10 storytelling tips from Billy Wilder
Who better to learn to write from than Billy Wilder?
The question comes up a lot on our forums so I thought we’d clear it up here. Billy Wilder belongs on every Mount Rushmore we do in film history. Many consider him the greatest screenwriter of all time. I am one of them. In total, he received 13 Oscar nominations for his writing! He won the Oscar for the script 3 times to the Sunset Boulevard, The Lost Weekend and The apartment.
That would be enough for Wilder’s legacy, but there is more. The American Film Institute has named four of Billy Wilder’s films among its 100 best American films of the 20th century: Twilight Boulevard (Number 12), Some like it hot (Number 14), Double compensation (Number 29), and The apartment (Number 80).
If there is anyone we should learn from scriptwriting, it’s Wilder. Check out this video from Outstanding scripts, and let’s talk afterwards.
10 Tips for Screenwriting Billy Wilder
1. “Do not confuse the dialogue speed with the tempo …”
Don’t let funny dialogue drag your film. The pace is not about how fast people talk. It’s about the speed with which events in history happen.
What are your story beats? Do you come to us with a lot of filler material? Movies don’t all have to be lightning fast, but every beat of your performance needs to feel conscious and purposeful.
2. “Writing is a mixture of architecture and poetry …”
The poetic part of this quote is where our art comes into play. You create worlds, characters and voices. But then you have to pin them into the structure of a film. This is your architecture. This is how you build the walls and structure of your story. This is a delicate mix.
So try to balance it out. Don’t let the structure get so rigid that you lose character. And don’t let the poetic parts wander as far as the film meanders.
3. “Shooting on location and on set has its advantages and disadvantages …”
When it comes to making the film, being there has its advantages. You get a quality of realism. There is nothing that can reproduce the colors and depth that a shot in a real location can give you. But you will never have the control you could while shooting on the set. On a set, you can be God and turn on the lights and put everything on perfectly.
4. “A great way to develop characters is to highlight and exaggerate those who affect the world around us …”
Use your friends, family, and the world around you to reinforce your storytelling techniques. The world is full of interesting people. You can learn so much from them when it comes to motivation and dialogue.
Take notes. Go out into the world and listen. Then increase everything. Change up real life to make it a little more fun.
5. “Complex stories should be filmed and presented in a simple way …”
Stories can be complex, but try not to alienate the audience. Take your wildest and most complex ideas and think about the easiest way to tell them. How do you build the story so that the complexity doesn’t reduce the fun?
Keep motivations and characters clear so that the complicated things can build from them.
6. “Think about your approach and make it original …”
What do you have to say about the world? What are the things that happened to you that make you and your point of view unique?
The way to stand out in Hollywood is to work on things that show how unique you can be. So what makes you special Which topics and ideas can be implemented in what is important to you?
7. “Take other stories as inspiration …”
It can feel like procrastinating, but watching a ton of movies and TV and even playing video games can broaden your horizons. It’s okay to explore other facets of art and absorb other stories. Do that and get inspired.
Great artists recognize that there is much to be learned from each other. Begging, borrowing and stealing; repurpose and redesign to make it personal for you.
8. “Expect the unexpected …”
When you’re making a movie or a TV show, things will happen that you can never predict. Don’t be so stuck that you can’t be malleable or change plans in the blink of an eye. Most importantly, honor your story and characters, of course, but if something needs to change, be a team player and work with others to get things right.
Shit is going to hit the fan, things are going to go wrong, but it’s how you deal with it that gets you more work.
9. “Writing is hard work. Writing is sweat …”
No first draft is perfect. No outline is ready. Tuck your bum in the seat and start typing. Writing and storytelling is work. It’s hard work. It always has been. The best things are revised, refined, and challenging both the writer and reader in ways they never knew.
Sweat. Deserve the story. Do what you can and then do better every time you sit down. Challenge yourself and invest the hours.
10. “Balance, take feedback and accept changes …”
The hardest part of writing is listening to notes. People want to do things better, and you have to let go of your ego and get good at hearing what people don’t like. Film and television are collaborative processes.
Not every note is good, but the best way to excel is to hear it and figure out how to use it to inspire your next design.