10 Lessons to be learned from movies about writers
10. Enough is enough.
“Art is never finished, only abandoned.” – Leonardo Da Vinci
You can keep typing until your fingers bleed. At some point, you have to walk away.
In Wonder Boys, written by Steven Kloves based on the Michael Chabon novel of the same name, Michael Douglas plays a professor/author who doesn’t know when to stop. He’s written a two-thousand page tome on his typewriter and isn’t nearly done with telling the story. Take a hint from the movie– if you’re getting sidetracked by subplots and endless origin stories, consider going back to the basics. What is the central conceit of your story? Are you delivering on the “Promise of the Premise?” Or are you just writing in circles?
9. Perseverance pays off.
“If you are going through hell, keep going.” ― Winston Churchill
Writing is hard, mentally exhausting work. Worst of all, writers don’t get breaks. If you’re a writer, you will always be writing, as the bulk of your writing will happen when you’re not typing.
In Misery, written by William Goldman based on Stephen King’s novel, James Caan is a novelist who is abducted by his biggest fan played by Kathy Bates. Throughout the film, Bates’ character becomes increasingly controlling (a comment on the publishing industry perhaps?) before finally hobbling Caan with a sledgehammer. But Caan’s character is a survivor. He writes and writes, buying himself time. In the end he’s finally freed himself and can get back to writing for himself.
8. Remain humble.
“There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man; true nobility is being superior to your former self.” ― Ernest Hemingway
No one is saying you shouldn’t sell yourself or be confident. But as writers, especially screenwriters, it is important to not become full of ourselves. Filmmaking is an expensive collaborative process that utilizes every conceivable art form to achieve its end. Writing is merely a fraction of the project, an important fraction, but a fraction nonetheless.
Ethan and Joel Coen’s Barton Fink, famously written in three weeks in between writing Miller’s Crossing, the film is centered on John Turturro’s titular character, a conceited playwright from New York who is hired to write a “Wrestling” picture for a studio. Barton procrastinates for weeks because he feels like the project is below him. It isn’t until he meets John Goodman’s character, an amiable serial killer, that Barton shakes off his pride and finishes the job.
7. Listen to your characters.
Nobody is a villain in their own story. We’re all the heroes of our own stories.George R. R. Martin
Every character should have a voice. Sometimes in the course of writing, plot feels more important than the petty decisions the characters’ make. It’s tempting to treat them like puppets, but good characters should be more like people, free to choose the path that makes the most sense for them.
In Stranger than Fiction, written by Zach Helm, Emma Thompson portrays a writer who controls the life of a character named Harold Crick, played by Will Ferrell. Unbeknown to Thompson, Crick has become increasingly aware of Thompson and is seeking her out to save himself from her willful plot. If a character is trying to tell you something, you should listen.
6. Fall in love with your writing.
“I’d rather be a failure at something I love than a success at something I hate.” – George Burns
Writing should be fun! You’re telling your stories the way you want to. If you can’t enjoy writing them, who will want to read them?
In Midnight in Paris, written and directed by Woody Allen, Owen Wilson’s character is a cynical screenwriter who spends the night traveling through the dreamlike Paris of the 1920’s, then 1890’s. Gradually, Wilson falls in love with writing again, and when he returns to the present, can begin a new project.
5. Always be writing.
“What day is it?”
It’s today,” squeaked Piglet.
My favorite day,” said Pooh.”
They say the only people who ever win elections are the optimists because the pessimists stay home. The same can be true of successful screenwriters. Be positive and keep writing, whatever you’re going through.
In Seven Psychopaths, a struggling screenwriter played by Colin Farrell gets involved in a war over a kidnapped dog. Throughout his ordeal, whether it’s shoot outs, serial killings, or suicides, his character never stops writing and brainstorming.
4. Screenwriting takes Creative Problem-Solving.
“Our major obligation is not to mistake slogans for solutions” –Edward R. Morrow
It may be more accurate to say that screenwriters are “problem-creators,” as every good story has conflict, but even the most conflict heavy scripts require problem-solving on the part of the writer. Logistics, structure, word choice– these are all problems that every screenwriter faces, and the more creative you are solving them, the better your writing will be.
Steve Martin’s titular character in Bowfinger is a filmmaker who never gives up. Even when famous action star, Kit Ramsey (Eddie Murphy) won’t appear in his film, Bowfnger uses hidden cameras, then casts Kit’s twin brother (Eddie Murphy) as the close up body double. Bowfinger uses every trick he can think of to get his movie made. Screenwriters have to do the same when it comes to their script.
3. Have someone read your work.
“Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very’; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.” — Mark Twain
Having someone you trust read your work is one of the most rewarding experiences a writer can have. Better yet, a cadre of editors is better than one. The more people to tell you their honest opinion can help you get a better objective sense of what’s working and what’s not in your screenplay.
The Academy Award Winning film, Shakespeare in Love, stars Joseph Fiennes as Will. His muse is Viola, played by Gwyneth Paltrow. You don’t have to read your work in bed in between bouts of lovemaking but it can’t hurt. Actually, that might depend on the script.
2. Don’t compare yourself to others.
“There is only one corner of the universe you can be certain of improving, and that’s your own self.” ―Aldous Huxley
You won’t get anywhere if you’re constantly comparing your success to others. It’s tempting to look at others your age and think “woe is me,” but that attitude will get you no where. Focus on your work and don’t be distracted by others.
Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation deals with this pitfall in a unique way. In the film, Nicolas Cage portrays both Charlie Kaufman and his fictional brother Donald Kaufman. The Adaptation version of Charlie is constantly comparing himself to Donald, who is not as cerebral or talented. but nearly as successful. In the end Charlie learns to accept his brother, and his own approach towards writing.
1. Don’t take every note.
“Every path but your own is the path of fate. Keep on your own track, then.” ―Henry David Thoreau
Though it’s important to listen to others’ points of view, it’s equally vital to trust your instincts. If you take every reader’s note you could lose track of your own voice, and once you’ve lost that, what’s the point?
Sunset Boulevard is probably the best film about a screenwriter there is. The film tracks William Holden as a down-on-his-luck writer who ventures into the orbit of an aging film star played by Gloria Swanson. At first Holden gives into her unreasonable demands and asinine notes, trying to get as much money from the “old bag” as he can. But in doing so, he loses sight of what made him passionate about writing in the first place.
As we learn in the opening scene, things don’t end well for William Holden’s character. Let that be a lesson for all of us.