A quote doesn’t always become part of the screenwriting lexicon because it deserves to. A lot of times, a quote becomes famous simply because it sounds good. And there’s nobody better at creating sexy-sounding quotes than writers. I mean, that’s their job, right? So today I wanted to sift through some of the sexiest writing quotes throughout the years and determine which advice is actually good, and which you should ball up and toss in the wastebasket.
“If you want to send a message, go to Western Union.” – This was uttered by a famous studio head in the Golden Age of Hollywood in response to screenwriters who argued that their stories should be about more than surface-level entertainment, that their movies should actually contain a theme, or “message.” Here’s the thing about this piece of advice. I think what the studio head was referring to wasn’t themes in screenplays. He was responding to bad writers clumsily executing over-the-top themes in screenplays. Of course your script should be about something. But if you’re on-the-nose and clumsy with the way that theme is executed, people aren’t going to respond well. As is the case with most aspects of screenwriting, you must integrate the component invisibly.
“Every story should have a beginning, a middle, and an end. But not necessarily in that order.” – This was one of the most famous screenwriting quotes to come out of the 90s, and it was born out of the success of Quentin Tarantino, specifically Pulp Fiction. The advice itself is fine. But it set a bad precedent to aspiring screenwriters, encouraging them to write these wild out-of-sequence narratives before they knew how to tell a simple story. Who cared about a narrative spine, stakes or compelling characters when you could rapidly cut back and forth between disparate storylines? As such, I would be wary of this advice. Learn to tell simple stories first and then move on to more complex narratives like Pulp Fiction.
“Kill your babies” – This popular piece of advice has been around for half a century, and the idea behind it is simple. Writers – especially beginner screenwriters – believe that every thing they write down on the page is gold. As in, once it’s there, it cannot be erased. Ever. To be a great screenwriter, you must be willing to eliminate that character, that scene, that subplot, that dialogue exchange, if it doesn’t keep the story moving forward. This is the essence of “Kill your babies.” You have to be a harsh editor. This advice was relevant when screenwriting was invented, and it will be relevant for as long as screenwriting is around.
“A professional writer is an amateur who didn’t quit.” – I remember when I first heard this quote and it kind of blew my mind. You can’t fail if you never give up. Death is literally the only thing that can stop you. But I do think the quote is dangerous. There are people who are 15 years into their pursuit of screenwriting (or whatever artistic endeavor they’re pursuing) who aren’t living productive lives. You have to be smart about it. As you get older and “adult” responsibilities creep in, you shouldn’t be hedging every aspect of your life on selling that big screenplay. It’s cute at 25. Not at 35. However, the awesome thing about writing is that it’s the cheapest of all the artistic pursuits. So make sure you’re giving the rest of your life ample attention and squeeze in time to write after those duties are over. As long as you love to write, there’s no reason to stop.
“Always ask yourself, what’s the worst thing I can do to my hero right now? Then do that.” – There are a lot of variations of this quote. Another comes from Kurt Vonnegut: “Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.” One of the biggest mistakes young writers make is that they’re too kind to their protagonists. Every aspect of their journey is too easy. You gotta put your protagonist through the wringer, man! For the exact reason that Vonnegut points out. We only find out who a person truly is when they’re faced with adversity.
“If there’s a problem in the third act, it’s because of an issue in your first act.” Of all the famous pieces of screenwriting advice out there, this is one of the ones I like the least, mainly because it’s vague. And there’s no quicker way to confuse a newbie screenwriter than to give them vague advice. I think what the advice is trying to say is that if something isn’t working in your third act, it means you didn’t set it up properly. For example, if your hero kills the dragon with some potion he randomly found two seconds prior, that would’ve worked better had you set the potion up earlier. But it doesn’t mean you needed to set it up in the first act. You could’ve just as easily set it up in the second act. So the advice here is more, “If something isn’t working in your climax, you need to set it up better somewhere.” Of course, that doesn’t sound as flashy, which is one of the problems with famous quotes.
“If you show a gun at any point in your story, it must be used later.” – I agree with this one. And note that “gun” is a stand-in for any weapon. Crossbow, hunting knife, bomb. And this is mostly due to the way we’ve been conditioned by cinema. It’s happened so many times in movies before, that if you DO show a weapon and don’t use it, it’s confusing to the audience. I remember reading a script once where the writer went to great lengths to highlight this sword on a wall. He described every crevice of the thing. I was convinced it would be used later to decapitate someone. Nope. It was never mentioned again. Drove me crazy.
“If I have anything to say to young writers, it’s stop thinking of writing as art. Think of it as work.” This one comes from Paddy Chayefsky and it’s something I’ve come to appreciate more as I’ve grown older. Screenplays only reach their potential during rewrites. And, unfortunately, when you’re on your 7th draft and nothing about your story is fresh or fun to you anymore, busting the computer open isn’t as easy as it was during that stream-of-conscious rollercoaster ride of a first draft. The good writers buckle down and they get the work done, even when it’s not fun. So I totally agree with Paddy here.
“Write drunk, edit sober.” – I don’t know who said this (was it Hemingway?) but this is the very definition of what’s wrong with famous quotes. This is such a sexy quote and so fun to say but it’s terrible advice. While writing drunk is fine to do every so often, you do not want it to become a crutch. You’ll be convinced that the only way you write good stuff is to get wasted, and that’s not sustainable. However, I do like the cousin of this quote, as it captures the spirit of it in a much healthier way: “Write from your heart; rewrite from your head.” Be non-judgmental when you write. Let yourself feel things without right-braining them to death. Then, when it’s time to rewrite, bring a more logical assessment to the writing.
“Grab’em by the throat and never let them go.” – This comes from Billy Wilder and I think it’s one of the most important pieces of screenwriting advice you’ll ever hear. Too many writers put the burden of investment on the reader. “You owe me,” is how they look at writing. No no no no no. Readers don’t owe you anything. It’s up to you to keep them invested. And the second you drop that ball, whether it’s on page 1 or page 50? They’re gone. They’re done with your script and they have that right. You want to grab your reader with the very first page and then every subsequent page, ask yourself, “Do I still have them?” If you don’t think you do, rewrite the scene until the answer is yes. That doesn’t your script should be one long action set-piece. You can use mystery, suspense, foreshadowing, conflict, dramatic irony, confrontation, anticipation, an intriguing new character, and, sure, a kick-ass action scene we’ve never seen before. You have hundreds of tools available to yourself. You are in control of whether your scenes are good or boring. Never take that for granted.
Carson does feature screenplay consultations, TV Pilot Consultations, and logline consultations. Logline consultations go for $25 a piece or 5 for $75. You get a 1-10 rating, a 200-word evaluation, and a rewrite of the logline. I highly recommend not writing a script unless it gets a 7 or above. All logline consultations come with an 8 hour turnaround. If you’re interested in any sort of consultation package, e-mail Carsonreeves1@gmail.com with the subject line: CONSULTATION. Don’t start writing a script or sending a script out blind. Let Scriptshadow help you get it in shape first!