Stephen King’s 8 Rules for Screenwriting
I read this book in about 4 days. It is one of the most interesting and engaging pieces of nonfiction I have ever read. But that’s not why we are here. We are here to apply what Stephen King says about novel writing to screenwriting. And fuck me is there a lot.
The book to me, is split into two halves. An autobiographical section, about Stephen’s early life, and a second section diving into the nitty gritty of writing. In this article, I am simply going to make a list about my favourite pieces of advice he gives.
I still highly recommend reading Stephen’s book.
- How to edit
“When you write a story, you are telling yourself the story. When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story.” John Gould
Stephen King’s first editor told him this and he says it is one of the best pieces of editing information he has ever heard. It basically means that your first draft should simply be whatever is honest to you. It doesn’t matter if its boring, over the top or silly. As long as its truthful to the story you want to write. However, when you are rewriting you need to remove all the elements that don’t add layers to this story, no matter how much you love them.
“Write with the door closed, rewrite with door open. “
When you are writing your first draft it has to be just you, the page and your thoughts. Otherwise, the story is tainted by other people’s opinions. But when you write the second draft, you should listen to your editor, wife, sister, dog, basically whoever you trust to read your shit.
2nd draft = the first draft minus 10%
Pretty self-explanatory no?
2. The Motherfucking Toolbox
Stephen’s toolbox analogy is something he learned from his Uncle’s toolbox. When you get stuck or things are hard, you use your toolbox. It prevents you from getting discouraged and helps you get straight to work. While the King is talking about novel writing, what he says still applies to screenwriting.
The First Level = Vocabulary. (It doesn’t matter how smart or fancy your vocab is, as long you use it correctly.)
The Second Level = Grammar. (I wont lecture you about grammar since Mine isss shocing)
The Third Level = Paragraphing (Using it correctly – its just instinct)
3. Writing Good dialogue.
For screenwriters, this is definitely one of the most important points. Writing good dialogue is essential for a good script. And what Stephen says is even more useful. To write good dialogue, it just has to be honest and authentic. Dialogue is a skill best learned by people who enjoy talking and listening to others.
King uses H.P Lovecraft’s as an example. While his tales of horrific monsters were genius, his dialogue was truly terrible. This is simply because he was a loner who didn’t interact with others. As a result, what he wrote well… it goes like this
“nothin… nothin… the colour…. It burns… cold an’ wet…. But it burns…. It lived in the well…” Etc Etc. You get the idea.
4. READ AND WRITE EVERDAY.
Every single day. No excuses
5. Fuck plot. Use your characters.
This is something Stephen consistently brings up throughout his book. He stresses that you should write these deep and multi layered characters and let them take the story. Wherever it goes is completely up to how these people would actually act in that situation. It sounds weird but he claims it is definitely the best way to right and engaging story.
Do not try and bend your characters actions to the plot!
6. “Use what you know to enrich the story, not lecture about it”
No one wants to read a 130 page script about your life, relationships, and goals. People don’t give a shit. However, what you can do is embed these stories from your own life into the characters. Give them life by blending them with your own relationships, family and friendships. It will make your characters so much more engaging because they will seem like real people.
In particular, King emphasises the importance of embedding your “work” into your stories. Quite literally, use the shitty jobs you have had to enrich the story. For example, John Grisham, he uses his past as a lawyer not to lecture but simply to add a sense of realism to the story.
7. Write about anything, as long as you tell the truth.
When you start writing, you may be sitting there thinking now what the fuck do I write about? The truth is, anything. Absolutely anything. As long as it is honest and genuine. An audience will quickly be able to spot someone trying to imitate another screenwriter or sell movie tickets. Audiences are attracted to a good story and relatability, not a plot twist, or the wanky techniques you use to seem indie or like you watch French new wave.
Sorry, rant over.
8. The ideal reader
I will finish on this final point.
When writing you need an ideal reader. For Stephen King, this is his wife. For you, it can be anyone. Mum, Dad, girlfriend, wife, dog, mirror. You just need to pick one person in your life and write for them. As you write the first draft, every emotional beat, scary moment or funny line, you should have them in the back of your head. What will make them react positively? What will make them laugh, cry or jump in fright. And when you finish your first draft, and only then, you show them first. You listen to what they have to say and make the changes you agree with. But this is very important. They have to be able to tell you the truth. No bias bullshit. Straight to the facts, what works and what doesn’t. And finally, you should respect their opinion. They have to know a decent amount about film and writing to make the cut.
“honesty’s the best policy” – Miguel de Cervantes
“Liars prosper” – Anonymous