10 writing tips for success from filmmaker Billy Wilder

My son has an interest in cinema and media arts, so I’m always discussing movies with him. I’ve found that filmmaking professionals offer a wonderful source of storytelling wisdom that belongs in a writer’s toolbox. From directors to screenwriters, the people who bring us stories on the screen have the same goals for their craft as we do. I follow Twitter accounts for several film professionals and find their insights to be helpful to my writing life.

For example, here’s a list of rules from Pixar that every writer of stories should read. This list has gone viral because it’s packed with great advice from a great company that produces great stories. I still watch Toy Story, and The Incredibles is one of my all-time favorite movies.

I recently came upon a list of screenwriting advice from Billy Wilder. Wilder was one of the most successful filmmakers in movie history, with his heydays in the 1940’s and 1950’s. The American Film Institute lists his movies among the top 100 American films of the 20th century.  You’ve probably seen at least one of them: Double Indemnity, The Lost Weekend, Sunset Boulevard, Stalag 17Witness for the Prosecution, and many more.

What can a novelist or short story writer learn from a filmmaker? Take a look at Wilder’s “Ten Rules for Good Filmmaking” and see what a writer can gain from Wilder’s experience.

1. The audience is fickle.

Fickle: “changing frequently, especially as regards one’s loyalties, interests, or affection.” Be true to yourself when you write. Don’t try to imitate the author who’s currently at the top of the bestseller list.

2. Grab ‘em by the throat and never let ‘em go.

Start your story with a scene that is a “grabber,” one that takes your reader captive and makes him want to know what’s next or why that happened, or who that is. Introduce interesting, provocative characters. And get that conflict going right away.

3. Develop a clean line of action for your leading character.

The protagonist of your story must be believable and headed towards a goal. Make her someone your reader wants to root for and see to the end.

4. Know where you’re going.

You don’t have to know every detail about your story before you begin to write it. But having a good idea of what you want the reader to think, feel, or do when he closes the book will give you direction and help you to stay focused as you write.

5. The more subtle and elegant you are in hiding your plot points, the better you are as a writer.

Write in a way that doesn’t make each scene seem like one more thing happening after another. Hide your points within dialogue or location. Mix things up and surprise your reader.

6. If you have a problem with the third act, the real problem is in the first act.

That is, see #2.

7: A tip from Lubitsch: Let the audience add up two plus two. They’ll love you forever.

Good writers assume they have smart readers. Don’t spell it out, add it up, or dumb it down for them. Get them involved in your story.

(Ernst Lubitsch was another well-respected director who inspired Wilder. In fact, Wilder had a sign on his office door: “How would Lubitsch do it?”)

8. In doing voice-overs, be careful not to describe what the audience already sees. Add to what they’re seeing.

Give your reader fresh information. Use every opportunity to advance and enhance your story.

9. The event that occurs at the second act curtain triggers the end of the movie.

This tip reminds us that writing is a craft. It takes planning, creativity and hard work to take a reader on a journey to a satisfying end.

10. The third act must build, build, build in tempo and action until the last event, and then — that’s it. Don’t hang around.

Wilder’s main point is that you should know when to end your story. Write it so that the reader will close the book reluctantly and want to share it with the world.

Those are my takes on Wilder’s screenwriting tips. What can you add to them? Which Wilder movies do you like? Let me know in your comment.


5 thoughts on “10 writing tips for success from filmmaker Billy Wilder

  1. My favorite on the list is 2. Grab ‘em by the throat and never let ‘em go.

    I like others on this list, but this one goes to the top for me. It’s true for movies and it’s true for books, even picture books.

    One of my favorite things to do is watch a movie with a pad of paper and a pencil. I start by drawing a plot clock to fill in as I watch. I like to take notes on how the movie opens, how long before I know who the MC is, what their normal life is like, and something about them that makes me care. Then I note how long I had to keep watching before the inciting incident occurred, etc…

    Of all the tools available to writers, watching movies is quite valuable.

    Thanks for this wonderful post.


    1. Hi, Leslie — Your movie plot clock and note taking sound like great ways to learn about storytelling. Will you be sharing this on your blog?

      Number 7 is my favorite. “Let the audience add up two plus two.” I remember when that finally clicked with me. Writing became even more of a pleasure. Thanks for coming by and also for sharing this post on Twitter.


  2. This is so cool, Darla, a true mini-course in applying script wisdom to fiction writing. Really, it’s excellent advice. So basic and logical and helpful, and I love your supporting explanations. Good job!


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