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10 Screenwriting Tips from Billy Wilder

By March 17, 2014Film

ViaConversations with Wilder by Cameron Crowe

Spoiler Alert: Mild spoiler for The Apartment (1960) in my commentary for rule #5.

Here are 10 screenwriting tips from the 7-time Academy Award winning writer-director:

  1. The audience is fickle.
  2. Grab ‘em by the throat and never let ‘em go.
  3. Develop a clean line of action for your leading character.
  4. Know where you’re going.
  5. The more subtle and elegant you are in hiding your plot points, the better you are as a writer.
  6. If you have a problem with the third act, the real problem is in the first act.
  7. A tip from Lubitsch: Let the audience add up two plus two. They’ll love you forever.
  8. In doing voice-overs, be careful not to describe what the audience already sees. Add to what they’re seeing.
  9. The event that occurs at the second act curtain triggers the end of the movie.
  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.


I often turn to this list during my own writing process. The rules that resonate the most with me:

2. If you want the audience on your side for the rest of the film, you better seize their attention and curiosity early on. This is especially important for a spec script, because your screenplay will get tossed away if the first 10 pages don’t impress.

4. I try to get my ending working up front. After I know my characters, I write my ending first. Then each scene will have a purpose: to help you achieve that goal.

5. Often the best plot points are the ones which you don’t even realize are part of the plot. Perhaps a line of dialogue or an object that seems inessential or non-threatening. A prime example is the compact mirror Bud finds in Wilder’s The Apartment. At first glance it seems to just be a throwaway talking point for Bud and Mr. Sheldrake, but later it proves to be a key turning point. That realization is my favorite moment in the entire film.

6. The conflicts, character traits and desires of your characters in the beginning directly affect where they end up.

7. Audiences are smart, give them a chance to be involved.

10. A building tempo is a trait of Wilder films, but not of every good film. The important takeaway is to be conscious of your pacing, and know when to end your story.

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