Writing Advice From 'Hunger Games' & 'Captain Phillips' Screenwriter Billy Ray

Hunger GamesWhen writing a script, there is absolutely nothing worse than staring at an empty page. For some, the blank screen blues come from a terrible case of writer's block, but more often than not, it has more to do with struggling to maintain a firm grasp of the direction of your story. Screenwriter Billy Ray, who wrote films such as The Hunger Games and Captain Phillips, has shared a few screenwriting tips, covered by Film Independent, that may help you solidify your narrative and get that blinking cursor moving steadily down the page.

The trick I pull on myself every Wednesday to ensure I spend a significant amount of time working on my screenplay is this: I put five hours worth of change in a parking meter. The desire not to waste all of that money gets me semi-voluntarily stranded near the one cafe in town that doesn't offer free WiFi, yet even with all of that uninterrupted, no-nonsense, caffeine fueled time, I often spend it staring at a blank page.

While at a recent workshop for Project Involve Fellows, Ray shared some great screenwriting advice that may be a great help for those suffering from the same problem.

Don't get too precious

I heard this advice for the first time from Guinevere Turner, and it changed my damn life. Too often we jump into a committed relationship with our ideas, plots, and characters before we allow them time to grow and evolve. We smother them -- stealing from them their potential.

Ray talks about this in terms of how some writers become directors to protect their script. He says, "If you come at it from that rigid place, you can't let it breathe," which is absolutely true (though writers wanting to direct doesn't always mean rigidity). It's one thing to be rigid and uncompromising about parts of your screenplay that matter to you with others who try to change it, but while you're still in the process of writing, be nice and loosey-goosey. You're only holding yourself back if you're not open to new ideas -- especially your own.

Use subtext and dilemmas to offer insights into your characters

To me, one of the most cringe-worthy writing tools (shortcuts) is (too much) exposition. Explaining the subtleties of a character through -- a character explaining his/her subtleties is actually taking away the power and impact that character could've had on your audience had subtext or dilemmas been used.

So much more can be said and inferred with a single brow raise than 15 minutes of exposition. Furthermore, using dilemmas as catalysts to get to know your character not only reveals more information about him/her based on their choices, but it offers an opportunity to move the story along with action. Ray says:

The best way to reveal something about a character is to put a dilemma in front of him where he has to make a choice between two things that he values equally.

In this (pretty old) interview with The Dialogue, Ray talks about it more in-depth. The whole interview is great, but this section starts right at 5:00.

Navigate your hero's journey with internal and external problems that serve each other

Every good script has both internal and external goals, fit with their own problems and complexities. In other words, your hero has two problems to solve: one in the physical realm (save the world, get the girl, solve the case) and one in the emotional/mental/spiritual realm (overcome fear, forgive someone, mature).

The two should serve each other in the end -- what holds your hero back internally will hold him back externally and vice versa, as well as what helps your hero internally will help him externally and vice versa. The outer and inner worlds of your character are forever linked within the diegesis. According to the Film Independent article, Ray breaks this idea down thusly: "How did solving the external problem solve the character’s internal problem?" (I would say it works both ways -- How did solving the external problem solve the internal problem?)

Billy Ray

Hopefully these tips will help you fill up your pages with crappy, mediocre ideas (remember, don't be precious), then aid you in making those ideas a little better by using more subtext and dilemmas, and then finally let you tie it all up in a nice bow with external and internal problems working to solve the other.

What do you think of Ray's advice? What screenwriting advice has been most helpful to you? Let us know in the comments.

Link: How to Take the Terror Out of Writing, and Other Change-Your-Life Insights From Hunger Games Screenwriter Billy Ray -- Film Independent

[via Filmmaker IQ]

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What I'm often surprised by his how many of these things end up being in your story without any intent. Mankind has being telling stories for hundreds of years, it's a natural part of who we are. So I've always seen it as more a case of analyzing our stories and identifying what makes them good, to apply that our other pieces.

December 9, 2013 at 5:26PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


Oy, I wish you had written the other Hunger Game scripts -- especially the third! So much of precisely what you say about subtleties and character was thrown out the window in that one, in favour of heavy-handed monologue and didacticism. There had been plenty of room for both suspense and action in the novel, even in the first half alone (especially given willingness to show broader context in the first two films), but in the third film, most of it had been excised by the screenplay, even to the point of seriously editing the new characters -- and it wasn't even for budgetary reasons! I itch to edit that opening and ending (well, actually most of the film); and I know that itch will return every time I see it.

January 28, 2015 at 4:20PM


At first I almost didn't watch this because Billy Ray's father is in the business, giving him a boost from the green light. But then I realized that someone with this much information, willing to share without a condescending attitude, has a lot of valuable information.

This short discussion afforded some information I understood about dilemma, but had no idea the significance. The subtext is another aspect he sheds light on. But I especially like him saying that either you are a writer or you're not, the talent just needs honing, basically. I also wrote the five screenplays he listed; Broadcast News, Rocky, Ordinary People, Kramer vs. Kramer, and Wizard of Oz to gain more familiarity with them rather than watching them for sheer enjoyment.

This discussion is one I am truly glad to have had at my fingertips. I'm an older gal and hate to think about working for ten years without an income, but this is what is necessary to do what I love. Not many people enjoy their jobs, but I will.

December 10, 2013 at 7:54AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM

MJ Brewer

I wouldn't throw someone under the bus just because they had an upper hand on getting a job in the industry. The people who are "born into" the business did not choose to be obviously. What you can make your judgement on is how hard they work and how they conduct themselves. If they stay humble, are well educated on the subject, and understand they had a bit of initial luck, then they are a great person to connect with and learn from. If they seem arrogant, then yes, steer clear if you'd like. Though, I wouldn't make the assessment just based on the fact that their parents helped them out.
Something I learned to overcome as I was finding that the taste of bitterness was not only a bad thing but something I could control.

December 11, 2013 at 8:35AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


The most welcome aspects of Billy Ray's advices is that he doesn't have a daughter named Miley that he needed to stop from twerking.

December 11, 2013 at 6:26PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


That does seem to help...

December 12, 2013 at 10:17PM, Edited September 4, 8:45AM