Screenwriting Wisdom from a Galaxy Far, Far Away
Wisdom isn’t containable. It can be applied to all walks of life. We’ve explored the literary mind of Stephen King and the brilliant mind of Albert Einstein and have found words of wisdom to live by in Hollywood and beyond.
Now we go to the far reaches of space. A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away. During our exploration, we found now iconic words of wisdom to live by in our screenwriting journeys. What can we learn from Jedi masters, a scoundrel turned hero, alien beings, droids, a farm boy from the desert planet of tatooine, a princess, and beyond?
“Great, kid. Don’t get cocky” – Han Solo
You’ve finished a script and your friends and family have read it and said that it’s brilliant and Hollywood would be foolish not to buy it. You’ve won a screenplay competition. You’ve had some traction in your screenwriting ventures with some emails, calls, or meetings with the powers that be.
This is all great and you should be proud. But just remember what Han Solo said to the then naïve farm boy Luke Skywalker after shooting his first TIE Fighter. Don't get cocky.
"It's a trap!" – Admiral Akbar
There’s a number of people out there looking to take advantage of the desperation of screenwriters. If you’re in search of representation and you come across anyone that asks for money upfront, remember what Admiral Akbar said upon the Rebel attack of the Second Death Star when he realized that they’ve been had. It's a trap.
Representation makes money when you make money. Plain and simple. There should never be any upfront costs to attain their services. They make their 10-15% of any option, assignment contract, or sale they arrange for you. Then and only then.
“I find your lack of faith disturbing.” – Darth Vader
To be a cynical screenwriter is to quickly fall to the Dark Side. It’s hard not to be cynical, given the odds against you and the constant rejection that you face. However, you must keep the faith. If this is really what you want to pursue, you can’t lose that faith that someday you’ll see your name up there on that big screen. Keep the faith or the Dark Side will come calling.
"Don't get technical with me.” – C-3PO
Screenplays are essentially blue prints for an eventual film that hundreds will work from in a technical aspect, yes. However, screenwriters are not directors or cinematographers, thus, they shouldn’t be injecting the screenplay with technical camera direction, angles, etc. It infuriates the studio reader because it slows down the read of the screenplay and it’s a waste of time anyway because, Force willing, if the screenplay goes into production the director and his crew will decide where the camera goes.
“Never tell me the odds.” – Han Solo
Odds are against every screenwriter when they first begin their screenwriting journey. Odds are against them ever being able to get their scripts read, to get their scripts bought, and to get their scripts produced. But remember that the likes of Quentin Tarantino, Aaron Sorkin, Shane Black, Joss Whedon, filmmakers like Steven Spielberg, and yes, George Lucas even — and pretty much every screenwriter and filmmaker we cherish — had all odds against them when they first started out. Anything is possible. Forget about the odds. Just go write some engaging stories.
“I have a bad feeling about this.” – Obi-Wan Kenobi, Anakin Skywalker, Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, C-3PO, Princess Leia
Let’s set the stage. You’re writing or rewriting your script. Something isn’t working. Something is off. You read the pages over and over and something is telling you that this certain line of dialogue, scene, sequence, or character isn’t working. However, you’re attached to them because you spent a long time writing them. You then try to convince yourself that they work but every time you go back and read through the script, you’ve got a bad feeling.
Trust it. Every time any Star Wars character said or felt those words, they proved to be prophetic. The same can be said for screenwriters.
“Who’s the more foolish; the fool, or the fool who follows him?” – Obi-Wan Kenobi
Choose your mentors wisely. Who you choose to learn from, or worse yet, emulate, will scream volumes of who you are as a screenwriter in the end.
We can take this even further and mention the many guru books that claim to have a set formula for success. Whether it’s declaring that certain elements need to be on certain pages or certain beat sheets need to be followed to create a successful screenplay, in the end, it will be up to you whether you try to emulate that or not. And it will be you that suffers the consequences because all too often, screenwriters will quickly realize that formulas do not guarantee success and that for every hindsight example that such gurus hold high, there are dozens more that broke those “rules” or didn’t adhere to those formulas and still succeeded. And there are thousands of screenplays out there that tried to utilize those formulas to a tee, and failed.
“A Jedi must have the deepest commitment, the most serious mind.” – Yoda
A screenwriter must have the deepest commitment. You can’t half ass a screenwriting career. You can’t just be a weekend warrior, write every now and then, take a year to finish a single script, submit it blindly to representation email addresses, drop it into this contest or the next, and expect to go anywhere in the film or television industry. If you want it, you have to be fully committed and make a near full time job of writing some amazing scripts, honing your craft, and getting those scripts to the right people. You have to exhaust all connections to Hollywood, no matter how many times removed you are from them. You have to get out there and network and make your own connections. You must have the deepest commitment to see the best results.
“Stay on target.” – Davish “Pops” Krail, a.k.a. Gold Five
No matter what is thrown at you in life. No matter how crazy your job or household is. No matter what positive or negative feedback you’ve received. You MUST stay on target and get that script done.
Too many screenwriters take a year or more to finish a single script. That’s not going to cut it. You want to get to a point where you can finish the first draft of a script in ten weeks — which is the general time Hollywood contracts allow the screenwriter to finish a first draft for an assignment. Sure, it’ll take a while to get to that point, but there’s no excuse for taking a year to finish a screenplay.
Do whatever it is that you have to do to make the time to write. Can’t write every day? Then pick one day out of the week where you can sit down for a few hours or more and write at least 10 pages. Do that for 10 weeks and you’ve got at least 100 pages.
Whatever it takes on whatever schedule you can manage, stay on target and get that script done.
“This one, a long time have I watched. All his life has he looked away… to the future, to the horizon. Never his mind on where he was. …Hmm? On what he was doing.” – Yoda
Stay focused and keep your head out of the clouds when you’re writing a screenplay. You shouldn’t be thinking about where you’ll be taking it and what benefits you’ll reap. You don’t even have a script yet. Just stay focused, keep your head out of the clouds, and write.
“You don’t have to do this to impress me.” – Princess Leia
Don’t write to impress people. Write to engage them. There’s a difference.
Don’t try to dazzle the powers that be with quirky dialogue, big action sequences, and especially fancy vocabulary (there’s no place for that in a script).
Just focus on telling an engaging story with engaging characters. The powers that be see right through writing that is simply attempting to impress them.
“Try not. Do… or do not. There is no try.” – Yoda
There’s a true difference between trying and doing.
To try is to go into a task expecting that there may be some failure involved.
To do is to go into a task knowing that you’re going to do whatever it takes to get it done.
“You’ll find I’m full of surprises!” – Han Solo
If you really want to write an engaging screenplay, surprise the reader/audience. Surprise them over and over and over.
This isn’t about scares or explosions or characters ripping off a face mask to reveal that they aren’t who we thought they were. It’s about respecting the reader and audience’s intelligence, knowing that they likely know where you’re going with whatever story point, and then flipping what they expect by going in the opposite direction. For the best example of this, go watch the underrated thriller The Next Three Days.
“Everything is proceeding as I have foreseen.” – The Emperor
Two lessons that you can learn with this quote.
First, don’t always believe what you perceive will happen. Don’t always count on that producer you happened upon at a film festival that said he’d love to read your script. Don’t always count on that manager that you met at some pitch festival that said she’d be able to take your script to X name producer. Your mind will get ahead of you and like Emperor Palpatine in Return of the Jedi, you’ll be blinded by such information and not expect what is really coming — failure and defeat in his case, possible dead ends in yours.
Second, have a plan. Know what type of script you’re about to write, know what companies are making such scripts, know which agents and managers are representing such writers that are writing such scripts, know what contacts you’ve made and what networking you’ll do to make more, etc. Strong efforts often lead to positive results. Don’t make the mistake the Emperor made by putting all of your eggs in one thought, one hunch, or one possibility. Have a plan.
“We seem to be made to suffer. It’s our lot in life.” – C-3PO
Yes, it’s hard being a screenwriter. It’s hard pursuing such a career. It’s hard dealing with the rejection. It’s hard realizing that screenwriters aren’t treated as they should be most of the time and it’s hard knowing that studios seemingly never want to take chances on unknown screenwriters.
Get over it. The screenwriters that sit around and stew over how hard and “unfair” Hollywood is, be it by themselves or online in comment sections and forums, are the screenwriters that will never make it.
Yes, it’s hard. But what are you going to do to overcome it? That’s what will decide your eventual fate.
“I want them alive — no disintegrations!” – Darth Vader to Boba Fett
In the end, we want our heroes to survive. Screenwriters all too often feel the need to shock and awe readers by “surprising” us by killing off the hero in the end. Sure, at times, the death is admirable, however, in the end, movies are about entertaining. If you’re writing a movie about a hero that is trying to overcome something through various adventures, don’t cheat the audience out of seeing them succeed. In another galaxy of the future, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn killed off the franchise’s dearest character, Spock. While it lead to an emotional milestone for the franchise, remember that there was the follow-up sequel, Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. Fans wanted Spock back.
We understand that protagonists often suffer untimely (or timely) fates in dramas, horror films, etc. But when we’re talking about heroes, there’s a different context. Audiences want to see the heroes of adventures survive. Despite Harrison Ford’s insistence in 1983 that Han Solo die in Return of the Jedi, George Lucas balked and had him live. Had he not done that, we wouldn’t have this amazing moment to behold...
“That boy is our last hope.” – Obi-Wan Kenobi
“No. There is another.” – Yoda
You may think this is a stretch, but there’s a lesson to be learned.
So many screenwriters put all of their eggs into one basket. If it’s a contest, they “sit by the phone” waiting to hear the quarterfinalist announcement, then the semis, then the finalists, etc. They stop writing. They stop marketing. They stop moving forward until the results are in and all too often, when that contest isn’t won, the screenwriters are heartbroken with a “What do I do now?” attitude.
If it’s sending a script out to a contact they’ve made in the industry, they often do the same thing. They inject all of their hope into that one single lead and when it goes sour, so do they.
There is always another contest. There is always another contact. You WILL get rejected 99.9% of the time. Accept that now. Embrace it. Learn from each rejection.
“In my experience there is no such thing as luck.” – Obi-Wan Kenobi
Well, there is and there isn’t. Luck does play a huge part in success as far as being at the right place, at the right time, with the right person. There are some uncontrollables in that sense. However, as we covered in How to Make Your Own Luck in Hollywood, you can control what luck you come across by making your own through effort, taking advantage of opportunities, and seeking them out. That’s what Obi-Wan is talking about in a sense, beyond the notion of destiny and fate, which some agree or disagree with.
“Your eyes can deceive you. Don’t trust them.” – Obi-Wan Kenobi
How many screenwriters have finished that first script, read it, and believed that it was the next award-winning and multi-million dollar deal garnering script? All of them. Well, most of them we’ll say to be fair (but it’s really almost all).
Too many screenwriters look upon their first couple of scripts and believe them to be ready for “the show” when they are clearly not. They haven’t been reading scripts. They haven’t been watching movies. They haven’t been paying attention to the current market. They’ve been so consumed by their own work that they believe it couldn’t possibly be rejected. And then it is. Over and over.
This is a natural stage and every novice screenwriter goes through it. Don’t trust your own eyes. Take it to some trusted peers and get their reactions. Take it to people that will point out both the bad AND the good. But never trust your own eyes when you first start your screenwriting journey with those first couple of scripts.
“What a piece of junk!” – Luke Skywalker
Strive to get to a point in your screenwriting career where you can be objective about your own work. Where you can read a scene or a draft and go, “What a piece of junk!” It will be one of the final levels to reach before you’re really ready for the big leagues.
How do you get to this level? Read lots of scripts, both good and bad. Both produced and from novice screenwriters. Become a script reader if you can.
With your own writing, when you’re done with that first draft, walk away from it for a month. Don’t think about it. Don’t give it to other people. Don’t enter it into any contests. Then come back and read it from beginning to end. This separation helps you to find an objective experience and nine times out of ten you’ll look at scenes and maybe even the draft itself, say “What a piece of junk!”, and then make it better.
“Ready are you? What know you of ready?” – Yoda
When you’ve finished that first script, don’t market it. Don’t dwell on it. You’ve written just one script, thus, you’re not yet ready to become a professional screenwriter. You need to hone your craft and stack your deck with some quality writing and some quality scripts.
“Already know you that which you need.” – Yoda
Before you type one single word, you should have much of the script in your head. Writing isn’t just about putting fingers to keys. Writing is accomplished by day dreaming, by putting on music and going for long runs, walks, and drives. You need to see much of the movie through your own mind’s eye before you can possibly put those visuals onto paper or into your computer. It’s a visual medium so you’d be doing yourself a disservice by not at least knowing the broad strokes.
“Stretch out with your feelings.” – Obi- Wan Kenobi
While you want to choose your concepts wisely and find a hybrid of what you want to write and what the powers that be are willing to buy, you always want to write what you love to write. You want to write with feeling and emotion. That’s often why formulas and specific beat sheets don’t work. The powers that be see through those cookie-cutter scripts. Let them see the emotional investment you have in your scripts by the very writing that you present to them.
"Why you stuck-up, half-witted, scruffy-looking nerf-herder!" – Princess Leia
Don’t be a stuck-up, half-witted, scruffy-looking, nerf-herder — whatever that is.
“But I was going into Tosche Station to pick up some power converters!” – Luke Skywalker
You can waste time with your friends when your script is done, now come on. Get to it!
May the Force be with you as you continue on your screenwriting journey!