What I Learned From a Screenwriting Panel

During this year's IndieMemphis Film Festival, I had the opportunity to attend some panel discussions. One session featured writer/director Whit Stillman on screenwriting. It was interesting to listen as he retold his experiences in the industry and what he's learned over the years about the writing process. Here are a few bullet points I took away from the discussion:

  • If you are a first-time director and want to direct what you've written, focus on the simplest story you can tell.
  • The most valuable lessons learned about screenwriting are learned during the edit.
  • If you're looking for books on screenwriting, Stillman recommends Craft of the Screenwriter by John Brady, and Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting by Syd Field.
  • Don't think about the things that screenwriting books teach you while writing your first draft. That can be paralyzing. Just write and then go back and revise.
  • Build your dialogue on a point-counter point formula. When writing dialogue, allow your characters to speak in generalizations. When one character speaks the truth as he/she sees it, and makes general observations about the world, think about the counterpoints to that position/argument. As you (the writer) play Devil's Advocate to your own character's thoughts, those rebuttals can become the basis of dialogue for other characters in the scene.
  • Don't be afraid of things in life that get in the way of your writing. Those things can actually be helpful to you in the process. For example, if you are holding a day job and trying to write on the side, you may grow frustrated that the day job is interfering with your writing. However, the time away from your script is good for the process. It gives you distance from your own material and can help you to objectively approach the script at a later date.
  • Stillman doesn't put too much emphasis on writing a specific outline or treatment before writing. He doesn't like thinking too much about exactly how the story will end. He feels that can be too constrictive, locking the writer into conventional ideas and narratives. He advocates for letting the story go where it wants to as you write. He encourages writers to let the story grow and develop on its own.
  • It's easy to get bogged down in the note-writing/pre-writing phase. Writers can sometimes use that phase as an excuse to actually start writing. Don't be afraid to start.

I thought Stillman had some very good advice for aspiring screenwriters. But the great thing about writing is that there are no right or wrong methods. What works for one might not work for someone else. It's all about finding your own system and your own rhythm.

What are your writing habits? What works best for you? What advice would you give to other writers out there? Leave your thoughts in the comments section.