In the past few years, writer, director, and producer Ava DuVernay has created powerful works of art including Selma, When They See Us, A Wrinkle in Time, 13th, and Queen Sugar. She’s a champion for women and people of color, especially the Black community.
Here are four tips and techniques screenwriters and filmmakers can learn from Ava DuVernay to tell their own powerful stories on screen.
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How to become a working screenwriter
DuVernay didn’t go to film school. “I didn’t have that NYU, Spike Lee experience. I only had what was inside of me and I had to tell myself that was enough,” she shared with Hello Sunshine. Her instincts were correct.
In 2010, she wrote, produced, and directed her first narrative feature I Will Follow, which was met with critical acclaim. Two years later, she made history as the first Black woman to win the Best Director Prize at Sundance for her second feature film Middle of Nowhere. In 2014, DuVernay became the first Black woman to be nominated for a Golden Globe Award for Best Director for her work on Selma — a feature film about Martin Luther King Jr.’s campaign to secure equal voting rights.
Her list of screenwriting accomplishments goes on. DuVernay urges writers to simply write. That’s the surest path toward a professional screenwriting career.
Persistence will lead to growth
“Just know that everyone’s writing is terrible. Until it’s not,” tweeted DuVernay when asked for writing advice. “No one’s stuff is right immediately. You gotta work it. Refine it. Shape it. Spend time with it. It’s a relationship. Between you and what comes from you. Not easy. Gonna be terrible before it’s not. And that’s okay.”
For many writers, the rewrite can be the most intimidating part of the process. DuVernay urges writers to push through that resistance and do the work because that’s when exciting things happen.
In an interview with Scott Myers for Go Into The Story, DuVernay credited reading screenplays for helping her learn how to write. “A big part of writing is reading. I read a lot of screenwriting books and read a lot of screenplays.”
DuVernay recalled that reading a variety of scripts helped her learn how to communicate her vision. “It’s always fun to read when the traditional way is broken or when something is put in a way that’s not so screenplay-formal.”
Start with your characters
“For me, it’s definitely about who the film is about. Not just the central characters, but the supporting characters. Just really trying to flesh out people, even if they’re only in the picture for a couple of minutes,” she observed. Character development is the heart of any story because they are who the reader or viewer will connect with during the journey.
DuVernay took that practice one step further with Middle of Nowhere by writing “mini-scripts” from the perspectives of different characters. “A lot of screenwriters will outline who their people are. I just write it in screenplay format. It helps!” she insisted.
Persevere with confidence in who you are
“You have to go in and in the back of your mind the subtext is ‘I am the one,’” she said in a conversation with Reese Witherspoon. “Don’t be afraid to do the small jobs. Nothing is beneath you.”
Filmmaking is an expensive and complex business, which makes it very competitive. Anyone who pursues a career as a writer (or director or actor, etc) should begin with the confidence that they are capable of doing great work — as well as the humility to know that great work takes time.
It takes experience to grow and to master a craft. Commit to the long game, show up ready to work and learn, and celebrate each milestone along the way.
How to write compelling screenplays: Advice from Ava DuVernay
Writing a story for the screen takes craft, confidence, and a whole lot of hard work. Read as many screenplays as you can, build a script around strong characters (even minor ones), and persevere through the obstacles and day-to-day grind to get where you want to go.
Hollywood is looking for new and exciting stories. Join writers and directors like Ava DuVernay and tell yours. Oh, and following DuVernay on Twitter is highly recommended for inspiration — and just to see the Queen get it done.
Yesterday, Deepa Mehta’s FUNNY BOY was announced by Canada as the country’s official selection for @TheAcademy Awards. Today, we share the first trailer for this moving film, which @ARRAYNow will release on @netflix in December. Watch, smile and share. Let’s spread some love. pic.twitter.com/3Ck9uZjIkm
— Ava DuVernay (@ava) October 30, 2020
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Shannon Corbeil is a writer, actor, and filmmaker in Los Angeles with recent appearances on SEAL Team and The Rookie. An Air Force veteran, her articles have been published in Business Insider, We Are The Mighty, and Military.com. She has written and produced hundreds of digital videos with millions of views. You can read more about her on her website or come play on Instagram and Twitter!