How to write a killer script

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Only 13.5% of scriptwriters are female. Jane Goldman, the writer of new film The Woman In Black tells how to tap into your inner creative

Journalist turned author turned scriptwriter; Jane Goldman has our dream career. We meet to discuss her latest project, Victorian horror The Woman In Black, and when we suggest she give us a scriptwriting masterclass, she looks embarrassed despite her success. But once she starts, she reveals just how much she knows…

“After starting as a journalist for newspapers and magazines, I began to write books and had success with a novel and four nonfiction books for young adults. A friend of mine, Neil Gaiman, had the film rights to his book Stardust bought by producer Matthew Vaughn, and suggested I adapt it for the screen. Even though I had no experience, I ran my thoughts past Matthew and luckily we were very much in tune. Stardust ended up being my first film in 2007. Since then, I’ve written Kick-Ass (2010), The Debt (2010), X Men: First Class (2011), and my latest film, The Woman In Black. Here’s how I did it:

The Outline

As a starting point, this is vital. If you’re writing a novel you can afford to see where the spirit takes you, but in terms of structure and engineering with a screenplay, you have to be quite pragmatic, otherwise it will run away from you. It can vary in length but should never be too long as it really is simply how the story pans out. Depending on how complex your story is, it could be three to 10 pages of running copy set out in sections. It’s the most labour-intensive part; always a work in progress. It takes two to three weeks for me to come up with a starting point outline and then there is always a bit of back and forth with the producers. I always like them to read the outline before I start writing the scenes so I know I’m on the right track. If you haven’t got producers to give you feedback, you have free range to get writing. However, it can be valuable to show your script to other people – friends whose opinions you trust, family – because if they raise similar points or issues, then you can take their thoughts on board.

Set Targets

I approach it like a job. I have an office – a little space down the end of my garden – and I work office hours. Even if people are writing in their spare time, discipline is massively important. I set myself a daily target; a realistic one as a way of knowing that if I carry on at that speed, I will be fine. I make sure I finish the first draft a couple of weeks before deadline so I have time to take a break from it and revisit it with fresh eyes before handing it over. Normally you get given eight to 12 weeks to finish a draft. Twelve is generous, but if you have been given the time, take it. I’ll do two drafts before showing it to anyone; one to finish it and one that’s an edit. But before that I would have reread it a dozen more times. If you have the luxury of being away for a week and coming back to it, that helps.

Allow your first draft to be cr*p and just focus on getting to the end. '''Then''' improve it

Don’t re-write as you go

This is absolutely fatal and such a massive waste of time. Part of that means not going back and re-reading what you’ve written. If you re-read you can find you’ve spent three days on the same 10 pages when you could have been racing through to the finish. You’re less likely to abandon a whole project if you’ve finished a whole draft, but you may well if you’ve spent three weeks polishing 30 pages over and over.

Keep notes

If something comes up – like, you decide you really want your lead character to have a cat or a stutter – rather than going back and adding it when the thought first pops into your head, add it to a separate document; basically a set of notes to yourself. When I finish my first draft, I have pages and pages of notes telling me about how to go back and edit, which is when I do my own second draft.

Don’t be afraid of a rubbish first draft

There is a great book on writing [Anne Lamott, Bird By Bird: Some Instructions On Writing And Life] with a chapter called, ‘Sh*tty First Drafts’. It’s good advice. Don’t torture yourself – allow your first draft to be cr*p and just focus on getting to the end. Then go back to improve it.

Just finish it

The biggest challenge, especially if you don’t have a deadline, is finishing something. I admire anyone who just sits down and completes. Not many people manage to maintain the motivation to get from having an idea to finishing a draft. Once you have a whole draft, editing is the fun part; it’s where it gets better and better.

How long?

Final Draft is the industry standard formatting software. One page equals approximately one minute. It’s useful because if you are writing page 30 and you still haven’t met the love interest or the villain then you know it’s too late because the film would be half an hour in. It’s incredibly useful but expensive if you are just starting out [approx £160].

Emotional movement

You should never have a scene which starts with your character in one place emotionally and ends in the same place. You wouldn’t have a scene that starts with a character being happy and ends with them still being happy. You’d want them to be happier, or worried. Emotional movement in every scene is vital.

Developing characters

Every rule is there to be broken, but here’s a useful guideline, especially for lead characters: they should have at least four key character traits. A funny habit isn’t a character trait; it’s about finding things which can be single adjective traits, like they are pessimistic or flirtatious; or they push people away because they’ve been hurt in the past. When you know those facets you can put them in any situation and know how they’ll react. I write these traits at the top of the script. Sometimes it changes as you’re writing – add those to your ‘notes to self’ document. You need to experiment. The traits must be central to the plot; not incidental. Supporting characters often get overlooked, but even if it’s just the person who is serving coffee, make sure they’ve got depth. It shouldn’t just be a waiter, it should be a depressed waiter or a slightly mad waiter. You want them to have a voice, so even if you can’t see who is saying each line, you should know who is speaking.

Stage direction

The more screenwriting I’ve done, the more economical I try to be in terms of dialogue. A lot of what I want the actors to say can be done with a look, so I put lots of direction in. For instance, ‘her eyes look away’ instead of her saying something to convey that feeling; but only if it’s important to what’s in the scene.


If there is a scene you could cut out without making any difference to the film, it should go. The same goes for dialogue. If it doesn’t tell anything about the character or move the plot forward, then no matter how witty or deep it is, cut it. Everything should be working hard; every line, every scene. It can feel brutal to cull your favourite bits. But if you don’t, someone else will and it’s easier to fight for the parts you really think should stay in if there is less to get rid of. Learning how to do this comes with time.

Taking criticism

I like being part of a team but sometimes it can be hard. When you’re on set and an actor says, ‘Shall I just say this in my own words? It will sound more natural…’ you just think, ‘I spent half an hour perfecting that word so there weren’t repetitions and it had a good rhythm!’ But you have to let that sort of thing go. Getting notes from the producers or director is essential because it forces you to improve on what you have done already. Absolutely anything that improves one’s work should be welcomed. I’ve had moments where I’ve been smacking my forehead saying, ‘These notes are absurd’, but luckily this is not the norm.

On set

I’ve had to re-write scenes the day they are being shot. It’s often to do with budget or location but often we won’t have time to shoot something so we’ll have to work out how to convey the information in a different scene. On Kick-Ass, I had to re-write a scene in half an hour because it involved a particular prop we didn’t have [so a scene where Katie was trying on party dresses became the scene where Dave applies fake tan to her]. It does vary, but I’ve been lucky to be involved right from beginning to end. As a writer you have a lot less to do in postproduction but it’s been nice that directors have valued me and asked for my opinion on things.

Getting an agent

I actually got an agent post Stardust; just before X-Men I got an American one as well. They are important to negotiate contracts. In terms of breaking into the industry, I don’t know whether it’s essential. If you have an excellent script and you’ve never worked in the industry before, you could either send it to an agent or a producer. There are a few books out there with addresses for agents and production companies [eg The Screenwriter’s handbook by Barry Turner]. If your script is good enough, a producer will pick it up whether you have an agent or not.

Earning potential

The spectrum is so broad. It does really depend on what the budget of the film is as your pay is linked to a percentage of it. It goes up incrementally depending on the budget of the film and it would also go up depending on your own experience.


Comic books [like X-Men or Kick-Ass] are often already movie shaped – they are visual and therefore easier to adapt. With a novel, there are a lot of changes. When you’re adapting, the important thing is to be true to the spirit of it. Ultimately only the author of the book is the true judge of that. Susan Hill [The Woman In Black author] has been so lovely. I was so terrified about her reading the script and so delighted and relieved when she said that she liked it.”

The Woman in Black is out 10 February

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