Using tips from the master himself, here is a short guide on how to approach screenwriting like Quentin Tarantino.
Tarantino is famous for having an encyclopedic knowledge of cinema, so it is no surprise that he often finds his next big ideas while researching other filmmakers and films.
“I was writing a film criticism book on Sergio Corbucci, the director who did the original Django. So, I was kind of getting immersed in his world. Towards the end of the Inglourious Basterds press tour I was in Japan. Spaghetti Westerns are really popular there, so I picked up a bunch of soundtracks and spent my day off listening to all these scores. And all of a sudden the opening scene just came to me.”
If you have an itch to write your own movie, but can’t decide what you want to write about; do research; watch movies; read books; listen to music; write critiques; start fantasizing.
“To me, movies and music go hand in hand. When I’m writing a script, one of the first things I do is find the music I’m going to play for the opening sequence.”
I get the sense that he uses music as a source of inspiration and motivation throughout the writing process — which for anyone who has ever tried writing a screenplay — can be a long and daunting process.
“I’ll write for a while and then I’ll find an appropriate song and in a weird way the music will keep me in the mood. I find music to define the mood of the movie, the rhythm the movie is going to play in.”
Armed with a great idea and a great playlist, Tarantino begins the writing process. He is not a big believer in outlining the plot first. In fact, he hates the way screenwriting is generally taught and executed.
For anyone who has ever read any of the classic books on screenwriting, the generally accepted theory is to let the screenplay work as a skeleton that the director can hang the meat on. If you can’t see it on the screen, or if it isn’t necessary to the story, it doesn’t have a place in the screenplay.
Tarantino despises this approach. If you have ever read one of his screenplays, he often includes information that will never be seen or mentioned in the movie: histories, back stories, notes about references being made, comparisons to old movies & scenes, thoughts in the minds of the characters, etc.
“You know, my problem with most screenwriting is it is a blueprint. It’s like they’re afraid to write the damn thing. And I’m a writer. That’s what I do. I want it to be written. I want it to work on the page first and foremost. So when I’m writing the script, I’m not thinking about the viewer watching the movie. I’m thinking about the reader reading the script.”
Avoiding using outlining as a way to guide his story, he instead lets his characters do the work. I like to believe this is why he often starts his movies with long conversations. It’s almost as if it is his method of getting to know his characters before the story gets moving.
“The way I write is really like putting one foot in front of the other. I really let the characters do most of the work, they start talking and they just lead the way.”
Once they start talking, the story begins developing, and he simply follows the actions that he believes his characters would take, regardless of what it means to the plot.
“To me, truth is the big thing. Constantly you’re writing something and you get to a place where your characters could go this way or that and I just can’t lie. The characters have gotta be true to themselves.”
His approach to writing screenplays is unique in that he begins by ignoring the temptations to think about the actual production of the movie and instead focuses on writing the best page he can come up with, one page at a time.
“When I’m writing, it’s about the page. It’s not about the movie. It’s not about cinema. It’s about the literature of me putting my pen to paper and writing a good page and making it work completely as a document unto itself. That’s my first artistic contribution. If I do my job right, by the end of the script, I should be having the thought, ‘You know, if I were to just publish this now and not make it . . . I’m done.”
Also, to write like Tarantino, try to ignore subtext. Stay in the moment. Remember, one page at a time.
“I try not to get analytical in the writing process. I try to just kind of keep the flow from my brain to my hand as far as the pen is concerned and go with the moment and go with my guts.”
Like Kubrick, Tarantino is a believer in the theory that most great movies are essentially only a handful of scenes. It is such a beautiful thought when facing the challenge of writing over 100 pages of material. Instead, just write 4 to 6 great scenes!
“My writing’s like a journey. I’ll know some of the stops ahead of time, and I’ll make some of those stops and some of them I won’t. Some will be a moot point by the time I get there. You know every script will have four to six basic scenes that you’re going to do. It’s all the scenes where your characters really come from.”
Finally, remember, if you are going to embark on the journey of writing — write for yourself. Write something that first and foremost, you love. If you try to write for others it won’t feel authentic and it won’t be rewarding.
“Don’t write what you think people want to read. Find your voice and write about what’s in your heart.”
You’ll find an infinite amount of information about why you shouldn’t write. There are all kinds of soul crushing stats out there for you to find if that is what you are looking for. However, what those stats don’t take into account is that almost all of those screenplays that never become movies are bad screenplays. Ignore the doubters and write something good.
“There are a lot of bad screenplays so if you write a good screenplay people are going to respond to it.”