood is that if you finish just one script, you're already ahead of 90% of those calling themselves "screenwriters" already. Don't talk about it or sit there and think about it. Just do it.
7. “Don’t fear failure. Not failure, but low aim, is the crime. In great attempts, it is glorious even to fail.”
Failure is inevitable as a screenwriter. The greatest screenwriters have failed more than they will ever succeed. Thus, don't just play the easier odds by going down the easier, beaten path because you fear failure if you try to aim higher. Aim high. Aim to the highest peak.
8. “Use only that which works, and take it from any place you can find it.”
As you develop your stories and characters, use everything that has come before to make them better. Read books. Watch movies. Watch some of the amazing television shows of the past and current times. Take character or story moments that will work with your own. Take visuals. Be inspired by them and outright steal them to adapt and make them your own. It's necessary. Cinema and storytelling is a revolving door. We're all influenced by each other and what has come before us. If it works, use it.
9. “Knowing is not enough, we must apply. Willing is not enough; we must do.”
To know every great moment in cinema does not make you a great screenwriter. To know every character and story structure theory doesn't either. You must work to apply that in some fantastic scripts. And no matter what your knowledge base, you're on the same level as every other screenwriter when you finally do it. You learn by doing, not knowing.
10. “The great mistake is to anticipate the outcome of the engagement; you ought not to be thinking of whether it ends in victory or defeat. Let nature take its course and your tools will strike at the right moment.”
As you pursue a career in screenwriting, don't try to anticipate what the outcome will be for everything you do. It will drive you insane because if you ask a majority of those that have succeeded, they will likely say that it never happened the way they wanted it to initially. Let nature take its course and your scripts will find their way to the right person at the right time.
11. “Notice that the stiffest tree is most easily cracked, while the bamboo or willow survives by bending with the wind.”
If you become too set in your ways as a screenwriter — be it your style, process, or how you go about marketing your scripts — you will go nowhere. You need to bend with the wind. Especially when you possibly manage to see some success suddenly, and are asked to work with development executives, producers, and talent. If you are stiff and stubborn in your ways and aren't willing to bend a little bit in collaboration, you'll crack.
12. “For it is easy to criticize and break down the spirit of others, but to know yourself takes a lifetime.”
When you are working with other writers, be it as a peer or as a mentor, don't use their script as a way to feel better about yourself. Criticizing others is easy. You're doing them nor yourself any good by ripping apart their characters and stories. Instead, when giving feedback, point out not only what doesn't work, but what does, and deliver it in a helpful and constructive manner.
And then go home and look into that mirror and read your own script(s), having learned what has and hasn't worked for others. Then get to know your own triumphs and failures.
13. “In order to taste my cup of water, you must first empty your cup.”
When collaborating with other writers, producers, executives, or talent — which is inevitable in film and television, both of which are collaborative art forms and industries — understand that for you to see the potential that they can bring, you have to set aside what you know and believe. You have to empty your cup before you can ever understand where they are coming from. Otherwise you'll just be considering how their perspective goes against yours. That's not collaboration.
14. “To spend time is to pass it in a specified manner. To waste time is to expend it thoughtlessly or carelessly.”
The time you set aside for your writing sessions is precious. Come prepared. Be ready to work on something. See what scenes and moments you plan on writing through your own mind's eye first. Visualize it, if not at least the broad strokes of what you'd like to accomplish. Otherwise, you'll find yourself checking your email, browsing through Facebook, people watching in the coffee shop, "breaking" for lunch, etc. Don't waste the time you set aside to write. You'll never get it back.
15. “A good teacher protects his pupils from his own influence.”
When you mentor another screenwriter, know when to back off and let them take what little or much you've taught them and allow them to create their own style, process, and perspective. Proofreading each and every line, each and every scene, each and every script, and each and every draft will do them no good in the end.
Like the Birdman of Alcatraz — nurture them, teach them, and then let them fly off on their own.
16. “Now I see that I will never find the light, unless, like the candle, I am my own fuel, consuming myself.”
You, the screenwriter, have to be the source of your own light. You need to fuel yourself. You need to push yourself to make those self-imposed deadlines. You need to network and get yourself out there. You need to write, write, write. You need to get your scripts out into the market. You need to take shots in the dark while having a full plan ahead as well.
Nobody is going to do it for you.
17. “As you think, so shall you become.”
If you think you're nothing but a no-name screenwriter who will never sell a script or attain a paid gig, that's all you'll ever be.
If you think you're a great screenwriter in the making that is just going through the necessary ups and downs until you succeed, then so shall you become.
18. “Defeat is not defeat unless accepted as a reality — in your own mind.”
When you enter contests and don't win it all. When you send out query after query to no avail. When you come so close to finally succeeding, only to watch as someone else gets the gig. These are not examples of defeat until you decide that they are, meaning that you can either wallow in self-doubt, anguish and defeat or learn from them and continue with gusto.
19. “Choose the positive. You have a choice. You are master of your attitude, choose the positive, the constructive. Optimism is a faith that leads to success.”
It is all too common to see disgruntled and cynical screenwriters on forums, comment sections, and everywhere else. They will declare that Hollywood wants nothing more than sequels, reboots, and remakes. They will say that it's impossible to do this or that. They will cut down anything and anyone in their path.
Don't be that person. Don't be that kind of screenwriter. Optimism will drive you towards your goals and your dreams, through any and all obstacles.
20. “Using no way as a way, having no limitation as limitation.”
In your writing process, sometimes it's helpful, fun, and exciting to go in with no master plan as far as detailed outlines and index cards. It's a method that uses no method and works strictly from instinct and all that is within us. Avoid the Paralysis of Analysis like so many others suffer from and just let your characters and stories take you where they need to go.
21. “It’s not what you give. It’s the way you give it.”
Every concept and idea, generally speaking, has been done. It's how you present it and what different angle you bring to it that matters.
22. “The moment is freedom. I couldn’t live by a rigid schedule. I try to live freely from moment to moment, letting things happen and adjusting to them.”
Setting a strict writing schedule each and every week can sometimes prove to be counter-productive because it will begin to feel like a chore or 9-5 job. Writing should be an escape as much as possible. It shouldn't feel like a chore — even when you're under assignment. It should be a product of inspiration. While under assignment, you have to find ways to light that fire, sure, but do your best to avoid a strict and rigid schedule. Change it up sometimes.
23. “Always be yourself, express yourself, have faith in yourself. Do not go out and look for a successful personality and duplicate it.”
If you seek to merely be another, you'll never be anything but a good copycat of them rather than being an amazing you.
Don't try to be Quentin Tarantino, Aaron Sorkin, and Diablo Cody. The powers that be always see right through that. It's beyond obvious while reading your scripts. Instead, be the best you can be, which — from the perspective of the powers that be — might be fresh, new, and exciting instead of Tarantino-esque, Sorkin-esque, or Diablo-esque.
24. “Do not deny the classical approach, simply as a reaction, or you will have created another pattern and trapped yourself there.”
Hollywood scripts have worked for decades upon decades. The three-act structure, or any other story structure or element, has as well. The general guidelines and expectations of Hollywood exist for a reason. Don't deny them simply because they are the classical approach or tradition. Doing so may just trap yourself in that cynical pattern ever present in the mind's of so many novice screenwriters these days.
You can go outside of the box, but don't just do it for the sake of going outside of the classical system.
25. “Absorb what is useful, discard what is not, add what is uniquely your own.”
Such is the key to all self-education. Something screenwriters must thrive in.
26. “Take no thought of who is right or wrong or who is better than. Be not for or against.”
First, in collaboration, never strive to believe that one person is right while the other is wrong — or whether one person is better than the other. Only do what is right for the project at hand. Collaboration necessitates multiple viewpoints in search of one possible answer. And compromise on all sides is required.
Second, when searching for knowledge and answers — be it through seminars, books, classes, or powers that be — be not for or against any of them. Take what you can from each of them and move on.
27. “It’s not the daily increase but daily decrease. Hack away at the unessential.”
When you're rewriting, it's all too often not about throwing more clay onto the sculpture. It's about cutting the clay away to find the masterpiece.
28. “The less effort, the faster and more powerful you will be.”
Becoming a great writer takes time, but you'll soon get to a point where instincts that have evolved within you begin to take over. Furthermore, when you sit down to write, think less of hitting beats, having character or story arcs at the right moments, etc. Just let the characters and stories take you where they need to go.
29. “Don’t think. FEEL. It’s like a finger pointing at the moon. Do not concentrate on the finger, or you will miss all of the heavenly glory.”
Keep your eye on the prize to keep you motivated and moving forward in your screenwriting journey. If you focus too much on the details, hurdles, trials, and tribulations, you'll miss the heavenly glory of remembering why you were willing to go through this in the first place.
30. “Obey the principles without being bound by them.”
The general guidelines and expectations of the powers that be — as far as keeping everything short, sweet, and to the point, engaging the reader in the opening few pages, not going over 120 pages unless absolutely necessary, following the general script format, etc. — are the principles that you really have to follow. There's no way around them. It's out of your control.
Instead of pushing against them, simply embrace them and figure out a way to tell your story while obeying those principles. That'll be one less reason for them to reject you.
31. “Preparation for tomorrow is hard work today.”
Most writing should be done before one word is ever written or typed. Visualize your story and what you'll be working on that next writing day. Do it while driving, biking, working out, working, staying with the kids, doing your chores, etc. It's the most important part of the process because, in the end, film and television are visual mediums. If you can't see it, you shouldn't be attempting to write it. Your imagination is there for a reason.
32. “If you think a thing is impossible, you’ll only make it impossible.”
Don't stand in your own way. If life on Earth has proved anything, it's that yes, anything is possible.
33. “A fight is not won by one punch or kick. Either learn to endure or hire a bodyguard.”
One script isn't enough. One contest win isn't enough. One optioned script isn't enough. One sold script isn't enough. One paid assignment isn't enough. One produced script isn't enough.
The journey doesn't end with one success. You're not suddenly catapulted to the best case scenario. You're not suddenly handed your dreams in a nicely wrapped gift box. It takes more than one "punch or kick" to have a career as a screenwriter. It will be full of the highest of peaks and the deepest, darkest of valleys. You'll be in the clouds one week, month, year, or decade, only to find yourself sitting in a dark corner the next.
If you're not willing to endure, get out now and go down another path. But if you're sure this is the path for you, at least for now, don't be scared. Bruce Lee's words — and spirit within them — will protect and guide you.
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