Faith versus Fear: The Wisdom of Screenwriter Shane Black

As freelance writers, it is important for us to have mentors, and people who inspire us. Most freelancers have a list of blogs that they have subscribed to because they enjoy the words of wisdom from certain writerly folk (mine include Carol Tice, Lucy Hay and Jeff Bullas) and keep coming back for more.

From a personal standpoint, my biggest writing mentor is the screenwriter (and now film director) Shane Black. Since I was a kid, I have been a huge fan of Shane Black’s films, including Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout and more recently, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Back in 1996, Black was the highest paid screenwriter in Hollywood, after selling the spec script for The Long Kiss Goodnight for $4 million. But that wasn’t why he impressed me so much. The reason for that was what happened next…

Crippled by his huge success and feeling like a fraud due to the industry looking down their nose at Black, and more specifically, the action genre that he had redefined with his works, Black disappeared from movies for almost a decade, before coming back with Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Black contributed his comeback to allowing himself to accept that what had made him a huge success was OK, and that he could use the style he had developed to tell stories in new genres.

Writers can learn a lot from Shane Black’s successes, failures, fears and experiences. I know that I have from reading countless articles and listening to various podcasts that are scattered around the web. In almost every avenue of writing, Black’s words of wisdom apply, and I have collated some of the best pieces of Black magic for you below. Enjoy and learn…

We’re All in This Together

“It’s tough typing away in your attic at night, because there’s this gnawing sense that… Maybe I’m just doing this. Maybe this is just for Mum. Maybe she’ll read it and nobody else will. And so, here you are, you’ve got this writers group around you, swapping pages, swapping input, supporting each other. Find a writers group. Or form a writers group. It seems like a good idea, doesn’t it?”

“You never know, you might help each other in the long run, or you might not. But there’s no downside to having a group of likeminded people, so even if you’re failing together, even if the boats leaking and you’re all in the boat… I’d rather have people next me while I’m sinking and drowning in a boat. You look at them and say “Oh my god, this is horrible” “I know we’re drowning” “Me too”… It’s better.”

A community spirit, or a willingness to collaborate, is essential for writers of any kind. Otherwise it is quite easy to become cut off from the world, and that leads to trouble when it comes time to speak to editors, agents, or even just to pitch an article to a blog or magazine. Being around other writers and sharing experiences has been huge for all the writers I know, and was clearly a huge help in Shane Black’s early career.

Faith versus Fear

“I can’t have faith and fear in the room together. There’s a theory in Hollywood: Faith versus Fear. It is said that studio executives will take faith over fear every time. You walk into a studio to pitch a script or idea and your hair is wild, you’ve got a needle hanging out of your arm, you come in shaking… But the guy who comes in after you is afraid. And they can sense the fear. They’re going to choose the passionate guy. “But he was crazy!” But he had passion, he was faithful. He had faith in his material. The other guy was afraid, he was tentative. Don’t feel like you’re the only one who has the fear, because I have it. I have the fear.”

Pitching is always terrifying, but what I love about this quote is that Shane Black perfectly details how important it is to have faith in your material, or don’t put it out there at all, because people will sense that it isn’t right. That could be anything from a screenplay to a blog post. People are going to be able to tell if you’re ready, and you need to be too. It’s good to know that somebody who has achieved massive success still gets the fear. It shows that nobody is immune to feeling like a fraud or being afraid.

Get Your Attitude Right

“Once I started selling scripts for a great deal of money—action scripts, no less, which people tend to pooh-pooh anyway—then I started to get some backlash. Which I didn’t mind. [There were] a lot of comments, and just a feeling that no one was quite taking it seriously. People would say, “Well yeah, if I wrote action films, if I wrote the trash that you write, I could make millions too. But I want to write my real movie about these Guatemalan immigrants, and how they hid under a truck for 300 miles.” And that’s fine. I’d love to make that film too, but to dismiss everything I did just because its action seems wrong.”

How many times have you heard somebody slag off a film, novel or any piece of writing without thinking about how hard it is to write anything? We’ve all been guilty of trashing what’s popular (Twilight and Transformers used to be my targets of choice), but it doesn’t do anybody any good. Shane Black managed to overcome his sense of feeling guilty for his success in the action genre, but how many writers have given up due to the constant trashing of their work?

Fight for Your Material

“You can win as long as you chose your battles. You can win more arguments then you might think as a writer, even though you legally have no recourse, and your script can get muddied and altered in any way possible. You can use reason, logic, and passion to argue persuasively for a case in your favour. So what I’ve learned is to just basically not buckle—not be belligerent, not be angry, not throw fits, but just not buckle. Though there are times where you have to stand up and yell. If I’ve got to throw a chair, I’ll throw a chair. There was a meekness about me when I started, and I think the meekness has sort of evaporated. I hope that it’s left behind a more passionate person, not a meaner person. So I guess that’s what I’ve learned.”

There are so many stories out there about writers being screwed over in Hollywood with screenplays, or with editors and publishers in the case of novels, but if you’re a writer who is passionate about their material, you have to be prepared to collaborate. You don’t want to be uncompromising to the point where nobody wants to go within a mile of you, but if you let people walk all over you, the power to moan later on is lost. The above quote is superb advice for writers: Fight, but don’t be too precious.

Playing with Audiences Expectations

“Say you have a character who walks into a haunted house. They realise there’s a ghost there and they decide to investigate further. But if I was writing the movie, I would have that character run out of the house the moment he realises it’s haunted – and not stop running for 10 miles. It’s not what the audience is expecting – but it’s exactly what would happen in real life. In Kiss Kiss Bang Bang I had a character playing Russian roulette. He put a single bullet in a gun and spun the chamber. The tension built – and then he blew his own brains out. Which isn’t what you usually expect to happen when you see a Russian roulette scene. You have to keep surprising your audience.”

This is fantastic advice for any writer, whether they are a screenwriter, blogger or author. Whatever kind of writer you are, you want to create something that challenges your audience by approaching tried and tested formulas and turning them on their heads. There is so much advice out there telling you to do this and do that, but when all is said and done, it all comes down to writing something that keeps people turning the page or scrolling down the screen, something that Shane Black has been doing for years. Long may it continue.

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