What do action flicks KICK-ASS, KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE, and X-MEN: FIRST CLASS all have in common? Screenwriter Jane Goldman.
Sought after for her supreme skills of adapting novels and comics to the screen, Goldman is one of Hollywood’s most bankable and successful screenwriters today with a string of blockbuster movies on her resume. Below are some words of wisdom from the writer herself to help you in your screenwriting career.
Writing In Any Medium Will Help You As A Screenwriter
It may surprise you to learn that Goldman started her writing career outside of Hollywood in the non-fiction world as a journalist. She wrote for national newspapers and magazines, then authored several non-fiction books and a novel before she wrote her first screenplay.
When asked about her non-fiction writing background, Goldman credits writing in these two different mediums as building a solid foundation for her to stand on as a screenwriter:
“I think both aspects did – particularly non-fiction writing just in terms of researching, structuring, and the mechanics of it all. That in many ways felt like a really helpful foundation for me. The art and the imagination of all of it is something that people have a passion for and that part is hard to teach, whereas the discipline and the technicalities of structure come best with practice.”
Defy Expectations… But Stick To Structure
Speaking of structure, Goldman recommends sticking to tradition:
“I think confounding expectations within storytelling is vitally important, but when it comes to structural framework, I don’t see any great need to buck convention – most of the traditional ‘rules’ are there because they work well. It’s like building a house. You could build a house out of Pop-Tarts just to be different, but surely it’s more appealing to build it out of bricks and then buck convention in the design itself, knowing that it’ll hold strong.
To do away with things like inciting incidents and protagonist arcs would seem a little bloody-minded and self-defeating to me. Some rules you can play with though, I think. In fact, Matthew recently noted that the screenplays we’ve worked on together could sort of be viewed as having four acts, rather than three.”
Write What You Want To Watch
This is advice you’ve probably heard before, to write scripts of the films and TV shows that you would watch. The difference with Goldman offering this wisdom is that she’s living, breathing proof of building a career and finding your strengths as a writer in writing what makes your heart sing.
In the final sword fight in STARDUST, the dead villain battles with the protagonist. According to Goldman,
“A friend of mine remarked that it was typical of me to be working on a fairytale and find a way to slip a zombie in! I’d put zombies in everything if I had my way.”
When it came to landing the job for writing THE LIMEHOUSE GOLEM, based on a novel by Peter Ackroyd, Goldman explains how she was brought on to the project:
“I read the book long before I was screenwriting. I think it was the only time that I can remember when I read a book and thought, ‘Gosh, I hope somebody makes a movie of this!’ … Weirdly, years later I was on a film jury together with the producer whom I had read had the rights and I asked him whatever happened to the adaptation and said that I loved the book. That is how this came about, because he said the rights were free again and asked, ‘Do you want to do it?’”
Writing what you’re passionate about is also a practical way to build a career. Having a resume of work in the genre you want to work in begets more work in that same genre. Goldman spoke to Women and Hollywood in 2010 about working on scripts that wouldn’t normally be given to women screenwriters. She had this to say:
“I wouldn’t want to write something I wouldn’t want to watch. But I am aware that I had a great advantage in having started off in things that were more genre but hadn’t been pigeonholed. Every day I rejoice when my agent calls me up and says you’ve been offered this action movie or this horror movie you would very much expect a male writer to be offered. And it absolutely makes me jubilant to not be trapped in that. …There’s things female writers I know get offered that are usually not the things the male writers tend to get offered. And I have been very fortunate in that I do appear to get offered things that would more usually be offered to a male writer. I suppose it’s like with actors. As a writer, you can get typecast as well.”
The Art of Adaptation is Like Being a Translator
Goldman’s resume is chock full of successful adaptations. REBECCA, MISS PEREGRINE’S HOME FOR PECULIAR CHILDREN, and Disney’s upcoming live-action THE LITTLE MERMAID are just a few she’s worked on.
Her ability to bring a pre-existing world to the screen is a highly sought-after skill. When sharing about her adaptation of THE LIMEHOUSE GOLEM, she explains what she focuses on in the process:
“I always spend some time breaking down the source material and making notes on things that I want to replicate exactly from the source material. Then I think about the other things that I will need to add in to translate the feeling you get as a reader.
I often compare adaptations to being a translator. It’s not just about making a literal translation of what somebody has said, it’s also about trying to understand and convey the spirit of what they said. Sometimes the way to do that is to vary it in your language, which in this case is the language of film.”
Develop Characters Until You Can Describe Them As Well As You Can Describe Your Best Friend
When Goldman was asked about the stellar character development she crafted for X-MEN: FIRST CLASS, she shared the amount of time and attention she puts into creating three-dimensional characters as the foundation of her screenplays:
“My initial approach is quite clinical and technical, in trying to make sure that a character has enough traits, complexities and flaws that they feel three-dimensional. If I were trying to describe my best friend to you, I’d probably be able to reel off five or six adjectives or phrases without having to think too hard, so my aim would always be to strive for a similar level of detail in a fictional character, even if some of that detail never makes it onto the page. Ideally, you want to know your character so well that you know exactly what they’d do in any given situation.”
She expanded even further on what she does to make memorable characters:
“I’d say the key to creating a memorable character is to create someone with familiar traits, but in an uncommon combination, or someone who is a recognizable archetype with a surprising twist.”
For an example of how she’s done this, Goldman offered insight into her process of creating an ultra-feminine antagonist when being interviewed about the action-packed KINGSMAN: THE GOLDEN CIRCLE. Watch this clip, starting at the 5:20 mark:
Utilize Objective Feedback To Make Every Word Count
Circling back to the first lesson covered here in how Goldman discovered that her experience as a writer in other mediums served her as a screenwriter, one of the most valuable lessons she learned from penning her first novel has been applied to her screenwriting:
“I try to be really strict with the rule that every scene, every beat, every word of dialogue should be doing a job, or else it shouldn’t be there.
I feel like I made most of my mistakes, and hopefully learned from them, when I wrote my novel. I’m not sure that I focused on a specific wrong thing, but I deeply regret that what was published was essentially a first draft and it could have been a million times better if I’d gone through it with a critical eye, been brutal about editing, taken it apart, put it back together again and polished it until I was positive that every scene, every beat, every word was doing a vital job. I was just so happy when my editor didn’t suggest any changes that I cheerfully let it go to print as it was. I really regret that.”
It’s refreshing to hear from an experienced, successful screenwriter that she dreaded, like many writers, the notes offered in development, but they’ve become a vital part of her writing process. Receiving objective feedback in rewriting and polishing a script is clearly important to Goldman now – with the credits to prove it’s helped elevate her writing and her career!
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Joanna Ke is an award-winning, half Taiwanese actor, writer, producer, and trained sword fighter. Her foundation as a creative producer and screenwriter is built on nearly a decade of experience as a professional script reader in development and acquisitions. She studied screenwriting with the late, great Syd Field, and as an actor, has had the honor of working with director Cameron Crowe. Her films have won BEST ACTION and BEST FANTASY awards, and her acting has won BEST PERFORMANCE and BEST VILLAIN accolades.
Wielding her broadsword is a favorite, both on and off camera.