Screenwriting Wisdom from Steven Spielberg

by Ken Miyamoto - updated on March 8, 2023

Film is a collaborative medium. Everyone from the crew to the director is a storyteller. The screenwriter and screenplay are just the beginning. Some directors are masters of their craft, while others encompass the whole spectrum of cinematic storytelling with passion and vision. Steven Spielberg is one of those visionaries that transcends his position as a mere director.

He is the first director in the history of cinema to see his films (those he directed) cross the $10 billion mark. He has never directed a mainstream superhero film. Any sequel he has directed was a direct follow-up to original films or adaptations he himself directed — hence, he's not just a big studio franchise work-for-hire.

He's been nominated for seven Best Director Academy Awards, winning two of them (Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan). In 1987, he was awarded the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award for his work as a creative producer and received the AFI Life Achievement Award in 1995.

Read More: 'The Fabelmans': How Steven Spielberg Uses Filmmaking to Cope

Spielberg has also directed in multiple genres, including Action-Adventure, Science Fiction, Thriller, Horror, Crime Drama, Spy Drama, War Drama, Drama, Comedy, and Fantasy.

Here we feature some of Steven Spielberg's greatest quotes on directing, writing, and cinematic storytelling as a whole — followed by our own elaboration.

"All good ideas start out as bad ideas, that’s why it takes so long."

A good idea isn't enough. There are millions of people that think they have outstanding ideas for a movie — but only a small percentage of those people have the passion, vision, skill set, and drive to do the work and take that good idea and make it into a compelling and engaging cinematic story.

It takes work to do that, and do it well, so roll up your sleeves and be ready to develop, explore, and help that idea evolve.

"I’m not really interested in making money. That’s always come as the result of success, but it’s not been my goal, and I’ve had a tough time proving that to people."

If you're chasing the big paychecks, you're not going to last. First and foremost, it usually takes a decade of hard work before they start coming — if they come at all. Secondly, if you don't have the passion to tell stories and are motivated only by a payday, you're not going to be able to create anything magical enough to warrant that eventual payday. You'll be simply coloring by the numbers. That's not art and that does not make you stand out.

"I don’t dream at night, I dream at day, I dream all day — I’m dreaming for a living."

That's the magic of screenwriting. We dream of dreaming for a living.

"I’ve always been very hopeful which I guess isn’t strange coming from me. I don’t want to call myself an optimist. I want to say that I’ve always been full of hope. I’ve never lost that. I have a lot of hope for this country and for the entire world."

The day a screenwriter loses their hope is the day that they either quit or lose the passion. Avoid the pitfall of becoming disgruntled and cynical — it's a deep hole to dig yourself out of.

"Whether in success or in failure, I’m proud of every single movie I’ve directed."

Every screenplay you write matters. Sure, the first few are often your worst, but they are the genesis of the great writer you have become — or will soon become.

And with every misstep you may have along the way, you learn from it and evolve as a screenwriter. You can't prevail unless you fail.

"You have many years ahead of you to create the dreams that we can’t even imagine dreaming. You have done more for the collective unconscious of this planet than you will ever know."

What storytellers — screenwriters, novelists, songwriters, musicians, playwrights, poets — do matters. What you create matters. Stories told in whatever medium can change lives. They can awake, inspire, and teach. They can make someone laugh when they need to laugh, cry when they need to cry, and scream when they need to scream.

"The delicate balance of mentoring someone is not creating them in your own image, but giving them the opportunity to create themselves."

The knowledge, experience, and skills must be passed down. When you've reached a certain level as a screenwriter where you can pass on what you've learned, you can become a key mentor to the future. But always remember that when you're in that position, you're not there to create another version of you. You are there to shepherd their own journey, story, and vision.

"My imagination won’t turn off. I wake up so excited I can’t eat breakfast. I’ve never run out of energy."

You'll know when you're truly meant to be a writer when the ideas never stop flowing through you in every waking minute.

"All of us every single year, we’re a different person. I don’t think we’re the same person all our lives."

Allow yourself to grow each and every year. Your writing will grow with it.

"Every time I go to a movie, it’s magic, no matter what the movie’s about."

It's very easy to forget how magical film really is. Too often we get caught up in the details of structure, format, concept, marketing, and networking. We forget that every single movie that is on that screen is magic. Each one existed only in the mind of one individual at one time. And then that idea become a screenplay. And that screenplay was given to directors, actors, camera operators, stunt teams, special effects teams, grips, lighting technicians, set designers, prop masters, wardrobe designers, film scorers, etc.

And then suddenly, when the lights go dim and the curtains pull away to reveal the screen — magic happens.

Never lose the awareness of that magic. It will keep you going through those rough times.

"People have forgotten how to tell a story. Stories don’t have a middle or an end anymore. They usually have a beginning that never stops beginning."

Hollywood is concept-driven. The art of story and character arcs often falls by the wayside. But the true films that stand the test of time are those that deliver an excellent concept through amazing character and story arcs.

"Failure is inevitable. Success is elusive."

When you understand this, your screenwriting journey will be much more survivable. Too many screenwriters go in expecting instant success with as few rejections as possible. It just doesn't work that way.

Go in expecting failure at every turn and be ready to learn from it so that you can eventually capture that success.

"The work that I'm proudest of is the work that I'm most afraid of."

Taking the easy street is going to catch up with you. You'll become complacent. Only when you take on those stories that intimidate you will you truly feel your best writing reveal itself.

"When I was a kid, there was no collaboration; it's you with a camera bossing your friends around. But as an adult, filmmaking is all about appreciating the talents of the people you surround yourself with and knowing you could never have made any of these films by yourself."

Film is a collaborative medium. It only begins with the screenplay. Writing partners, managers, development executives, producers, actors, and members of the crew bring the vision to life.

"Movies are always in a state of locomotion. You start with a general idea of how it should feel and then you find you've got a runaway train. You have to race to catch up — the movie is telling you what it wants to become, and when that happens there's no greater feeling."

There is no better rush than the story revelations that appear organically from nowhere. When a screenwriter experiences that, they can learn to trust that the movie will reveal itself — as long as the writer is there to chip away the granite to let the "statue" escape into freedom.

"When you listen, you learn. You absorb like a sponge and your life becomes so much better than when you are just trying to be listened to all the time."

Always listen to the feedback you receive. Too many screenwriters get overly defensive any time anyone has something to say about their scripts that doesn't align with their preconceived notion of it.

You don't have to agree with everything, but at least listen. You may just discover the answer to the script problems you didn't even know you had.

"Sometimes a dream almost whispers… it never shouts. Very hard to hear. So you have to, every day of your lives, be ready to hear what whispers in your ear."

If you're wondering what route to take, what decision to make, and what script to undertake, listen to that little voice that has been whispering you answers all along. Don't ignore it. Listen to it every day. It's trying to tell you something.

Watch the man himself in this inspiring Top 10 Steven Spielberg Rules for Success...

Read ScreenCraft's 33 Screenwriting Lessons from the Philosophy of Bruce Lee!

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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