Narrative film is certainly a collaborative medium, but almost always it begins with a writer putting words on a page. The blank page, unfortunately, isn't the most collaborative partner. So, how do you write an original screenplay? Every writer has his or her own methods, and I think we can learn a great deal from the methods of a successful screenwriter. A few days ago, writer/director Tony Gilroy tackled this most basic question of how to write an original screenplay in his talk at the BAFTA Screenwriting Lecture series, which essentially boils down to five simple rules.
Tony Gilroy is a screenwriter, director and producer, best known for writing all four of the Bourne series of films. You may think that means Gilroy is actually well-versed in the ways of adapting novels to the big screen, but Gilroy has actually never read a single novel by Robert Ludlum, the author who wrote the Jason Bourne novels. Instead, Gilroy created his own version of the Jason Bourne story when he wrote the screenplays for The Bourne Identity and subsequent films. In fact, of all his screenwriting credits, Gilroy says only one -- Dolores Claiborne -- is truly an adaptation of a novel.
Gilroy therefore decided to focus his BAFTA Screenwriting Lecture on the most basic screenwriting question: How do you write an original screenplay?
You can listen to Tony Gilroy explain his simple rules for writing an original screenplay in more detail in his BAFTA Screenwriting Lecture from September 29, 2013 below. You can also listen to the follow-up Q&A session in the second Soundcloud embed.
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After listening to his lecture, I've pulled out what I believe are Gilroy's five simple rules for writing an original screenplay.
1. Know and Understand Human Behavior
Before writing a single word of a story, a screenwriter has to know and understand human behavior. Gilroy states his belief that "the quality of your writing is absolutely capped at your knowledge of human behavior."
Although Gilroy makes this point in the middle of his lecture, I believe this is the fundamental point of his speech. He explains how screenwriters have to have empathy for all of the main characters in their screenplays to understand their motivations and their choices. A good screenplay starts with the writer's understanding of human behavior.
2. Start with a Small Idea
Many aspiring screenwriters may think they need to come up with a really big idea in order to write a screenplay that is worthy of becoming a movie. When creating an original story for a screenplay out of sheer imagination, Gilroy believes the exact opposite:
We need a spark. We need some place to start. We need something really small. Something small and very, very specific. The big ideas don’t work.
Gilroy also talks about the mantra of "write what you know" and explains it should really be "write what you know about." As writers and creators, we have the ability to research and learn about so many different topics, which means what we really know is always growing. But with our ever-increasing knowledge, our story should start with a small idea, which will help us focus our imagination and ignore the enormity of creating an original story.
3. Play with the Idea
Gilroy explains that once he has a small idea that he thinks may lead to a story, he'll sit at his computer and play with the idea. For him, this usually means writing bits of dialogue between two characters or creating a single scene. He'll play with an idea until he loses interest, then may come back to the idea days, weeks, or even months later when it recaptures his imagination.
Gilroy says that his film Michael Clayton really started around one specific scene that he wrote years before actually making the movie (alas, the audio recording of the lecture doesn't tell us which scene he shows the audience!). Gilroy reveals that he wrote several versions of the Michael Clayton story, each going in different directions, but all of them centered around this one particular scene that he wrote first.
4. Write an Outline
Gilroy reveals that he must outline every part of the story before even writing one page of the screenplay. His outlines can stretch from 30 pages up to 80 pages, and he admits that they can be an absolute mess with sections written in different fonts, cut and pasted from several different documents. Regardless of how his outline comes together, he says that every scene must feel real and he must know the ending of his story before starting the actual screenplay.
The writer/director also admits "every time I have ignored my own rules, I have paid the price," usually in the form of wasted time rewriting the screenplay when the work should have been done on the outline.
5. Write the Screenplay
Once you know your whole story from the outline process, Gilroy points out that it's fun to write the screenplay. Plus, the whole time you are writing the screenplay, you are actually making your story better from the outline you worked so hard to create. During this part of the writing process, Gilroy acknowledges that a lot of material from the outline will need to be cut -- and this is a good thing:
There’s really nothing that feels any better than cutting out something you don’t need that you thought you needed.
Gilroy explains that the early pages of his screenplays invariably get pared down once he writes the ending and knows what he really needs and what he doesn't need. He admits that on every screenplay he writes, when he gets around page 85, he realizes he is at least 15 pages over where he should be and he has to streamline the early pages of the script.
Gilroy is also very particular about the look of his screenplay on the page. If dialogue breaks across the page and he doesn't like it, he'll find lines and descriptions that can be trimmed to make the page itself look right. According to him this work not only makes the scripts tighter and more concise, but the meticulous approach also makes his screenplays easier for people to read -- and read quickly. Someone once told him that reading one of his scripts was like "falling through your story."
Do you follow the same five simple rules when you write an original screenplay? What other rules do you have that are essential to your screenwriting process? Share your thoughts and rules with us in the comments.