Joss Whedon’s Top 10 Writing Tips

13 March 2013 — 24 Comments

Joss Whedon Top 10 Writing Tips

Film critic Catherine Bray interviewed Joss Whedon in 2006 for UK movie magazine Hotdog to find out his top ten screenwriting tips. Catherine has kindly given us permission to reproduce the article here. Photo: Joss Whedon at San Diego Comic Con - courtesy of Gage Skidmore.

Joss Whedon is most famous for creating Buffy the Vampire Slayer, its spin-off Angel and the short-lived but much-loved Firefly series. But the writer and director has also worked unseen as a script doctor on movies ranging from Speed to Toy Story. Here, he shares his tips on the art of screenwriting.

1. FINISH IT
Actually finishing it is what I’m gonna put in as step one. You may laugh at this, but it’s true. I have so many friends who have written two-thirds of a screenplay, and then re-written it for about three years. Finishing a screenplay is first of all truly difficult, and secondly really liberating. Even if it’s not perfect, even if you know you’re gonna have to go back into it, type to the end. You have to have a little closure.

2. STRUCTURE
Structure means knowing where you’re going; making sure you don’t meander about. Some great films have been made by meandering people, like Terrence Malick and Robert Altman, but it’s not as well done today and I don’t recommend it. I’m a structure nut. I actually make charts. Where are the jokes? The thrills? The romance? Who knows what, and when? You need these things to happen at the right times, and that’s what you build your structure around: the way you want your audience to feel. Charts, graphs, coloured pens, anything that means you don’t go in blind is useful.

3. HAVE SOMETHING TO SAY
This really should be number one. Even if you’re writing a Die Hard rip-off, have something to say about Die Hard rip-offs. The number of movies that are not about what they purport to be about is staggering. It’s rare, especially in genres, to find a movie with an idea and not just, ‘This’ll lead to many fine set-pieces’. The Island evolves into a car-chase movie, and the moments of joy are when they have clone moments and you say, ‘What does it feel like to be those guys?’

4. EVERYBODY HAS A REASON TO LIVE
Everybody has a perspective. Everybody in your scene, including the thug flanking your bad guy, has a reason. They have their own voice, their own identity, their own history. If anyone speaks in such a way that they’re just setting up the next person’s lines, then you don’t get dialogue: you get soundbites. Not everybody has to be funny; not everybody has to be cute; not everybody has to be delightful, and not everybody has to speak, but if you don’t know who everybody is and why they’re there, why they’re feeling what they’re feeling and why they’re doing what they’re doing, then you’re in trouble.

5. CUT WHAT YOU LOVE
Here’s one trick that I learned early on. If something isn’t working, if you have a story that you’ve built and it’s blocked and you can’t figure it out, take your favourite scene, or your very best idea or set-piece, and cut it. It’s brutal, but sometimes inevitable. That thing may find its way back in, but cutting it is usually an enormously freeing exercise.

6. LISTEN
When I’ve been hired as a script doctor, it’s usually because someone else can’t get it through to the next level. It’s true that writers are replaced when executives don’t know what else to do, and that’s terrible, but the fact of the matter is that for most of the screenplays I’ve worked on, I’ve been needed, whether or not I’ve been allowed to do anything good. Often someone’s just got locked, they’ve ossified, they’re so stuck in their heads that they can’t see the people around them. It’s very important to know when to stick to your guns, but it’s also very important to listen to absolutely everybody. The stupidest person in the room might have the best idea.

7. TRACK THE AUDIENCE MOOD
You have one goal: to connect with your audience. Therefore, you must track what your audience is feeling at all times. One of the biggest problems I face when watching other people’s movies is I’ll say, ‘This part confuses me’, or whatever, and they’ll say, ‘What I’m intending to say is this’, and they’ll go on about their intentions. None of this has anything to do with my experience as an audience member. Think in terms of what audiences think. They go to the theatre, and they either notice that their butts are numb, or they don’t. If you’re doing your job right, they don’t. People think of studio test screenings as terrible, and that’s because a lot of studios are pretty stupid about it. They panic and re-shoot, or they go, ‘Gee, Brazil can’t have an unhappy ending,’ and that’s the horror story. But it can make a lot of sense.

8. WRITE LIKE A MOVIE
Write the movie as much as you can. If something is lush and extensive, you can describe it glowingly; if something isn’t that important, just get past it tersely. Let the read feel like the movie; it does a lot of the work for you, for the director, and for the executives who go, ‘What will this be like when we put it on its feet?’

9. DON’T LISTEN
Having given the advice about listening, I have to give the opposite advice, because ultimately the best work comes when somebody’s fucked the system; done the unexpected and let their own personal voice into the machine that is moviemaking. Choose your battles. You wouldn’t get Paul Thomas Anderson, or Wes Anderson, or any of these guys if all moviemaking was completely cookie-cutter. But the process drives you in that direction; it’s a homogenising process, and you have to fight that a bit. There was a point while we were making Firefly when I asked the network not to pick it up: they’d started talking about a different show.

10. DON’T SELL OUT
The first penny I ever earned, I saved. Then I made sure that I never had to take a job just because I needed to. I still needed jobs of course, but I was able to take ones that I loved. When I say that includes Waterworld, people scratch their heads, but it’s a wonderful idea for a movie. Anything can be good. Even Last Action Hero could’ve been good. There’s an idea somewhere in almost any movie: if you can find something that you love, then you can do it. If you can’t, it doesn’t matter how skilful you are: that’s called whoring.


24 responses to Joss Whedon’s Top 10 Writing Tips

  1. I loved this as much as everyone else, but am I the only one who after reading this line ” if you can find something that you love, then you can do it. If you can’t, it doesn’t matter how skillful you are: that’s called whoring.” had the random thought go through my head… “So if you enjoy sex, even if your skillful, and you have a lot of it… does that mean you’re NOT whoring… after all, you enjoyed it.” ;)

  2. great to-the-point advice. thank you.

  3. Very helpful,and inspiring

  4. Hey. For a start I have to admit that I worship the ground you walk on. I am a deep, deep Buffy fan, even the of the movie. In fact I would not watch the TV series until season three when I came home from work to find my husband watching it and I got hooked. It is played daily in Australia on Foxtel and I gotta say that my day doesn’t feel right unless I have my dose of Buffy. The show touched me profoundly on many levels and I would follow you into hell itself.

    As a fledgling writer I am undertaking a Bachelor of Communication with a double major in creative writing and film studies. I, in a previous life have been a registered nurse which was a valuable, rewarding profession but one that ulitmately leads to a great deal of burn out and I found that I was getting lazy about procedure which in that profession can lead to the death of your client.

    This does have a point, I promise. With shifting from Nursing to writing I found that there was a dislocation even after doing a script writing course at NIDA where one of the most profound pieces of advice that was handed to us was to cut your favorite scene or piece to advance a story and never truly made a great deal of sense to me until recently.

    Through the function of the Communication degree I began a student magazine with my fellow students that has developed into something far more than just a magazine; it is a testament to creativity and to allowing people the ability of developing their ideology and skills as writers, IT professionals, artists and photographers. With the most recent edition of Tweaking MADD I encountered my first MOMENT as a writer. I did a piece on a local artist/teacher who teaches ceramics, fine art and jewelry, a place I spent some very pleasurable time with and learnt a great deal. When the piece was released with Tweaking MADD this edition she contacted me to relay her pleasure and joy in the piece. She told me that she was at the point of closing up shop as she was feeling burnt out and unable to find that spark that most great artists touch. The article I wrote was enough to give her some strength and the ability to plug on with her work, working with her customers that in some cases she had been teaching for over thirty years.

    As a nurse that touching of someone’s soul is a part of the job, one of the reasons that many nurses follow and understand that if they are doing the right thing then they are going to touch often. I never before realized that it was possible to do this as a writer and has left me in a state of shock and with a lovely warm glow.

    My course as a writer and my inspiration as a writer has been directly inspired in me by your work. Your work touches my soul and gives me that ahhhhhhhhhhhh moment. My husband often asks me how I can watch TV or movies with any enjoyment after learning how they are made. It is that ahhhhhhhhh moment that a really, really good writer can achieve and make you forget that this is a production allowing for you to get lost in the story and stop chasing boom shadows.

    I thank you so much for the work you have given us and I adore your work as do so many people.

    Tweaking MADD is available at

    July-2013-Issue-
    http://www.tweakingmadd2012.com/

  5. What the HELL is wrong with Last Action Hero? Don;’t knee-jerk. It was a woderful film. A ticket that takes you into the movies, for crissakes.
    You want a film that could have been good, but wasn’t, how about The Avengers?

    • The Last Action Hero started out in a very clever, thought-provoking way. Then, to me at least, it seemed as if some committee or something decided to just throw in everything…references to Ingmar Bergman, all kinds of stuff that was jarring to the tone. Was it a satire? A broad comedy? An action film? (Okay, “Tropic Thunder” was all three and pulled it off.) But Last Action Hero didn’t do it for me or lots of others. But if it reached you, that’s cool. Different things affect different folks in various ways. Some people actually like listening to The Beach Boys and The Four Seasons today, even though most of their stuff wasn’t very good — but if it reaches someone, even the cliche-ridden “Strangers in the Night” — well, I actually am not being judgemental. Just trying to answer your question.

  6. Great advice..One thing i’m beginning to learn is don’t ever let a character and/or situation take the easy/logical way out. Make it almost impossible for them and then figure out a completely ass backward way to culminate the situation. But please make it ‘real’..there has to be ‘truth’ and reality in all things..no matter how outlandish…

  7. Duh. Of course that’s exactly what it means. In its very essence being a whore means doing it for money, not love. And being a slut is an entirely different then than being a whore, btw ;-)

  8. Joss Whedon has more than Firefly to his credit and he was not a staff writer on the show he was the show creator and writer and EP. His credits have included the original Buffy the Vampire Slayer movie and the driving force and creator along with David Greenwalt (Grimm, Jake 5.0, and Angel) and Fran Kazu all of who worked on the original movie. They lost control of the shoot from the production company and a new writer was bought in and the show became vastly different from what it was intended to be. Now I for years did not watch the television version of Buffy the Vampire Slayer for a long time as I loved the original movie and it kitschness so much that I did not want to see it mangled and beyond repair. I came into the show as my husband would be watching it when I got home from work and I was caught with the show. Buffy has been one of the staples of my life in terms of television and as a reference point as to how much it has directed my life. I am not the only person that I know that has been predominantly touched by the show in a primal way. My niece, having had some truly challenging issues in her life from illness to dickhead father to dickhead ex-boyfriend has had WWBD tattooed on her inner forearm. This stands for what would Buffy do. it is her mantra and comes from the first episode of season four when Xander is discussing with Buffy the challenges shwe as having with a nest of Vampires. He uses this phrase to encourage Buffy who has temporarily lost her mojo.

    I am a big Buffy fan in case you could not tell!

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