The key to making a great movie is to take your time writing it.
Christopher Nolan is the screenwriter of award-winning films like Tenet, Memento, Interstellar, Inception, Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, The Prestige, and Dunkirk. We thought it would be useful to go behind the scenes of his writing process to learn the best screenwriting tips from the visionary auteur.
Nolan’s upcoming film Oppenheimer stars Cillian Murphy, who portrays Oppenheimer, the theoretical physicist. While we wait for that, let's learn how he writes his screenplays.
Check out this video from Outstanding Screenplays, and let's talk after the break.
Christopher Nolan's 20 Tips to Writing Screenplays
1. Avoid making your story superficial. Evoke emotion in the audience through a relatable protagonist.
Emotion is what's going to carry you through the story. To hook people, make sure they understand the emotions driving the story and propelling our main character's choices.
2. Suspense is the most visual language of film. Address the story in the language of suspense by telling it from a subjective point of view.
Your job is to keep people entertained. Can you make them worry about the characters? Can you make them excited and fearful at the same time? There's so much you can do with your writing to really envelop people.
When you see things from a subjective point of view, you judge people on their actions and have a vested interest in what comes next.
3. Make the audience question themselves by putting them inside of your protagonist’s mind.
What does your protagonist want? The entire story you're writing needs to be centered on your character and what they're trying to achieve. Allow the audience to begin to understand what drives the protagonist, and they'll enter their mind and reason with them. If they make alternative choices, you can subvert expectations.
4. Think of characters as "real" people when writing. Having actors or people you know in mind could limit your writing.
I'm not sure I totally agree with this one, but I think boiling down characters into real people in your head can help. Make sure these real people have motivated choices and real wants and desires.
5. Push the boundaries of filmmaking. Accept the fact that the art of cinema doesn’t have rules or limitations.
Hollywood might have limitations, but filmmaking does not. Keep challenging what people can expect in storytelling. Flip genres, deconstruct tropes, tear down what's expected, and give us what no one expects.
6. Even if you’re writing a story set in an implausible world, make sure it has its own set of rules.
When you're writing, you need to figure out the rules of the world. What happens here, and what can the audience expect? The rules set forth the tone and also help people classify the genre and how to take certain moments and beats.
Are there rules for your world? Make sure they're clearly defined and easy to grasp.
7. When using a story element you like, always give a good reason for it within your film.
The "we did it because it's cool" thing doesn't always work out. Make sure there's a motive behind every choice. Screenplays are chain reactions. Things happen because something else happens, not just to happen. Make the reasons so crazy that the results blow people away.
8. Whatever film you’re making, have it rely on an underlying film-noir dynamic, in the way that you define a character through their actions, rather than what they say.
Many new writers make the big mistake of having characters tell us what they're going to do, instead of just showing them do it. Have your characters actually do things, not just talk about them.
9. Take an extraordinary character and put them in an ordinary world grounded in reality.
Who's the center of your story? When you were developing your character, what did you decide they were good at? What makes them feel like they stand out in this world? Why are they interesting? And what are their goals?
10. Sit down to start writing the full screenplay when you already know where you're heading with it.
Never ever write anything where you don't know the end. The more you have mapped out, the faster your screenplay will come to fruition. Write when you know where it ends. Not before.
11. As a director, you have to be able to not look at the shot as a two-dimensional picture, but look at where everything is in three-dimensional space.
When writing, you're always layering in things happening in the foreground and background. Write scenes like you're writing a space. Who's coming and going?
12. Play to your strengths.
What are you good at writing? Do you do amazing dialogue? Set pieces? How's your work in horror or another genre? Play into your strengths. Lean in and let them take you where you want to go.
13. Figure out what is interesting to you and present it in a way that will be interesting to your audience.
People say, "Write what you know," but I think it's much more important to write what's interesting to you. Write about something you want to learn about. Something you're dying to uncover. Let that passion and belief be contagious for your reader.
14. Hang on to working relationships where you know there isn’t any agenda other than helping you make the best film that you can.
One of the grossest parts of Hollywood is when people take advantage of each other. So many are trying to get ahead, and so few take the time to actually have a trusted group of friends. That group is so important to foster. They're there when you need feedback, advice, and just to rejoice in the good times and mourn in other times. Make sure you have one, they'll get you through anything.
15. Add multiple layers.
When we talk about layers, we talk about making characters feel nuanced. Worldbuilding. And making your plot stand out. Don't be just surface-level, add some art. Is there some symbolism we can find or another level to the storytelling?
16. Make a film you would want to see yourself.
It sounds cliche, but what do you want to watch in theaters? Don't try to write with a trend. Script things you would watch. Why else would you want to put yourself through the writing?
17. Write about what inspires you.
You have to have a passion to finish a screenplay. What are you passionate about? That should be your jumping-off point. If you write without being inspired or caring, people will see it. Believe in your project and how it will move other people.
18. Approach structure mathematically.
Screenplay structure is hard to tackle. Think about it as pieces of a puzzle that have to fit together to build something great. Count the pages, and understand that each detail you add becomes additive to the whole.
19. Take your favorite genre and turn it on its head.
We love writing inside a genre. Consider the tropes and ideas you think are entertaining, and if you can subvert them to make an original idea.
20. Have the next idea ready for when you are asked what you want to do next.
It seems wild to think that after you're done with one great script, you'll have to write another. But people always want to know what's on the docket. So keep brainstorming.
Think about having a treatment ready or at least a few loglines. Happy writing!
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