If you read this site, you may have picked up that I am a huge Rian Johnson fan. I admire his work on original screenplays, and how much he's done to revive and work on genres that speak to him. He's a master at flipping tropes and engaging with our expectations. If you don't know much about Johnson, I'll bring you up to speed.

Johnson is an Oscar-nominated screenwriter and director. He is known for writing and directing movies such as Brick (2005), the heist comedy The Brothers Bloom (2008), the science-fiction thriller Looper (2012), Star Wars: The Last Jedi(2017), and the murder-mysteryKnives Out(2019), the last of which was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay.

Seems like the perfect person to learn some writing tips from today. 

Check out this video from Outstanding Screenplays, and we'll talk after. 

10 Screenwriting Tips from Rian Johnson

1. Plot twists shouldn’t come out of nowhere, but should be connected to the theme of the movie and properly set up.

They need to feel like a culmination of a few things we’ve seen earlier in the film.

I'm a big fan of plot twists. They keep the audience guessing and have a lot of fun with the tropes and expectations. Setting them up takes a huge effort. There's a certain element of plant and payoff here. You need to work in so many clues without giving the whole thing away. Satisfaction is key. 

2. Don’t start writing dialogue until your character is completed, bursting with words, and you know everything about them, especially what that character wants in every scene that they speak in.

You have to know and develop characters before you write their dialogue.

What's their backstory? How was their environment influential in the way they talk? So they have an accent? A certain speed in their diction? Are they hiding something? Or openly communicating? 

3. When your film is dealing with complicated topics like time travel, make the film a ride to enjoy, not a puzzle to solve. Make the time travel do its job but put the focus on the emotion.

When I read newer writers, I see how much effort they spend describing complicated theorems. So much time that they don't really have much of a story or characters.

That can hold you back. Pick the big things your story needs for its high concepts. But don't sacrifice entertainment. 

4. Take character tropes from older movies you loved and modernize them to fit today’s culture, and you will create something unique. Think about who an “old gruff colonel” could be in our times.

Not enough people do this! Older movies are treasures of characters, plot points, and stories.

Get in there and see what you can reinvent for now. Let yourself steal some ideas and cash in. 

5. Misdirection in your film works in a similar way a card trick works.

Make your audience preoccupied with something else, while you slip a card into their pocket. For example, making them like a certain character to throw their scent off.

There's a key to writing, which is hiding your intentions. Do your best to make the characters you hate and the characters you like constantly change—don't let the bad guy seem bad. Really turn expectations around so people keep guessing. 

6. Reading a screenplay while watching a film is like opening a watch and seeing how the mechanics work.

Get a hold of the first draft of a movie you like and analyze the writer’s voice and how they engage the reader on the page.

This is one of the easiest things you can do. Read and download your favorite movie scripts and see how they were translated. Maybe even try writing your own versions of scenes and see how they stack up. 

7. Map out the whole plot before you sit down to write, but don’t set it in stone yet, because no matter how much you plan, it always changes in the actual writing process.

I really think it is important to outline. It helps you get an entire rewrite out of the way before you even write. But don't be precious. If it's not working on the page, let yourself change it in the screenplay. Let things shift and have some fun with it.  

8. In a mystery genre, don’t make the plot twist the main point of the movie. The relationship that the mystery has to your protagonist’s arc is more important.

The point of the movie is the theme. Twists are not themes.

Have something to say about the world. Something you need to communicate. The twist can add to that, but it can never be the point. 

9. Find your voice and follow it.

It sounds cliche, yet having a unique and talented voice is the main commodity in the film industry and what everybody is looking for.

What do you have to say about the world? What's a unique way you tell a story? Your voice describes the way you tell a story. Show us what makes your point of view unique. 

10. When you finish your first script, try to get it read by as many people as you can. Forget agents, managers, or producers, just get the script to anybody who will read it.

You need feedback, and you never know who might like it and get it to the right person.

Feedback is the only way you'll know if what you wrote is any good. It helps you build into something that representatives will find. But first, you need to actually hear from the masses. See what bumps them, what they love, the things they embrace, and the larger elements they think you should explore.

First drafts do not sell. It takes polishing and reworking and reimaging things to get them right. 

If there's anything else you've learned from Johnson, leave the tips in the comments!

Source: Outstanding Screenplays