11 Screenwriting Lessons from M. Night Shyamalan

Shyamalan directing 'Glass'Credit: Blumhouse
Ten screenwriting tips from M. Night Shyamalan. Wait—twist—there are 11! 

Being No Film School's resident Philadelphian (I'm writing this post in the South Street Diner right now), I am so excited to spend today talking about M. Night Shyamalan and his writing process. For those of you living under a rock, Shyamalan is an Oscar-nominated screenwriter and director. His most famous films include The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, Signs, The Village, The Visit, Split, and Old. Shyamalan is known for his twists and surprising plots, usually reinventing a genre.

Check out this list of 11 screenwriting tips from Outstanding Screenplays, and let's talk after the jump. 

11 Screenwriting Lessons from M. Night Shyamalan

1. Don’t be a writer/director if you have a choice among other professions. Only do it if it’s the only thing you want to do and if you have no other choice but to do it. 

The old adage is, "If you think you can do anything else, go do it." Hollywood is hard. It can take decades or more to break in, and even then, it's a crapshoot if you can make it.

This is living on and in a dream. But when you get to work and be artistic and a storyteller, it is the greatest feeling in the world. 

2. “The plot comes out of the character.”

Shyamalan came up with the twist ending for The Sixth Sense by asking himself a question, “Why is the couple not speaking?" From there, he was able to build out the idea of a ghost haunted by his past, unable to move on until he gets closure. That was a unique story that caught on and made him one of the most popular directors at the time. 

3. Taking certain elements out of your film can be just as effective as adding them in.

There is no score in The Visit, which makes the story more intriguing to the audience. It's like we're watching a home movie. Test your films with various things taken out. See how much you can trim away and what makes things feel real or will add to the audience's experience of the material. 

4. For your idea to explode, you need an angle on the idea. There is only one angle that is right for you, and you need to find that.

The angle on the idea is what we sort of have discussed above. It's your unique window on the project, what your voice and your capabilities have to say about the story you've come up with. Figure out what you have to say. 

5. You don’t have to live in Los Angeles to be a screenwriter. Your city can be your greatest strength, you’ll write things that are different and have a distinct voice.

You can write anywhere. Eventually, your path may take you to Los Angeles and on a ride inside Hollywood. But as you're starting out and honing your skills, you can live anywhere in the world. Use your surroundings to make your stories pop. 

6. If you concentrate on characters, the unique story and good collaborators, you don't need a big budget. You also have the freedom to include scenes that would never pass in a studio system.

Write a story that allows you the elbow room to make it, if you're so inclined. I think there's a lot of creativity that comes from setting limits for yourself. Trying to write a great movie set within the terms of a smaller budget can help pull extra creativity out of you. 

7. Every script will take you a lot of drafts.

In the first redrafts, you work on bigger problems like the whole acts, scenes, and characters. In later drafts, you work on specific problems like lines of dialogue.

I always say, start with the view from 10,000 feet and then slowly zoom in. Once you have a logline, start there. Are you writing about the right story and problem? Once you have the first draft, think about if you've tackled the concept to the best of your ability. There's so much more to do here as well, but start with the big things, and then narrow it down more and more until you refine it to just the dialogue on the page. Then do it again and again. 

8. When writing a TV series, have the ending in mind before starting it, so that in every episode you can write traces of that ending, and the audience will feel the emotional resonance.

This can be filed under plant and payoff. In TV, you want an idea with legs, something that shows executives it can span over multiple episodes and seasons. With that in mind, you can hint to the audience how things will wrap up. 

9. Don’t think about twists like dance moves which you necessarily have to hit in your plot.

The twist ending should be just an element of the story, not the whole story. I think Shyamalan had to learn this the hard way, as people always unfairly aligned him with twists in his movies, even as he was delivering fuller products than just gimmicks. Your story needs to be airtight before you try to flip it on its head. 

10. Get a lot of feedback from people.

There is no criticism that isn't beneficial. You don't need to follow it, just listen to every feedback, and then analyze it on your own terms. Building a network of friends and peers who can give you an honest opinion on different scenes and characters will only strengthen your skills. The more opinions you get, the more you figure out what's right and wrong inside the script. And what the audience loves, you keep. What they don't, you tweak. 

11. You can look at a filmmaker's life in two different ways. People from the outside only see success statistics. But the reality is that success never comes easy, and everybody goes through multiple embarrassing failures before success is achieved.

Don’t be afraid of failures, just keep putting together your puzzle until your picture is complete.

In Hollywood, you can be the most popular person one day, and a joke the next. No one had to do this more than Shyamalan, who ruled the 90s and 2000s with his twisty dramas and then fell from grace so hard it took several blockbuster hits to get him back in the driver's seat. Failure taught him specific lessons, and they were passed down to his next projects. We all have to take that approach sometimes, and we benefit from it. Be okay failing. You can only be a great artist if you constantly put yourself out there.      

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