10 Screenwriting Tips from Vince Gilligan

Credit: AMC
Learn from the guy who made you think your high school teacher might be cooking meth. 

Few TV shows have reshaped everything we know about television more than Breaking Bad. It was the show that put AMC on the map and actually helped get people into Netflix when all the episodes dropped there and allowed people to catch up. But most writers only get one of those kinds of shows. Vince Gilligan, the creator of Breaking Bad, was able to follow that show up with Better Call Saul, expanding on the world and equaling the great moments in the first series. 

Gilligan is certainly someone to listen to when it comes to writing advice. Aside from his two landmark shows, he got his start on X-Files and has worked on lots of really cool genre shows and with some of the best actors on television.  

Check out the video from Outstanding Screenplays, and let's talk after the jump. 

10 Screenwriting Tips from Vince Gilligan 

1. When you hear a ridiculous idea or a joke, try to think of a domino effect situation that would lead to that ridiculous concept actually being plausible.

It's so hard to come up with original ideas. Try to come up with a way where when you hear something ridiculous, you challenge yourself to make it grounded and believable on the page. Think of the loglines of Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul. Those are so wildly noisy and fun, it makes you want to read those pilots and watch those shows.

Ground insanity, and you can have so much fun. 

2. Have a finite show in your mind while writing. Make sure your characters change and they, like the show itself, have a beginning and an end.

We're big fans of writing toward an ending. Even with TV, you should know where the story is going. You're writing a longer arc in TV, but people still have to arc. You should prepare where you need them to go and begin to plant the mechanisms that will take them there. 

3. To make a coincidence believable, make sure it is ultimately bad for the main character. If it benefits them, there shouldn’t be a coincidence. 

We've talked a lot about coincidences on this site. They have to be things that create drama, and not deus ex machinas that bail people out. Always get your characters into trouble. That's the key to creating engaging television. 

4. Build the story brick by brick, index card by index card. Fill the corkboard with indispensable plot points until you have enough for an episode.

Write it out by hand. Fill up those index cards. Have fun exploring every thread and plotline. Chase things all over the place.

To write your pilot, you need to chase every idea and build on them until you see the whole episode. 

5. Make sure you have a one-liner pitch sentence about your show that gives an idea of where the show is going, and stick by that one-liner. 

Your elevator pitch needs to be engaging and get people excited about what could happen on screen. I find that it's valuable also to show a character that they can imagine immediately. Find a brief way to excite people over your story. 

6. As a new staff writer, remember to have a good attitude in the writers' room. Don’t try to change the show, you need to first prove yourself by having the ability to speak in the voice of the characters already in it. 

Television writing is a team effort. Everyone there is trying to make the best show possible. Your pitches may not make it into every episode, and your writing may get heavily changed or tweaked when there's input. But you need to go in open and ready for these experiences.

Don't be a jerk, lean into it and have fun with it. Take it seriously and be polite. 

7. Your writing won’t be of quality when you first start, no matter who you are. But if you start with an enthusiasm for it and keep at it, you’ll get there.

You have to love what you do. The only reason to be writing and rewriting and listening to notes is that you love the process and love what you do. You will not be a great writer at the beginning. There's real work that goes into building your voice and your career.

Just keep loving it, and you will get there. 

8. There’s no other way of pitching than putting one leg in front of the other. Make sure you really believe in the project and just go for it. 

Believing in your idea is contagious. If there are parts you don't buy, other people won't either. Pitching is telling a story and following a character's arc. So how do you do that? You need to follow the story and take people on a journey. 

9. In television production, you sometimes have to roll with the punches. If something doesn’t go your way, don’t dwell on it. Instead, try to turn lemons into lemonade. 

Not everything that hits the page is achievable in TV. Sometimes the locations won't let you shoot certain times, or the hard outs and weather don't behave. There are lots of intangibles. Instead of shutting down, you need to lean in.

Get creative and make the changes. Be malleable and love the process and the spontaneity. 

10. Most of the time, doing organic storytelling that stems from character is a good way to go about writing television, but sometimes writing something just for the fun of it might result in great moments.

Great characters are part of great TV. When you're getting people to tune in weekly, you need to have characters they love and want to take them on a journey. These characters need to exist in carefully plotted worlds... but don't get bogged down by all of that. Trust the process and your instincts.

If something seems fun and exciting, get it into your story. At the end of the day, you are in control of the journey. Take us on an adventure we've never seen before.      

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2 Comments

Number 6 is my favourite as many people think that when they start writing they become masters in a few hours!

August 6, 2021 at 4:24AM

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Lola Harper
Marketing manager
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Thanks for the great tips! Will try to use them in practice!

August 9, 2021 at 4:46AM

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William Aston
Marketing manager
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