8 Pieces of Writing Advice from Rom-Com Queen Nora Ephron
If you’re anything like me, every morning you wake up, make some coffee, and wonder how you could be more like Nora Ephron.
There’s plenty to learn from the three-time Academy Award-nominee, who was a prolific journalist, novelist, playwright, and screenwriter of some of the most iconic romantic comedies ever, including When Harry Met Sally..., Sleepless in Seattle, and You've Got Mail .
Here are 8 pieces of writing advice from the Queen of Rom-Coms.
“As a young journalist, I thought that stories were simply what happened. As a screenwriter, I realized that we create stories by imposing narrative on the events that happen around us.”
Things happen to us every day. We go to work, file our taxes, make mediocre meals, talk to therapists and strangers, forget to switch the laundry, and walk the dogs.
Stories don’t become stories until we tell them. It is the telling that makes them special, the telling that brings them to life.
“Structure is the key to narrative. These are the crucial questions any storyteller must answer: Where does it begin? Where does the beginning start to end and the middle begin? Where does the middle start to end and the end begin? … Each of those things is entirely up to the writer. They are the hardest decisions for any writer to make about any story, whether fiction or nonfiction. If you make the right decision about structure, many other things become absolutely clear. On some level, the rest is easy.”
Every story has a beginning, middle, and end. Seems so easy, right? Wrong.
Structure can be so simple, yet so difficult. What Nora is suggesting is that if you start with structure, everything else will fall into place.
On Tragedy and Comedy
“My mother wanted us to understand that the tragedies of your life one day have the potential to be comic stories the next.”
There’s a thin line between tragedy and comedy. Nora knew this better than anyone — her bestselling novel Heartburn (and the movie adaptation that followed) was a thinly veiled retelling of the unraveling of her second marriage.
It’s a good way to look at life and an important lesson in perspective — something you see as a comedy is someone else’s tragedy and vice versa. There are many ways to tell the same story, after all.
“I go through periods where I work a great deal at all hours of the day whenever I am around a typewriter, and then I go through spells where I don’t do anything. I just sort of have lunch — all day. I never have been able to stick to a schedule. I work when there is something due or when I am really excited about a piece.”
Some writers are frustratingly vague about how their writing actually gets done, and I love how frank Nora was about her process. Knowing that there are days when the words will flow and days when they don’t and it’s okay either way, is something that I, as a young writer, find incredibly freeing.
Unless you have the pressure of a deadline, approach your writing project with flexibility. Write when you’re inspired, lunch when you’re not.
On Writer's Block
“I’ve had friends who occasionally call and say, ‘I’m blocked!’ And I’ve said, ‘Well, how are you going to pay the rent?’ To me it was so obvious, you just had to work through it. In the old days, I would just type the piece over and over in the hopes that it would somehow push me into the next sentence. But you don’t do that anymore with computers. I think one thing that you do is just make notes. You have to sit in a period called ‘not-writing’ and write pages and pages of anything that crosses your mind. Or you can read things that will help you … the point is you do something, whether or not it’s the actual writing.”
There are plenty of conflicting opinions about how to combat writer’s block, but I prefer Nora’s take on it — just do something. Take notes on your project. Or about something that isn’t your project. Read a book. Go for a run. Perfect your key lime pie.
Doesn’t matter what, as long as you’re doing something. And eventually, you’ll find your way back to writing and the block will be gone.
“I just want to go on making movies, and some of them will be completely meaningless, except, of course, to me.”
Too often, novice writers fall victim to the trend known as “trying to please the Hollywood execs.” They try to identify the next big trend in screenwriting and write a script they know will sell, but that they have no passion for.
Nora didn’t care if her stories were meaningful to millions, she just wanted to write things that meant something to her. And that passion came through in her scripts. So first and foremost, always write for yourself.
“Everything is copy.”
Okay, this advice actually comes from Nora’s mother, but it’s a phrase she repeated so often that it became one of her trademarks.
In journalism, copy means content. “Everything is copy” basically just means that everything could be turned into a story.
As writers, our own lives often bleed into our work unintentionally. Our emotions, opinions, and beliefs end up on the page in one way or another. But if you follow Nora’s footsteps, nothing is off-limits and you don’t have to be subtle.
If you’re a writer, everything is story.
“The hardest thing about writing is writing.”
Very true. But always remember that the best thing about writing is also writing.
Britton Perelman is a writer and storyteller from the middle of nowhere, Ohio. She’s had jobs in travel writing, movie trailers, and podcasting, and is currently getting her MFA in Screenwriting at the University of Texas at Austin. When not writing, Britton is most likely belting along to Broadway musical soundtracks, carefully making miniature bookshelves, or napping with her dog, Indiana Jones. Find more of her writing on her website or follow her on Instagram.