Screenwriting Tips From Top Screenwriters – Video Showcase

Screenwriting tips about the writing process are usually little nuggets of helpful advice.

This list of screenwriting tips is different – it’s comprised of 6 GIANT nuggets.

My goal is for you to find one tip you can use to help you write a screenplay you can sell.

Screenwriting Tips – Overview

The screenwriting tips in this article focus on the screenwriting process – the actual methods used by top screenwriters to create their screenplays.

While it’s true that the screenwriting process is different for every screenwriter, there are some best practices and common themes.

So, rather than deluge you in a sea of hundreds of little screenwriting tips, I’ve selected the top six that may make the biggest difference to your screenwriting process, your ability to create great material, and your overall screenwriting career.

Inside The Screenwriting Process

I’ve selected six short films (produced by Academy Originals) so you can see the screenwriting tips I’ve selected come to life.

Each video showcases the screenwriting process and inner-workings of successful screenwriters.

Not only will you see inside the offices, bedrooms, dining rooms, yoga rooms, backyards, and other spaces where these writers work, you’ll see that they still struggle each day to make incremental progress.

Screenwriting Process Tip #1:

Extensive Research and Detailed Note Cards

Dustin Lance Black won the Academy Award and two WGA Awards for Best Original Screenplay for Milk. He also wrote J. Edgar, Pedro, and directed Virginia.

Here are his top screenwriting tips for using notecards:

“I boil down the moments that I think are cinematic, the moments that I think are necessary for the story. I start to put them onto notecards. Each notecard should be as pure and singular an idea as possible because I want to be able to move all the pieces around and be able to create a film. It’s about then taking these cards and for me, over the course of weeks to months, laying them out and distilling down what is necessary to tell the story.”

— Dustin Lance Black

Screenwriting Process Tip #2:

Write In Long-Hand In Notebooks

Tina Gordon Chism wrote Drumline, ATL and wrote and directed Peeples. Her thriller Inheritance was purchased by Sony and HBO is developing Crushed.

Here are her screenwriting tips for writing long-hand:

“It’s always a spark. It could be a world, it could be a character, it could be a situation, a question I might be asking myself about human behavior. That will happen in an instant, but the slow burn is the details. Some people use notecards to do this, I use notebooks. It’s something about how I’m thinking about the details when I’m writing in long-hand that makes it flesh out a little easier for me.

— Tina Gordon Chism

Screenwriting Process Tip #3:

Outline On Both Sides Of A Sheet Of Paper

Aline Brosh McKenna wrote The Devil Wears Prada, We Bought A Zoo, 27 Dresses, I Don’t Know How She Does It, Morning Glory, Laws of Attraction, and Three To Tango.

Here are her screenwriting tips for using paper instead of notecards:

“I can fold it up and then take it to a meeting. I can lay them out for people and sort of show them how I think the whole movie goes. I started doing that instead of cards because the cards, to me, started to feel like it was really defuse and all over the place. I started doing it more that way and it felt more organic to me.”

— Aline Brosh McKenna

Script Writing Process Tip #4:

Cycles Of Procrastination And Productivity

Mike White wrote School of Rock, Nacho Libre, Orange County, The Good Girl, and wrote and directed Year of The Dog.

Here are his screenwriting tips for maximizing your cycles of productivity:

You’re impregnating your brain with an idea and it needs to gestate. Almost like I’m waiting as long as I can before I actually start writing. All that looks like, from the outside, is me sitting on the couch or watching TV or watching movies or reading books or walking around the neighborhood. I see the cycles of being really productive and then going through these periods where it just seems like I’m sitting around my house literally staring at the walls.”

— Mike White

Script Writing Process Tip #5:

Take Pictures, Notes And Send Them To Your Phone

Ava Duvernay wrote and directed I Will Follow and Middle Of Nowhere. Duvernay won the Best Director Prize for Middle Of Nowhere at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, making her the first African-American woman to receive the award.

Here are her screenwriting tips for gathering inspiration:

“I take pictures a lot and I take a lot of notes. I find that I used to just scribble on scraps of paper but now more and more I rely on the phone. I’ll put in the subject header XO. That’s my code. Hugs and kisses to myself of inspiration. It’s so corny. But whenever I need to sit down and pull in something that I’ve seen, I search “XO.” and everything comes up.”

— Ava Duvernay

Script Writing Process Tip #6:

Feel Guilty Until Noon, Then Write

Paul Haggis wrote and directed Crash (which won Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay), Third Person, and In The Valley Of Elah. Haggis also wrote Million Dollar Baby, Casino Royale, Quantum of SolaceFlags Of Our Fathers, Letters From Iwo Jima, and The Last Kiss.

Here are his top screenwriting tips for handling daily procrastination:

“My daily routine. I do my emails and try not to write for as long as possible. Then, I start to feel guilty and so usually around noon, I’m feeling really guilty. So, I actually open the script and start to work on it. I write, I type, I write, I type. I take notes on my iPhone. At one point I had two computers so I could have notes on one and a script on the other. I just have to fool myself into thinking that this is a new process and this will work much better than the last process.

— Paul Haggis

Commentary On Screenwriting Tips

As you can see, while most of the screenwriting tips focused on the technical side of the screenwriting process, the last two are concerned with the psychological side of things.

I’ve included these screenwriting tips because they provide a counterpoint to what is perhaps the most famous of all writing tips, namely that you should “write every day,” also known as BIC (“Butt In Chair”).

If your screenwriting process is to sit down every day and write, good for you.

But if you don’t, I think that’s okay.

Harness your upcycle of productivity (as per Mike White). Use guilt as fuel (as per Paul Haggis).

That’s the last of my screenwriting tips:

Do whatever it takes to get your work done.

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Discussion About Screenwriting Tips From Top Screenwriters – Video Showcase

  1. Jeremy S

    Thanks for sharing, Stephanie.

  2. Irene

    Thank you for posting this – I had no idea that channel existed! I’m going to try out Aline McKenna’s notepad idea, and Mike White’s video reminded me to be cognizant of the difference between waiting and procrastinating.
    To answer the prompt, my writing process is a combination of outlines on notepads, index cards, and in scrivener. While writing drafts, I always include a “For Next Time” paragraph, even if it’s outlined elsewhere. My best writing happens before heading off to my day job, so that means I’m at my computer around 5 every morning; it helps to have a prompt right in front of me first thing.

  3. Will Walker

    Thanks for sharing, Stephanie. I can relate with three of them.

  4. Heather Hale

    As always, great info Stephanie. Thank you for taking the time to collate all those insights for us! 😉

    My writing process includes all these! LOL! 😉 Like Haggis, I think we try to convince ourselves there IS a process that actually works! 😉 I try different techniques on different projects and many times, before I’m halfway through I’ve switched systems or approaches (which I think is part of the process, too – pulling it apart and looking at each and every element from all different angles).

    To me, high concept, heavily plotted projects tend to lend themselves more to linear thinking – so color coded notecards and white boards with corresponding color coded plot lines or even Excel spreadsheets, bullet points or all the various story plotting software to line everything up whereas more character driven, introspective subject matters tend to flow better via seamless, handwritten stream of consciousness notebook entries or typing as fast as you can think – and organizing later into a writer’s treatment to move to screenwriting software and expand.

    I, too, take lots of photos and keep files of snippets of dialogue or fascinating jobs, milieus or places and do a ton of research as well. The spectrum you’ve selected is great because I think most of try all of these methods at one time or another – and all struggle with procrastination! 😉

  5. Ashok Rao

    Inspiring and highly motivating!

  6. Dillon

    Stephanie thanks for the videos. Now I have something I can show my girlfriend about how I act just like these other procrastinators. I’m not just sitting in the back yard getting drunk.
    I don’t have the access that you do so can you do a series of videos about genre?
    And you’re providing good content which is going to attract people to your website.

  7. James Steven Beverly

    Great stuff, as usual, Stephanie. keep ’em commin”-Steve

  8. Steve Burks

    I thought the photo above was a stock image; I didn’t realize she’s Tina! lol Awesome.

  9. Victor Carrera

    This is amazing. Several styles, no a perfect style, all valid, all fruitful. Thanks for this. *

  10. Cynthia Garbutt

    You’re such a clever person. I look forward with eager anticipation for every notification from your website.

    Do you lecture? Will you come to London?

  11. C V Paul

    Hi Stephanie, Thank you for sharing these varied viewpoints for tackling the task of screenwriting. It brought a sense of focus to me for my own style and story-telling process. Knowing that established screenwriters experience similar emotions as all of us who write gives us hope that we are on the right track – we just need the right moment. Now I look forward to moving forward with my own ideas after seeing that anything is possible. Take care!

  12. Rodney Smith

    Thank you so much for sharing. They say Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys could hear a song and write a totally different one from listening to it. I feel the same way and knowing that my writing style and habits are different has always made me wonder. thanks again

  13. W. Keith Sewell

    Yeah, I can identify closely with Paul Haggis’ daily process of avoiding writing until around 12 noon, after everything else .. And I also write longhand on yellow tabs first .. Nowadays, I’m tweaking my process by documenting the big moves first – the “tentpole ” scenes. I do a 3-5 page write-up on the big cinematic or story-turned movements – and then put them in order of how they best fit in the script, before tying it all together .. Great article Stephanie, thanks.

  14. Suzanne

    Great article! I think what stands out in this article is what I’ve also figured out – what works for you, WORKS. Do what appeals to you versus trying to do what you’re ‘supposed to do.’ For me, I’m a visual thinker, so I use a big sheet of card stock to do my outline beats. I also clip pictures from magazines for my themes and ‘vibe.’ I also learned some tips from a conference about character development, so I put the characters in bubbles and write 3 traits in their bubble, making sure one trait overlaps one trait of another character – so the characters can hate each other, but maybe the overlap is they both like dogs. Then I can look at my story board of sorts and keep going on it.

    I also force myself to write a vomit draft of my script after outlining and put FIL (fix it later) all over the place and KEEP GOING. That is one tip I’ve heard time and again that does really work.
    Keep the articles/videos coming – very helpful!

  15. Ron Newcomb

    Thanks for putting this together. Not only inspiring but gave me some great ideas! Keep up the good work Stephanie & we’ll keep sharing!

  16. Philip Onions

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for not just posting Dustin Black’s clip. I have nothing against the guy, his films are great and he clearly works so hard in putting them together, but if I thought for one minute, that was the only way to write…well this would be the end for me! I think , having watched all these clips, that clearly the whole writing experience is different for different people. Clearly it also matters what sort of piece one is working on and if it has to be historically accurate or not. But there was so much here that we can get some help and inspiration hopefully. So thanks for this Stephanie. Now I should stop procrastinating and get back to the real work!!!

  17. Nicola

    Thanks for sharing.

    Have you read Russell T Davies’ book with Benjamin Cook, The Writer’s Tale?

    It’s a series of emails sent between the two of them whilst Davies was writing the 4th series of Doctor Who. Cook asks lots of in depth questions about the writing process and Davies is very conscious of lots of other different methods to the creative process and mentions other British TV writers who do it differently. But he describes his creative process as living in a soup of Maybe, there are thousands of different choices that could be made, all shifting and changing shape in his head.

    As for my writing process, not sure I have one yet. I’m trying to write my first so there isn’t much of a process yet. Although had my first ten pages table read at a screenwriters group and there was a note on transitions and one person said they wouldn’t dare take on a project as big as I am trying to do. Nothing like throwing yourself in at the deep end.

    • Stephanie Palmer

      I haven’t read The Writer’s Tale, but it sounds terrific. I love the description of “living in a soup of Maybe.” Isn’t that the truth? I have added it to my reading list— thanks!

  18. sowmya srikanth

    Hi Stephanie,

    Thank you so much for sharing those videos on script writers.It has given me a real insight into what it is to be a writer.I too like writing in the early hours of the day. All those videos gave me a hope that I too can write.

  19. Jaclyn

    thank you so much for posting these videos, I’m a writer myself, not professional, but I understand the struggles and I am glad other people can see that writing is not as easy as it looks, it takes a lot of time and a lot of patience.

  20. Stephanie

    Really enjoyed this post and these videos! Helpful and inspiring too see these diverse methods and processes, and to know that professional writers still continue to struggle w/ procrastination, too. Thank you!

  21. May West

    Thanks for sharing, Stephanie!
    As always, a WINNER.
    Most informative, most insightful!

    I am totally with you when it comes to more character driven, introspective subject matters:
    “More character driven, introspective subject matters tend to flow better via seamless, handwritten stream of consciousness notebook entries or typing as fast as you can think – and organizing later into a writer’s treatment to move to screenwriting software and expand.

    LETS KEEP EXPANDING! (-:

  22. Dionne

    I truly needed this! Thank you so much!

    • Stephanie Palmer

      Glad they are helpful to you, Dionne!

  23. Dixie Suzette Montague

    Thank you for all the fantastic tips. I am in the beginning stages of writing. I am learning so so much!

    • Stephanie Palmer

      Wonderful, Dixie!

  24. James W. Herndon

    Thank You Stephanie so much for the great tips. I find myself using a lot of them so I see I’m on the right track. BIC everyday!!!

  25. Pat Lynch

    How amazing! Just as I am headed into the learning curve to begin to write stories and scripts for characters that were given as a gift, here is the gift of the practical ways to begin, research, and organize and the practical advice one has to give to oneself. What a miracle.

  26. L. Finch

    Loved THIS one Steph!(just #8!?X$# figure it out! lmao!!! Spewed coffee out my nose holes and had to go pee 🙁 grrr) In my experience, the passion for screenwriting, the actual writing, the studying of it and percolating among other writers is a drive that doesn’t require much revving up. The problem is how to STOP it…how to tell your brain to stop writing while standing in a check out line having forgotten to take your note pad. I’ve never posted here before, but I’ll throw out one suggestion to my soul mates. Try deciding what it is you want to say FIRST. Do you just want to abuse your way with words to influence and/or toy with the minds of an audience for 2 hours? No. You want to say something, stroke emotions and leave an audience THINKING after the credit roll starts. What does that last scene look like? THE LAST SCENE? Figure that out, then write the last scene FIRST. Commit to it. THEN start with scene one and work towards that LAST SCENE. Stay loyal to it. THEN play with scene cards. Now get writing and quit playing online. 🙂 LF