Looking for the best quotes on writing a screenplay? Below, we’ve compiled a list of our favourite quotes on writing films from the greatest film directors. You’ll find more wisdom in these lessons from the masters of the medium than any screenwriting book on the market.

Whether you’re an experienced filmmaker or someone writing their first film, these lessons from the best in the business are guaranteed to inspire and help take your screenplay to the next level.

How to Write a Screenplay

In order to write scripts, you must first study the great novels and dramas of the world. You must consider why they are great. Where does the emotion come from that you feel as you read them? What degree of passion did the author have to have, what level of meticulousness did he have to command, in order to portray the characters and events as he did? You must read thoroughly, to the point where you can grasp all these things. You must also see the great films. You must read the great screenplays and study the film theories of the great directors. If your goal is to become a film director, you must master screenwriting.

Akira Kurosawa

I don’t have to write it down after I’ve thought of it. My outline for a movie rarely takes up a single page. Usually I lose interest in the middle of writing the outline. I write, yo know, “Alvy meets Annie. Romantic scene. Flashback to when they met.” I’ll write like eight of those and by the time I get to the eight or ninth, I’ll have lost interest because I know the story so well I don’t really have do be doing this.

Woody Allen

The best rule of screen and play writing was given to me by John Howard Lawson, a one time friend. Its simple: unity from climax. Everything should build to the climax. But all I know about script preparation urges me to make no rules, although there are some hints, tools of the trade, that have been useful for me. One of these is “Have your central character in every scene.” This is a way of ensuring unity to the work and keeping the focus sharp. Another is: “Look for the contradictions in every character, especially in your heroes and villains. No one should be what they first seem to be. Surprise the audience.”

Elia Kazan

Writing a screenplay, for me, is like juggling. It’s like, how many balls can you get in the air at once? All those ideas have to float out there to a certain point, and then they’ll crystallize into a pattern.

James Cameron

I always say when you write a book, you’re a “one man band.” Whereas, when you write a screenplay, it’s just a sketch.

Diablo Cody

Screenwriting is not real writing. It’s not. You’re not writing a book. You’re writing the basics, the situation, where they are and what they’re doing should really say everything. And leave room for actors to do something… Good writing belongs in books. Screenwriting should be absolutely as economic as possible so that the filmmaking can take over.

Paul Thomas Anderson

Recommended reading: The Writing Process Quotes – How Film Directors Write Scripts

Drama and Plot

The difference between life and the movies is that a script has to make sense, and life doesn’t.

Joseph L. Mankiewicz

I made some mistakes in drama. I thought the drama was when the actors cried. But drama is when the audience cries.

Frank Capra

There’s no story if there isn’t some conflict. The memorable things are usually not how pulled together everybody is. I think everybody feels lonely and trapped sometimes. I would think it’s more or less the norm.

Wes Anderson

Human beings share the same common problems. A film can only be understood if it depicts these properly.

Akira Kurosawa

I always want the audience to outguess me, and then I doublecross them.

Buster Keaton

I use a lot of misdirection in scripts. Writers do it all the time, and I do it too, to throw the audience. 

Woody Allen

For me the best drama is one that deals with a man in danger.

Howard Hawks

What is drama, after all, but life with the dull bits cut out.

Alfred Hitchcock

Audiences are less intrigued, honestly, by battle. They’re more intrigued by human relations. If you’re making a film about the trappings of the period, and you’re forgetting that human relationships are the most engaging part of the storytelling process, then you’re in trouble.

Ridley Scott

Stories and narratives are one of the most powerful things in humanity. They’re devices for dealing with the chaotic danger of existence.

Wes Craven

Storytelling is about two things; it’s about character and plot.

George Lucas

Suspense

Every story needs an element of suspense – or it’s lousy.

Sydney Pollack

The art of creating suspense is also the art of involving the audience, so that the viewer is actually a participant in the film. In this area of the spectacle, film-making is not a dual interplay between the di­rector and his picture, but a three-way game in which the audience, too, is required to play. In the filmic context, suspense, like Tom Thumb’s white pebbles or Little Red Riding-hood’s walk through the woods, is a poetic means that serves to heighten the emotions and to make the heart beat faster.

François Truffaut

The Importance of Characters

What always leads me in terms of my movies are characters.

Tony Scott

My only conclusion about structure is that nothing works if you don’t have interesting characters and a good story to tell.

Harold Ramis

Until a character becomes a personality it cannot be believed. Without personality, the character may do funny or interesting things, but unless people are able to identify themselves with the character, its actions will seem unreal. And without personality, a story cannot ring true to the audience.

Walt Disney

There’s a kind of desperation to the characters I’m interested in. They’re all in extremely heightened states in a heightened situation. And in the course of my films, we’re exploring all of their fears–the rational and the irrational.

William Freidkin

I simply look in all of my films for one character that I can tell my story through, it doesn’t mean that I’m putting myself in his shoes and I am him, it just means that I need to see through somebodies eyes, so I can have a point of view.

Steven Spielberg

People are going to go where they get characters that they remember.

Cameron Crowe

When I’m writing, I’m writing for a particular actor. When a lot of writers are writing, they’re writing an idea, so they’re really writing in a specific voice.

Todd Phillips

I don’t think plot as a plot means much today. I’d say that everybody has seen every plot 20 times. What they haven’t seen is characters and their relation to one another. I don’t worry much about plot anymore.

Howard Hawks

In the past few years I have begun to realize that women are essentially the same as men, that they have the same problems. I don’t think of there being women’s problems or women’s stories any more than I think of there being men’s problems or men’s stories. They are all human problems. It’s people who interest me now.

Ingmar Bergman

As a writer I want everybody to get a chance to voice their opinions. If each character thinks that they’re telling the truth, then it’s valid. Then at the end of the film, I leave it up to the audience to decide who did the right thing.

Spike Lee

Characters present themselves, and the story follows. Alvin Sargent [screenwriter of Julia (1977) and Ordinary People (1980)] said a great thing to me. We were talking about how all of our inspiration always starts with character. Not plot. Not story. And that we wish it were otherwise; and that, in fact, the American movie tradition is about narrative. It’s not about character. And he said, ‘When I die, on my tombstone, it’s going to say: ‘Finally, a plot.” I identified with that very strongly.

Lawrence Kasdan

The more successful the villain, the more successful the picture.

Alfred Hitchcock

If you look at my body of work, there’s always a dark side to my characters. They’ve always got a skeleton in the closet; they’ve always got a subtext.

Tony Scott

The stronger the participation of the female characters, the better the movie. They knew that in the old days, when women stars were equally as important as men.

Clint Eastwood

Screenplay Structure

A screenplays worth has to be measured less by its language than by its architecture and by how that dramatizes the theme. A screenplay, we directors soon enough learn, is not a piece of writing so much as it is a construction. We learn to feel for the skeleton under the skin of words.

Elia Kazan

People have forgotten how to tell a story. Stories don’t have a middle or an end any more. They usually have a beginning that never stops beginning.

Steven Spielberg

A good structure for a screenplay is that of the symphony, with its three or four movements and differing tempos. Or one can use the Noh play with its three-part structure: jo (introduction), ha (de­struction) and kyu (haste). If you devote yourself fully to Noh and gain something good from this, it will emerge naturally in your films.

Akira Kurosawa

A story should have a beginning, a middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order.

Jean-Luc Godard

The ultimate storyteller is Shakespeare, who was able to get the ‘groundlings’ to laugh at his bawdy humor and storylines but could still be studied by scholars to this day for the complexity of his language, meter, and symbolism. That’s the real guy.

Jon Favreau

A scene has to have a rhythm of its own, a structure of its own.

Michelangelo Antonioni

The more opinions you have, the less you see.

Wim Wenders

If you want a happy ending, that depends of course on where ou stop your story.

Orson Welles

Recommended Reading: The Script Quotes: A Masterclass in Screenwriting and Story

Show. Not Tell.

I started to grasp that storytellers turn to evocative images for a reason – these things are evocative because they have layers that film-goers can pick up and interpret in their own own way. And that was something I very much needed to learn and get on board with.

Christopher Nolan

A film script is more architecture than literature. This will get my friends who are writers mad, but its the truth: The director tells the movie story more than the man who writes the dialogue. The director is the final author, which is the reason so many writers now want to become directors. Its all one piece. Many of the best films ever made can be seen without dialogue and be perfectly understood. The director tells the essential story with pictures.

Elia Kazan

I find dialogue a bore, for the most part. I think that if you look back on any film you’ve seen, you don’t remember lines of dialogue, you remember pictures.

David Lean

The silent picture […] is a universal means of expression. Talking pictures necessarily have a limited field, they are held down to the particular tongues of particular races..(..) There is a constant demand for a medium that is universal in its utility.

Charlie Chaplin

What happens in the film business is something like this: when a scriptwriter or director starts out, producers and investors want to see everything written down. They judge the worth of a screenplay as they would a stage play and ignore the very great differences between the two. They want good dialogue, tight plotting, dramatic development. What I have found is that the more completely cinematic a film is, the less interesting the screenplay becomes. Because a screenplay isn’t meant to be read, it’s to be realized on film.

Stanley Kubrick

Film is a visual language, and then there’s the great art of the spoken word. And my job is to put the audience inside the movie. My job is to reduce the aesthetic distance between the audience and the experience, so they are lost for two hours and they only wake up when they walk out of the theater and the sunlight hits them in the face. I think all of us are either successes or failures based on how far inside the experience of the story we can put the audience.

Steven Spielberg

I’ve always been a follower of silent movies. I see film as a visual medium with a musical accompaniment, and dialogue is a raft that goes on with it.

George Lucas

Years ago Paddy Chayefsky said to me, “When a movie is failing or a play is failing” – he put it so brilliantly – “cut out the wisdom.” Marshall Brickman said it a different way, “The message of the film can’t be in the dialogue.” And this is the truth that is hard to live by because the temptation is to occasional take a moment and philosophize and put in your wisdom, put in your meaning. The truth is, unless the meaning doesn’t come across in the action, you have nothing going for you. It doesn’t work. 

Woody Allen

There’s action only if there’s danger.

Howard Hawks

So I like to try to go back and develop pure visual storytelling. Because to me, it’s one of the most exciting aspects of making movies and almost a lost art at this point.

Brian De Palma

To me, a story can be both concrete and abstract, or a concrete story can hold abstractions. And abstractions are things that really can’t be said so well with words.

David Lynch

Adapting a Novel

Some of us have great original ideas and some of us depend on adaptations.

Frank Darabont

Ideally, when you’re adapting a novel to a film script you read the book once, and then put it aside.

Alfred Hitchcock

The perfect novel from which to make a movie is, I think, not the novel of action but, on the contrary, the novel which is mainly concerned with the inner life of its characters. It will give the adaptor an absolute compass bearing, as it were, on what a character is thinking or feeling at any given moment of the story.

Stanley Kubrick

When I do a novel, I don’t really use the script, I use the book; when I did Apocalypse Now, I used Heart of Darkness. Novels usually have so much rich material.

Francis Ford Coppola

Adapting a novel is not really about being faithful to every word and every moment the author has created. It’s more about that same story being filtered through somebody else’s sensibility.

Peter Jackson

If you’re doing a biography, you try to stay as accurate as possible to reality. But you really don’t know what was going on in the person’s mind. You just know what was going on in the minds of people around him.

Clint Eastwood

Recommended Reading: Writing Quotes from Famous Authors

More Screenwriting Tips

Don’t be too clever for an audience. Make it obvious. Make the subtleties obvious also.

Billy Wilder

Now, what is it which makes a scene interesting? If you see a man coming through a doorway, it means nothing. If you see him coming through a window – that is at once interesting.

Billy Wilder

Emotion will always win over coolness and cleverness. It’s when a scene works emotionally and it’s cool and clever, then it’s great. That’s what you want.

Quentin Tarantino Quotes

I don’t like to spell things out for an audience. I don’t like to have the audience know where the next scene is gonna be or where the next shot is gonna be – that’s something called ‘show and tell.’ A typical example of that would be when one character says to another, ‘I’m gonna meet you around the corner in a half an hour.’ And the next cut is to – around the corner in half an hour! A lot of films are structured this way. The audiences are told where they’re going and when they’re going there, and then you go there! I like to have events just unfold without the audience’s expectation of what’s coming, or what it’s leading to.

William Freidkin

One of the cardinal sins for a scriptwriter, when he runs into some difficulty, is to say, “We can cover that by a line of dialogue.” Dialogue should simply be a sound among other sounds, just something that comes out of the mouths of people whose eyes tell the story in visual terms.

Alfred Hitchcock

I like naturalism to my dialogue and my comedy. I woud rather have a few jokes sail by that might be more subtle than have every single joke hit hard. I’d rather the comedy come out of character as opposed to feeling forced. Even if you’re giving some laughs up for it.

John Favreau

Stay with the money. The audience came to see the star. The star is the hero; the drama consists solely in the quest of the hero. You start with a scalpel and you end with a chainsaw.’ Don’t be too nice about cutting the film; throw away everything that’s not the story.

David Mamet

I think that 50 percent of the narrative is in the audio/visual storytelling. I happened to think the screenplay is the basis of it all, but definitely doesn’t tell the movie. It tells the story, but doesn’t tell the whole movie. A lot of the narrative is in the details.

Guillermo del Toro

A picture should end as it has to. I don’t think anything in life ends ‘right’.

Carol Reed

When I go to the cinema, I’m often frustrated because I can guess exactly what is going to happen about ten minutes into the screening. So, when I’m working on a subject, I’m always looking for the element of surprise.

Sergio Leone

Beginnings and endings are not interesting; audiences want the high point, which means you’ve got to get to it and get to it now – get the gun out fast, the clothes off quick.

Sydney Pollack

Every scene should be able to answer three questions: Who wants what from whom? What happens if they don’t get it? Why now?

David Mamet

I’m a plagiarist – I always look back at other movies, and I steal, but I steal well, and I reinvent.

Tony Scott

I steal from every movie ever made.

Quentin Tarantino

I realized that everything I do is fantasy, whether it is an adult movie or a kids movie.

Robert Rodriguez

Recommended Reading: What Makes a Good Movie Quotes

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