Billy Wilder’s 10 crucial tips on ‘how to write a good screenplay’
“Don’t be too clever for an audience. Make it obvious. Make the subtleties obvious also.”—Billy Wilder
Austrian-born American filmmaker Billy Wilder is widely regarded as the most brilliant and versatile filmmaker of the Hollywood Golden Age of cinema.
His extremely successful career lasted for no less than five decades. Wilder received 21 nominations at the Academy Awards; thirteen for his screenwriting, and eight for his direction. He won the Academy Award for Best Director for 1945 film The Lost Weekend, and 15 years later, for The Apartment. Thanks to the success of the latter, Wilder became the first person to win Academy Awards as producer, director, and screenwriter for the same film. He also received seven nominations at the Golden Globe Awards, winning Best Director for The Lost Weekend and Sunset Boulevard (1950).
Wilder’s directorial choices were another way for him to enforce his belief in the power of good writing. According to him, “shots that called attention to themselves would distract the audience from the story” and he stayed away from the exuberant techniques of filmmakers like Hitchcock or Orson Welles. The subject matter that Billy Wilder chose to make films about often pushed the boundaries of what a film can be, without even experimenting with the form.
When Wilder was 90, a young Cameron Crowe approached him in 1996, asking for a small part in Jerry Maguire. Although Wilder declined, they formed a lasting friendship and over the next few years, they discussed their insights and views on the craft of filmmaking. In 1999, Crowe published a book that chronicled all these invaluable conversations, titled “Conversations with Wilder”. Perhaps, the most famous excerpt from the book is a list of ten essential screenwriting tips from the celebrated director.
In a 1999 NPR interview, Cameron Crowe spoke of the list, “I know a lot of people that have already Xeroxed that list and put it by their typewriter,” he said. “And you know, there’s no better film school really than listening to what Billy Wilder says.”
See the full list, below.
Billy Wilder’s ten screenwriting tips:
The audience is fickle.
Grab ’em by the throat and never let ’em go.
Develop a clean line of action for your leading character.
Know where you’re going.
The more subtle and elegant you are in hiding your plot points, the better you are as a writer.
If you have a problem with the third act, the real problem is in the first act.
A tip from Lubitsch: Let the audience add up two plus two. They’ll love you forever.
In doing voice-overs, be careful not to describe what the audience already sees. Add to what they’re seeing.
The event that occurs at the second act curtain triggers the end of the movie.
The third act must build, build, build in tempo and action until the last event, and then—that’s it. Don’t hang around.