202 Practical Writing Tips From Hollywood Screenwriter Brian Koppelman
Brian Koppelman is an American screenwriter, novelist, director, and producer.
Best known as the co-writer of Ocean’s Thirteen and Rounders, Koppelman has also produced films such as The Illusionist and The Lucky Ones as well as directed films such as Solitary Man. (wiki)
Recently, however, he’s also made the transition into teaching. Both with his blog and, now famous, ‘Six Second Screenwriting Lessons’ on Vine.
If you don’t think much wisdom can be contained in a six second lesson, think again.
They’re chocked full of practical tips, inspirational lessons and realistic truths about the creative life.
Below I’ve transcribed and listed my favorite 202 six second screenwriting lessons from Koppelman.
If you’re not a screenwriter don’t worry, neither am I. These pearls of wisdom apply to just about any kind of artistic endeavor.
They’ve helped me with my painting just as much as my writing. Taken together, I believe these tips provide as much value and insight as any productivity or writing book on the market today. Enjoy.
202 Writing Tips
1. All screenwriting books are bullshit. ALL. Watch movies. Read screenplays. Let them be your guide.
2. ‘Write what you know’ works, but it’s limiting. Write what fascinates you. Write what you can’t stop thinking about.
3. The so-called ‘screenwriting guru’ is really the so-called screenwriting conman. Don’t listen to them if you don’t know their movies.
4. In what I thought was the beginning of a serious, heartfelt convo, I told my dad I wanted to be a writer. He looked at me and said, “You wanna write? Write.” Still the best advice.
5. Calculate less. Don’t try to game the market. Write what you want to write. And drink plenty of coffee.
6. Of the many supposed rules of writing, the only one that’s legit is ‘write every day.’
7. There’s a whole industry of bunko men who say that writing needs to be learned at some course. Don’t believe it.
8. The moment your screenplay leaves your hands it becomes a commodity. So while it’s with you, treat it like a piece of art.
9. Instead of reading screenwriting books, read about your subject. The subject that fascinates compels and interests you.
10. With writing gurus, it’s all about the HOW. How do I write this? What writers should think about is WHY. Why do I need to write this now?
11. You don’t need any expert’s permission to write your story, your way. Repeat that.
12. Every writer should read Haruki Murakami’s ‘What I talk about when I talk about running‘. It’s a great book on running and even better one on writing.
13. Forget about contests, agents, focus on what you can control: words pages and the intention behind them.
14. The first screenplay that my partner and I wrote it was rejected by every agency as unsellable. It was Rounders.
15. The Coen brothers, Charlie Kaufman, Quentin Tarantino never tried to guess what Hollywood would make. They wrote their obsessions and so should you.
16. Let me use fewer words than the books do to explain three act structure. Beginning, middle and end. So stop worrying and start writing.
17. When I want a quick shot of inspiration, I watch Amelie or Y Tu Mamma Tambien. Movies that broke all the rules but engage the heart.
18. Self-doubt goes hand in hand with self-expression. Tune it out for two hours a day. You’ll have a finished screenplay.
19. Look I’m not saying form and structure don’t matter. They do. But it’s forming an emotional connection with the reader that sets you apart.
20. When I’m stuck on a first draft, I remind myself that no one gets to see this ’til I say they can, which gives me persuasion to finish.
21. I can’t tell you how to write dialogue and build a character. No expert can either. You have to love writing enough to figure it out for yourself.
22. Know this: whatever your favourite movie is, at some point during the writing of it the screenwriter felt completely lost.
23. Try and write your first draft as fast as you can so the doubts don’t have a chance to creep in.
24. If you just can’t make progress on your screenplay today, write an essay, bang out a short story. Generate some pages.
25. The more rules you’re trying to remember or beats you’re trying to hit, the harder it is to get in a state of flow. Just write.
26. Always write for yourself but don’t be self-indulgent. Define your audience and write for them too.
27. Here’s something I’ve noticed: amateur writers tend to write characters dumber than they are. Pros try to write characters smarter.
28. The ‘realist’ in the spirit of ‘friendship’ always wants to tell the writer the ‘real’ odds of getting something made. Tune ’em out.
29. Don’t stress about making your main characters likeable or relatable. That’s development speak. Just make them fascinating, and we’ll care.
30. You already know how to tell a story. Think of one that worked, that got you out of a ticket or got you a date and figure out why.
31. There’s not one exec in Hollywood who knows what audiences want to see next year. So write what you want to see.
32. Writers look for reasons not write, so make a list of all the reasons you need to write and put it next to your computer.
33. If you love giant commercial blockbusters, that’s what you should try to write. But if you love small personal films, write those.
34. ‘Hey, aren’t you just filling them with unrealistic expectations?’ I hope so. All writers start out with unrealistic expectations.
35. Protect your writing time. Establish rituals around it. Take a long walk, make a particular kind of coffee to get you in the state to write.
36. Writing a first draft can be a fragile thing. Don’t sabotage yourself by talking to people who don’t share your dreams.
37. I was a blocked writer until I was thirty, so I know how painful it is. I also know it’s worth it to fight through it.
38. If you power through and finish a screenplay, you’ve accomplished more than 99% of the people who ever have a movie idea do.
39. Some days you just don’t feel creative. That’s okay. Write anyway. At least that way you’ll build momentum.
40. I find that nothing can change my state faster or get me in a creative state of mind quicker than listening to one of my favourite pieces of music.
41. I don’t know any professional writers who’ll tell you it’s easy. It’s worth remembering that. It’s hard for all of us.
42. The best writers I know are led by their curiosity. And they follow it until they find the story they want to tell.
43. Resilience is a writer’s best friend. Train like a marathon runner. Move a little further each day, despite the pain.
44. Failure is a huge part of any writer’s life. So you have to redefine the term so any day you write is a success.
45. The best moments in writing are the ones you can barely remember. It’s like they happened in a dream. But the only way to earn them is to grind every day.
46. So what’s the trick to finding an agent, to finally breaking through? The trick – don’t let that stuff distract you.
47. If you’re trying to decide what to write and you have one idea, that scares you because you don’t know what people will think of it… write that one.
48. Perfectionism can be a real asset in the final stages of any artistic project. But on the first draft it’s a momentum killer.
49. When we celebrate risk takers, we’re talking about mountain climbers and cliff divers, but I know creative risk takers are just as brave.
50. Here’s a tip for getting unstuck: Stop staring at the computer. Open a notebook and handwrite it or talk the scene into a recorder.
51. Most people spend only a small part of their day feeling fully engaged. So think of your writing that way and it’s easier to commit.
52. When I say write what fascinates you, that’s because it’s easier to show up every day and do the work when you’re truly passionate.
53. You don’t have to like what you write every day. You just have to show up at your laptop or your desk and write.
54. When you really throw yourself into a creative endeavour, people in your life can become pretty critical. Remember: it’s them, not you.
55. If you only have an hour a day to write, look at that as a positive. Because it forces you to focus and work with intensity.
56. Do I have to move to LA to make it as a screenwriter? Do I have to be tall to work in the NBA? No, but you better outwork everyone else.
57. When I say don’t fall prey to perfectionism; I don’t mean lower your standards. I mean don’t use standards as an excuse not to write.
58. Whether or not to outline is really a question of how comfortable you are with uncertainty. Which is also the answer to whether this is the career for you.
59. Remembering this helps take the pressure off: There are two first drafts. The first draft you write for you, and the first draft you show to someone else.
60. Many of us have what gamblers call leak – a habit or enthusiasm that knocks us off course. Figure out what yours is and close it.
61. If you find yourself insulted by someone’s reaction to your work. Just use it as fuel, just like every other writer who ever lived.
62. But what if I sit down today and I have absolutely nothing to write? Think of the last huge argument you had with someone and write it as a scene.
63. It’s easier to deal with something if you anticipate it. So know that somewhere in the middle of your script you’re going to think it’s worthless and fight on.
64. Sometimes you’re stuck because you don’t know what’s supposed to happen next in your story. Here’s a trick, just think of what your characters might do next, and write that.
65. Nobody chooses to become a writer or any kind of an artist because it’s easy. You do it because you have too.
66. Is writing sometimes lonely? Yes, but its worth it for those moments where time disappears and you feel connected to everything.
67. So, what’s more important: inspiration or discipline? Honestly, you need to use 100% of both.
68. The first time I got a bad review it almost took me out. Then I realised that if I got right back to creating I could survive.
69. If you’re going to become an artist of any kind, you have to know it’s almost impossible to succeed and then work like you know you will.
70. I think self-imposed deadlines are useful because they can prod you forward. Just make sure that they’re also attainable.
71. Don’t share your draft with anyone else until you can’t think of any ways to make it better on your own first.
72. Think of how much joy your favourite artists have brought you. Now imagine if your work can do that for even one other person and get to it.
73. But how do I know if I’m just wasting my time? How do I even know what I’m doing is even any good? Nobody ever knows. Do it anyway.
74. Professional artists don’t expect to create museum-quality work with the first sketch of a new project; they just want to get something down on canvas.
75. Is it possible you won’t sell that novel you’re working on or screenplay or painting you’re trying to finish? Yeah. Isn’t it awesome you’re doing it anyway?
76. Your imagination is more powerful than any critic, agent, or studio boss in the world.
77. The greatest shooters in the history of the NBA all shot the ball differently. Just get it in the hoop.
78. What do I do every day to keep myself in a creative space? I journal. I meditate. I take long walks.
79. If rule number one is ‘write every day’, rule number two is ‘take creative risks’. Even when they fail, you get stronger.
80. The next time that someone laughs at your dream. Remind them that Paul Haggis’s Crash script was rejected for five years straight.
81. No one in Hollywood woke up this morning wondering how they can help you. But they did wake up desperately in need of great material.
82. There is no secret. Writing is all about hard work, persistence and discovery. Anyone who says different is selling something.
83. If you can get past the sticky mid-point of any artistic project, you’ll be floated, at least for a while, on momentum and inspiration.
84. Here’s a basic truth I like to remind myself of. If you write one page a day, you’ll have a first draft in three and a half months. Two, in fifty-five days.
85. Once you’ve written a first draft and you’re on to the rewrite, strive for clarity. Even if your narrative is opaque and twisty, your prose shouldn’t be.
86. People ask, ‘how do you know when your stuff is ready to show to other people’. This isn’t science. Part of writing is developing that instinct.
87. If you wanna be an artist, you better learn to say NO. To the temptations pulling you away from your work; to the wrong people; to your inner critic.
88. If you still feel pressure writing your first draft, don’t think of it as a first draft. Think of it as a rough draft, then revise. That’ll be your first draft.
89. All I want to say today is this: the romantic vision of the beautiful-tortured-artist-addict is a lie.
90. For one week, track how much television you watch. Next week, spend one-third of that time creating something.
91. Do professional writers ever feel like they’re banging their heads against the wall and everything they’re writing is useless? Of course, we just stay at our desks anyway.
92. If you want to model a character after your cousin, your aunt, your uncle, your friend, do it. You can disguise them later. Make them real now.
93. What if I’m a good writer I just don’t want to deal with all that politics? What if I’m a good swimmer I just don’t want to deal with all that water?
94. I was beating myself up about spending a Saturday reading, watching movies, instead of writing. But then I remembered, input – as important as output.
95. There’s no one creative endeavour I’ve tried that hasn’t been met with resistance and rejection at first. The trick is to ignore those things.
96. The time you set aside to create is one of the only things you can control. Luckily it’s also the most important factor in getting things done.
97. I promise you this. If you write every single day, a year from now, you’ll be a much better writer than you are today.
98. Screenwriting is not a competition, but somebody’s out there not daunted by the odds, writing every day, dreaming big. Is that you?
99. Should I outline or not? And which genre? Better question: what can I do today to put myself in the best state of mind to create?
100. Tell the truth. Does talent matter? Of course it does. Here’s the good news. Talent reveals itself over time.
101. I was in the bookstore earlier tonight and I realised every single author made a decision at some point that they were a writer. Are you ready to?
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*UPDATE* Another 101 Writing Tips Added…
102. There’s nothing wrong with self-promotion; it’s show business, after all. Just make sure when you do it, the work is there to back it up.
103. Runners have a saying: “Plan your run and run your plan.” For writers, it’s the same, whether it’s word count, page count, time at your desk.
104. The time you set aside to create is one of the only things you can control. Luckily, it’s also the most important factor in getting things done.
105. Almost every real creative breakthrough is so scary; you’ll try like hell to try to avoid it. Don’t. Power through; see how good that makes you feel.
106. The next time you really don’t want to write and you write anyway, circle it on your calendar. The next time you decide not to circle that, then look back and decide how each made you feel.
107. Is luck involved in a Hollywood career? Of course it is. But since you can’t do anything about don’t worry about it. Just create something undeniable.
108. I used to run three times a week, three to five miles. But it got cold so I missed a week and then I missed another week, now I haven’t run in months. Write every day.
109. As a writer or artist of any kind, you’re always bumping up against total failure. Learn to love that feeling. Learn to need it.
110. When people talk about a writer’s voice, they’re talking about the writer’s distinct point of view. So know what you think of your characters and the position they’re in.
111. It’s easy to get bitter and decide that everything Hollywood makes is crap. Fight that impulse; remember what you love about the movies, why you start in the first place.
112. I’ve never been big on writing lessons but one thing I’ve always done: stand somewhere like a train station and makeup stories about the people going in and out.
113. Think of your favorite song, movie, painting — then think about this: when the artist started, they had no guarantee that it would work.
114. When I say write every day, it doesn’t mean if you have a job that only allows you a couple of days a week you can’t make it happen. It means have a writing routine and stick to it.
115. If you chase a career in the arts, some people are going to think you’re crazy. They’re going to worry about you, but when you break through they’ll be like, “I knew it all along!”
116. When you do take notes and begin a rewrite, remember, the criticism of the work is not a judgment on you.
117. It’s crucial at the beginning of any creative project to know why you’re doing it. That way you can remind yourself during the treacherous midpoint.
118. One more thing about notes and criticism: just because they say it, doesn’t mean it’s true. You decide what you want to believe. Take what’s useful, discard the rest.
119.What are you reading lately? What movies are you watching? What music are you listening to? I hope a whole bunch of stuff came to your mind. Artists are always searching that stuff out.
120. I bet sometimes in the middle a project you convince yourself it’s horrible. You could be right. But you won’t know until you finish, revise, and finish again… So keep going!
121. No matter how you are in your real life, don’t be timid on the page. Take big risks. Swing for the fences.
122. There are no dumb questions right? Nah, because ‘what should I write?’ is a dumb question. If anyone knew, they’d write it.
123. I hate Times Square because it’s calculated, fake and inauthentic. Just like a screenplay written from a how-to book.
124. But when’s the inciting incident? How long can the first act be? How short can the third act be? What’s the low-point? Only you know what your story needs.
125. How do you know if your writing day is a success? Well, did you sit down, focus, give all you had? It was a success.
126. You definitely know what puts you in your most creative state; how much sleep you need, what to drink or not, the question is: why don’t you always do it?
127. If writing a first draft requires boundless enthusiasm, reading it and making notes requires brutal honesty. Cut yourself no slack.
128. How many time have you heard someone say ‘Oh I’m not a real writer’ or ‘I’m not a real artist’? If you do the work every day, yes you are.
129. It’s easier to not write than to write. It’s easier to give up than to believe. Do the hard thing, and do it again tomorrow.
130. What if instead of judging yourself when you’re writing, you considered it practice or play time or a release? I bet you’d do it more often and like it.
131. Can I promise if you write every day you’re going to end up world famous? Of course not. But I can promise you’ll learn to write better.
132. Are you comfortable writing dramas? Do ten pages of a comedy. You write country ballads? Try a rock song. Then when you go back to your thing you’ll have new colors to use.
133. When golf legend Ben Hogan was asked where he found the ‘secret’ to his swing, he said ‘in the dirt.’ Remember than next time someone sells you the secret to screenwriting.
134. Here’s a good and simple thing to remember: you only need one buyer, one believer to change everything.1
135. Of course, it’s important to believe in yourself, but even if you don’t, do the work anyway. Do that enough, belief will come.
136. “Hey kid, forget it. Nobody is making westerns or ethnic films, or movies for women, forget family dramas.” What? Just write what you want to write.
137. There are days you sit down to work and feel like you don’t have any ideas. Work anyway. Give your subconscious a chance to surprise you.
138. While it’s not exactly true that if you focus on the creative the business will take care of itself, if you don’t… no business.
139. Remember this: there’s no one way to write a screenplay, no one way to tell a story and any expert who says there is, isn’t one.
140. Hey, I know that when inspiration strikes you know what to do, but don’t wait for it. Work every day so it knows where to find you.
141. What we’re all after is that feeling of creative momentum, like we’re skiing downhill. It takes will and discipline to get to that place, but it’s worth it.
142. When you see a great movie, it can seem like magic. Trust me, the people making it had as many frustrating days as you, they just kept at it.
143. You ever finish a piece of work and say ‘man I really put my heart into that one.’ What would happen if you really put your heart into everything you do?
144. Who do you trust? Who’s taste do you admire? Know the answers to those questions before you ask someone to read, to avoid self-sabotage.
145. Do you know what time of day you’re at your most creative? Have you tried really early in the morning? Super later at night? Before a run? After a long walk?
146. Put the energy you use to chronicle real world gripes, “everyone’s connected but me! She won’t read my script!” into making up obstacles for your character.
147. How do you make it as a screenwriter? By not even stopping long enough to ask that question. Obsess over the work, be rigorous, keep going.
148. Hey, it is really hard to get someone to read your script. It’s really hard to break in. But almost everyone who has, started where you are.
149. The more ambitious the creative idea, the quicker the self-doubt comes. Train yourself to recognize it as fear and keep going.
150. I think it’s important for creative people to still the mind and be unconnected. For me, it’s meditation and long walks.
151. Each time you start a new creative project, you’re a beginning again. That’s scary, but I think it’s also beautiful.
152. But isn’t Hollywood unfair? Sometimes. Don’t you have to know somebody? It helps. Then I’ll never make it. Don’t be that guy!
153. Yeah, yeah, but what can you guarantee me will happen if I write every day? You’ll know yourself better. What about success? Uh, that is success.
154. Probably the second most constant piece of advice I give is to journal. Why is that? Because it tethers your subconscious to your conscious mind.
155. Artistic insecurity can make you hear discouraging words very loudly and encouraging words like a whisper. For the next week, reverse it.
156. Hey, if you know there’s someone in your life who doesn’t believe in your dream of becoming an artist or who wishes they were taking the shot, don’t show them your work.
157. Before you can convince anyone else that you’re an artist, you need to convince yourself. The way to do that is to do the work every day, instead of talking about it.
158. Here’s a confession: I don’t have all the answers. I have no idea what you should write. The good news? You have the answers.
159. The safest thing anyone in Hollywood can say is ‘no.’ So that’s what they say all the time. It’s just a reflex, don’t believe them.
160. What are you too tired to write today? Bad allergies? I know, you’re too busy. Or too stressed, just too scared. Just to write one page you’re not.
161. Constructive criticism can be amazingly helpful at the right time. But a momentum killer if you’re not ready. Make sure you can handle it when you ask for it.
162. Hey artists, remember: even well-intentioned experts can be wrong. Learn from criticism but don’t blindly believe it.
163. This one is important: be merciful to yourself while creating, but merciless to the work, between drafts.
164. Pursuing a life in the arts is delusional and irrational, right up until the moment you create something that connects. Don’t give up.
165. Before stressing about who you know to get ahead, develop a clear point of view, a unique voice, a clarity of purpose in your art.
166. Ask yourself: how much time do you spend creating? And how much time complaining? Is it enough? Is it too much?
167. Take five minutes a day to record your life. Nothing fancy. Write down what happened, who you feel about what happened, what you hope will happen next.
168. Don’t like a so-called artistic lifestyle get in the way of your work. Most artists I know conserve their power and energy for the page.
169. I was at dinner last night with a legendary novelist. He said he still gets lost writing first drafts, that all writers do, but if you press on, the answers always come.
170. Sometime in the first week of a new creative project, write down all the reasons you’re excited about it. Refer back to it during the long slog through the middle.
171. Some of my contemporaries say I’m filling people with hope. Like that’s a bad thing. Sometimes hope is the only fuel you got
172. Sometimes artists have a hard time balancing their need for solitude with their desire for connection and experience. This week make a plan and stick to it.
173. Notice what works for you, notice what doesn’t. Keep track: ‘I wrote in the morning, it felt like this and not like that. ‘And then adjust.
174. Sometimes you lose perspective finishing a first draft. That’s why you should put it away for two weeks, then read and revise, and then send it out.
175. I want you to know that when professional writers get together it isn’t like ‘my script is awesome, how’s yours? Perfect!’ We all struggle to get it right.
176. Here’s a way to process notes: ask yourself ‘if I’d thought of that note, would I want to implement it?’ If so, do it.
177. Which word scares you the most: Pretentious? Shallow? Derivative? Or just you suck? Don’t give those words any power.
178. Writer’s block is mostly just fear in disguise. Recognize what you’re scared of, see how silly it is and write on.
179. Why write? Why dance? Why paint? Or run a marathon? Or risk love? Because they can be paths for our best selves.
180. Don’t be ashamed of wanting people to read your work or buy your paintings or hear your songs. Just do the work to earn their attention.
181. I know some of you are reading these writing tips and saying, ‘You know what? Yes, I’m going to start tomorrow. That’s exactly what I’m going to do.’ Don’t, start right now.
182. Say you have a day job and want to be a full-time artist and you have one hour a week to devote. Spend fifty minutes making art, ten marketing, zero complaining.
183. Whenever I meet someone who says, ‘I want to be a writer, I want to be a painter’ I think, no you don’t. Write, paint, then you are it.
184. Hey, I remember the day, the moment I made the decision I am going to write every day. All that changed is my entire life.
185. Everyone knows if you walk the stairs you get stronger. Very few people actually do it. The ones that do separate themselves. Write every day.
186. When I say:, ‘write every day,’ substitute whatever your thing is, whatever makes you feel most like you. Create, build a practice.
187. Yesterday my partner and I turned in a script that took us seven months to write, so today I started planning, journaling and thinking of the next one because that’s what we do.
188. Sometimes when you hear a successful artist interviewed it can feel like they were predestined to it. They’ll say it was ‘a calling’ or ‘meant to be!’ Believe me, they struggled.
189. Someone today asked me why I never have self-doubt. Of course, I have self-doubt! The point is to build a routine that lets you create in spite of it.
190. If you pursue a life in the arts, you’re going to hear ‘no’ a lot more than you’re going to hear ‘yes.’ So you have to give that word your own empowering meaning.
191. I’m gonna go back to an old theme: people calling themselves screenplay experts who’ve never written a made movie — ignore them.
192. Whenever you think you’re the only one struggling to get it right, pick up a biography of any artist you admire. You’ll find they all struggled.
193. You can’t silence you critics — not the parent who wants you to get a real job, not the friend who’s secretly jealous — but you definitely don’t have to believe them.
194. Hey if you want to dabble in the arts as a hobby, that’s fine. But if you want to make it your life’s work, admit that to yourself and do something about it!
195. Yeah, it’s really really hard to find an agent. So keep doing the work until it’s so undeniable that they find you.
196. For the next twenty-four hours anytime you want to complain about how hard it is to break in, think about your work instead.
197. “Your first screenplay will never sell. They don’t make dramas. And forget female-driven films.” Most supposed rules are just superstitions.
198. This applies across the board, but it’s especially true for a creative person: don’t lie to yourself. Be ruthless when you revise.
199. It’s easy to get discouraged when the work doesn’t go well. Don’t. Even bad creative days are better than days you don’t try.
200. In your quietest most private moments do you ever feel that maybe you’re not good enough? Maybe you’re a fraud? So did almost every artist who ever made it.
201. There’s one thing every professional artist didn’t do on the road to success. They didn’t stop at the first roadblock or rejection.
202. Hey, writers, artists: what would happen if instead of doing what’s safe – what’s been done before – you tried that idea you’re almost afraid to say out loud? How would it make you feel?