We asked David S. Goyer, writer of The Dark Knight, Batman Begins, and the Blade films (to name a few), to share his expert advice with new writers. Here's what he had to say…
1) ROMANTICIZING WRITING…DON’T DO IT. Many beginning writers have a tendency to romanticize the act of writing. They imagine themselves as pint-sized Colettes or Hemingways or the screenwriter du jour.
But the dirty little truth is – most writing isn’t romantic at all. Real writing involves brutal, soul-searching, often isolating work. And I’ve found that most real, seasoned writers approach it as a craft, rather than a calling.
Because writing is a solitary, formless pursuit it’s important to impose a structure upon it. Self-discipline is the key. For me, things turned around when I started treating the act of writing like a salaried day-job. I found a place to work (i.e. “office”) that wasn’t in my home. I made a point of going there, turning off my phone, and logging in a requisite amount of hours. I didn’t just write when the muse visited me. I made myself write on a schedule – usually from 9 until 2 every weekday. And I made myself write whether I was feeling inspired or not. Gradually, I found that my writing came more easily. I realized that I’d been exercising a particular set of mental muscles and that they were responding to my self-imposed discipline just like their flesh and blood counterparts.
2) THE OUTLINE IS KING/QUEEN. The outline is the most painful step of the writing process. I hate it. I always have. Over the course of my career, I’ve probably been paid to write at least 60 screenplays. And I can tell you that the act of writing an outline has never gotten any easier. The reason for it is pretty basic; figuring out how to get from A to B to C is – at its most reduced state – the actual heart of the writing process.
Outlining is painful because it’s essentially writing with all the frilly, fun parts stripped away – no witty banter, no character nuance or elegant descriptions. It’s all about mechanics. But if you don’t have the mechanics down, then no amount of witty banter or nuance in the world will make your story/script sing.
Often, I find myself deviating from the outline once I actually go to script. And that’s fine – even for a newbie. But it’s important to have that road map in front of you to begin with. If you don’t, you’ll quickly find yourself driving off a cliff.
3) ANYONE CAN WRITE A GOOD FIRST ACT. First acts are easy. The reason they’re easy is because they don’t involve having to figure out any of the attendant consequences. First acts are all set-up. You can strut various characters on-stage, but you don’t have to have them pay off or reveal their motivations and back-stories.
The trick is moving past Act One into the inevitable, sagging Act Two. Many writers bottom out in the middle of their scripts – the point where they actually have to start weaving the various storylines together. They get depressed, they procrastinate, they flounder. I do it as well. Even now, I frequently find myself questioning the merit of any given project when I’m in the middle of it.
But it’s important to resist the temptation to jump back to Act One and begin endlessly rewriting it. Rewriting Act One before plowing through Act Two is just an elaborate form of procrastination. More often than not, fine-tuning Act One will simply result in further demoralizing you. And honestly, how can you be revising Act One when you haven’t even finished the rest of the draft?
My advice? Keep moving ahead. You can always go back and revise what you’ve previously written – and you should. But it’ll be much easier and effective once you’re able to assess a completed piece of work.
4) IF ENOUGH PEOPLE TELL YOU YOU’RE DRUNK, LIE DOWN. No one likes to subject themself to criticism. But there’s simply no better way to improve as a writer.
The point of writing is to communicate. You may think your plotting is genius but others may find it impenetrable. The only way to know for sure is to put your baby out there and weather whatever criticism it induces.
When I was starting out I made a point of giving my script to at least five people. If the majority of those people came back with similar notes, then I was forced to concede that they were probably right about what they were saying (hence the title of this tip).
But the great thing about writing is – no matter how exhaustive the notes may be – your script can always be rewritten. There’s no deadline on an original, spec script. Which brings me to my last pointer…
5) REWRITE YOUR SCRIPT AT LEAST TWICE. I can’t tell you how many writers I’ve met that have a handful of first-drafts in a drawer. There’s a tendency to finish a script, then want to move on to the next one. It’s enticing – you get to work with new ideas and you don’t have to confront the inadequacies of your first piece. But launching into a second script before rewriting the first one is really just another elaborate form of procrastination and cowardice.
A proper rewrite will usually involve some restructuring – possibly creating new characters or set-pieces. It’s not simply polishing dialogue. Which is why many people avoid it. Because rewriting is actually work. If you have to restructure something, then you’re right back in the throes of Step 2. Having said that, if you can suffer through the pain of a proper rewrite, you will probably end up with a much better script.
Hopefully, these pointers will be of some use to you. I wish I could say that I developed them right out of the gate. The truth is, it probably took me some four years and a half-dozen scripts before I actually managed to routinely put them into practice.
Writer/director/producer David S. Goyer is a filmmaker who has long balanced the world of smartest, hippest and most obscure comic books and other-worldly realms of super-heroes and fantastical characters with his passion for telling character-driven stories. Goyer's most recent directing effort was the hit supernatural thriller, The Unborn, based on his own original script. Among his upcoming writer/director projects, Goyer is in development with Universal Pictures and Imagine Entertainment on The Invisible Man, which will be a reimagining of the H.G. Wells classic.
As a screenwriter, Goyer's recent credits include co-writer on Warner Bros.' acclaimed blockbuster Batman Begins with director Christopher Nolan. He also co-wrote the story of the acclaimed blockbuster sequel The Dark Knight.
Goyer sold his first action script at the age of 22 while still at USC, which became the Jean Claude Van Damme thriller Death Warrant, going on to pen among others, the acclaimed Dark City (named Best Film of 1998 by Roger Ebert).