Screenwriting advice from Michael Arndt

January 28th, 2011 by

From Carpetbagger (NYT):

Michael Arndt won an original screenplay Oscar in 2007 for “Little Miss Sunshine” and now finds himself nominated again, for best adapted screenplay for “Toy Story 3.” But, as he said on Tuesday morning, writing remains a mysterious, difficult process. One of the few things that works for him: He starts by writing the end of the story and figuring out how he wants the audience to feel.

He starts by writing the end of the story. Knowing the end of your story is perhaps the most important key to prep-writing and breaking a story.

Yes, it’s all well and good to have this romanticized image of a writer, plunking down in front of a typewriter, inserting a blank piece of paper, typing FADE IN and off they go to God knows where, but they just know they’ll find their way (this is precisely how the last episode of “Californication” ended, by the way). That may work for you…

But if you’re serious about being a professional screenwriter or TV writer, that approach simply doesn’t fly. I’ve never met a writer with any sort of career in Hollywood who doesn’t break their story in prep.

And the most symbolic proof of that instinct is what Arndt suggests: Know the ending of your story first.

5 thoughts on “Screenwriting advice from Michael Arndt

  1. Kekoa says:

    I attended Michael Arndt's seminar Endings: The Good, The Bad and the Insanely Great! in 2009. It was an eye-opener. I used his advice to rework the paths to the payoff in my novel. He encourages the writer to rethink the "theme" of your work as "stakes": namely, the internal, external and philosophical stakes. Then, he illustrated his technique by unpacking The Graduate and Star Wars.

    Arndt's the real deal. Hope he gets another statue this year.

  2. Scott says:

    Great to hear, Kekoa. Every interview I've ever read or seen with Arndt suggests he's one of the good guys. Plus his talent as a writer is obvious. Good for you to have had the opportunity to do that seminar. If I may ask, where did that take place and in what context?

  3. Kekoa says:

    Hi, Scott. Michael Arndt gave his presentation at the 2009 Hawai'i Writers Conference (formerly known as the Maui Writers Conference) in Waikiki. The majority of seminar presenters were agents, editors and authors from the publishing industry, but three screenwriters (Arndt, Bobby Moresco, Diane Lake) were there as well.

    As I recall, Arndt stated that he spent ten years slogging away as a script reader before taking a year off to grind out several scripts. He said that year was to be his line in the sand. If nothing bore fruit, he would walk away from the industry. And then Little Miss Sunshine got traction.

    He referenced Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers and Lewis Hyde's The Gift as inspirations. Arndt stated that if a writer could resolve the story's arcs (internal, external, philosophical) immediately after the Moment of Despair at the climax, he or she would deliver the Insanely Great Ending and put the audience in a euphoric state. The faster it could happen, the better. By his reckoning, George Lucas hit those three marks at the climax of Star Wars within a space of 22 seconds.

    Arndt's insight into the mechanics of storytelling was, for me, exceptionally illuminating.

    Love your blog, BTW!

  4. Dave says:

    It shouldn't be that difficult a process. If you look at the structure of both Little Miss Sunshine and Toy Story 3, they're almost the same. Ok, the gap filling exercise can be daunting.

  5. Scott says:

    @Kekoa: I've been teaching something quite similar for nearly a decade. The screenplay universe consists of two parts: External World (Plotline) and Internal World (Themeline). And the theme of the story is its meaning. Nice to see those ideas confirmed by an Academy Award winning screenwriter.

    @Dave: Reminds me of that anecdote where – I believe – Irving Thalberg was being rather dismissive of a bunch of writers under hire at MGM: "What you do isn't so hard. After all, it's just choosing words." To which one of the writers responded, "Yes, but which words?"

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