5 Screenwriting Lessons from Oscar-winner Jordan Peele
Peele got his start in comedy and is best known for his partnership and subsequent show with Keegan-Michael Key, but has become more well-known recently for the subversive Get Out, a horror movie that stayed relevant from the time of its release in February of 2017 to Oscar night over a year later.
There’s plenty to learn from Peele’s career, including these five pieces of screenwriting advice.
1. Write for yourself.
It’s all about superheroes and big budget dystopian stories right now, but that shouldn’t matter. Peele definitely didn’t conform to industry trends or think about what other producers were looking for when he wrote Get Out.
He told fans in a Reddit AMA video interview: “Write your favorite movie that you haven’t seen. Don’t worry about whether it’s going to get made. Write something for yourself.”
It can be challenging to not worry about what other people will think of your story, but write for yourself above all else. If you don’t like what you’re writing, others won’t either.
2. Draw from the classics for inspiration.
In an interview with No Film School, Peele admitted that Get Out was a throwback to the 60s, when filmmakers “really knew how to wind tension tighter and tighter". Peele used storytelling devices in Get Out that he took straight from films like The Stepford Wives and Rosemary’s Baby, and urges horror filmmakers to look to the classics.
Regardless of your genre, it’s good advice. Do a bit of research about the genre you’re writing in, watch the classics, and note the things that work and the things that don’t. Note storytelling techniques, specific shots you might want to include, and anything else that piques your interest. At the very least, seeing the classics should invigorate you to create original, compelling stories.
3. Make it universal.
Peele told NPR that he used Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner as a starting point for Get Out — the idea of being afraid to meet potential in-laws for the first time. It’s an idea that has nothing to do with race, social status, or ethnicity. It’s that gut fear that leads the film.
The same rule applies to comedy. Whether you’re looking for the theme that makes an audience laugh until their sides hurt or quake in their boots, you need to begin with a universal, elemental feeling. It’s what will unite your audience — which is exactly what happens when everyone rallies behind Chris’ character while watching Get Out.
4. It’s all about pacing.
Given that Peele started in comedy, you might think that making the switch to horror would be difficult. After all, they’re two completely different ways of storytelling, right? Wrong.
“The similarity between comedy and horror is the importance of pacing,” Peele told AJC. “In both genres, you have to build tension and release it very strategically.”
So, when penning the next great horror movie, comedy film, or drama flick, be sure to pay attention to the rhythm of your story. If your screenplay is slightly too fast, or too slow, you risk losing your audience.
5. Follow the fun and always keep going.
Every now and then, we screenwriters face writer’s block. It’s inevitable. Peele spilled his secret for dealing with writer’s block in a Roundtable conversation with the Hollywood Reporter.
“My mantra was: Follow the fun. If I’m not having fun, I’m doing it wrong.”
When you hit the wall, the indomitable force that tells you your screenplay isn’t good enough, find your way back to the fun.
Peele reportedly quit writing Get Out 20 different times. But he went back. And that determination, that dedication, eventually led him to an Oscar.
Britton Perelman is a writer and storyteller based in Los Angeles, California. When not buried in a book or failing spectacularly at cooking herself a meal, she’s probably talking someone’s ear off about the last thing she watched. She loves vintage typewriters, the Cincinnati Reds, and her dog, Indy. Find more of her work on her website, or follow her on Instagram.
Image Source: Getty / Frederic J. Brown