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What Does the Writing Process of Oscar-Winning Screenwriter Dustin Lance Black Look Like?

Screenwriting 1Writing processes are as diverse as the writers who labor through them. There’s really no one way to churn out a script, but if you’ve just started on this incredible screenwriting journey, or are in a rut and looking for some new tools to help you become more productive, then Oscar-winning screenwriter Dustin Lance Black (MilkJ. Edgar) might be able to help. In this Academy Originals video, Black details every step of his creative process, from how he goes about researching to how he lays out scenes written on a myriad of index cards.


The very first screenplay I wrote was not written using the process I use now — not by a long shot. I literally sat down at my computer and wrote from beginning to end in linear fashion for three months until the story came to a natural conclusion. No research. No index cards. Just — fade in, stuff happens, fade out. I couldn’t replicate that process now if I tried.

So now, as I labor over my current screenplay — researching every slightest detail (what do janitors in hospitals wear?) and mull over the endless possibilities of how I can unfurl every single scene — I find myself in dire need of a concrete and logical process, because my affections are so fickle and my brain so obsessive that taking a single step toward completion seems impossible. However, I also need something that flows and allows my imagination to run free like the guileless flower child that it is.

And Black’s process offers some helpful solutions to many issues I and many others have faced as a screenwriters. It isn’t confining, but it’s organized. It’s thorough, but not rigid. He also says something quite profound in terms of content and style, that specificity can translate into uniqueness (which is where hardcore researchers can really shine). If you make a character specifically “them” instead of relatable, this will read as a unique character. It’s really true, because if you think about it, the majority of the characters that are written for film have the characteristics of the age-old archetypes – the Hero, the Fool, the Warrior, etc. (or any variation out there) — but if your characters truly abide in an identity that you’ve carefully and dutifully crafted for them, then they will become an individual rather than a stereotype.

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Watch the video below to get the full story on Black’s writing process:

Again, there’s no right or wrong when it comes to screenwriting, but if you’re looking for a new tool or activity to implement in your process, or if you’re just feeling stuck, I think Black’s dedication to research, as well as practice of laying out index cards could potentially help get you closer to finally finishing your script.

What is the most helpful and productive part of your writing process? What works/doesn’t work for you and what would you suggest to other screenwriters?

[via Academy Originals & Filmmaker IQ]

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  • Really interesting!

  • SecretAgentMan on 07.8.14 @ 2:29AM

    The secret is:

    1. Have a good story.
    2. Know the 3 Act Structure.
    3. Know the proper formatting.

    As far as planning, you can use an outline or index cards. Many screenwriting programs have these templates.

    • Absolutely… yet don’t forget Tone. Without tone, a film, a screenplay falls flat, lifeless.

  • CoolHandLuque on 07.8.14 @ 9:15AM

    Cool video/article.

    On a side note, Dustin Lance Black winning the Oscar for best original screenplay is up there with one of my biggest Oscar travesties of all time. Martin McDonagh’s Screenplay for ‘In Bruges’ was easily the best of the year, and if not for the typical awards show politics, would have won hands down. (/Kanye rant over)

  • Billy Barber on 07.8.14 @ 12:18PM

    His work ethic is admirable, that’s for sure and works great for him obviously. It is surprising though that he works so many hours of the day. Most writers and composers find it’s the law of diminishing returns and quit after four or five hours and start fresh the next day. You could do it that way and even have, you know, a life.

    • It’s funny how for all the effort one may go through to achieve their standards for acceptance, that there’s always going to be probably just as many people thinking your end product to be “meh” as there would if you only put half the effort into it. Here’s a real world example from a review of Black’s film “J. Edgar” on IMDB:

      “I thought the weakest link was the script. It was interesting, but flawed. Also, the story was not very intriguing. Having watched Milk (also written by Black) and really liked how the story unfolded, I was expecting a great story about how J. Edgar Hoover rose to power and how he gradually transformed into the monster he became in the end. But instead, the story was told by shifting back and forth in time countless times, which at some point made me feel emotionally detached from the story and the characters. “

    • Well, it’s a bit of the 10,000 hours theory isn’t it. Whether one needs to quantify the schedule or not, Black’s process proves that there are no shortcuts, that “outworking” easily trumps “talent” or skill. He may have had his share of misses, but he’s doing the thing and silences hacks who’d rather be talking bout it.

  • This was a very helpful article and video. I don’t write screenplays, I write books and articles. But it wasn’t until I started paying attention to how people write screenplays that I realized the shift I needed to make in my mental and visual approach to the story. Thank you for sharing this.

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