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Love him or hate him, Quentin Tarantino has already left an indelible mark on the history of cinema. Obsessed with movies from an early age, Tarantino spent the majority of his early years devouring every movie he could get his hands on, until he eventually picked up a camera himself. Here are five screenwriting lessons from the auteur.
1. Steal From Everyone
“I steal from every movie ever made,” Tarantino has been famously quoted as saying. The dance sequence in Pulp Fiction, for example, is lifted right out of Godard’s Band of Outsiders. You could argue that no one in the storytelling business is as good at ripping something off and truly making it his own like Quentin Tarantino.
To be fair, Tarantino never really steals anything. He takes a story or genre he loves and then completely molds it into his own, often times improving on the original work. He takes the best of foreign film, spaghetti westerns and crime thrillers, and then injects his brand of dialogue and view of the world and somehow something completely original comes out.
In the same way the Coen Brothers took The Big Sleep and turned it into The Big Lebowski, Tarantino shakes, flips and turns existing stories until there is nothing left but Tarantino. And, ironically, no one can tell a story with as original a voice as Tarantino.
2. Write the Way People Talk
Nothing will ruin a movie faster than on-the-nose dialogue or characters saying exactly what they feel. That’s not life, so don’t put it in your script.
People often don’t say what’s really on their minds. They talk over each other, they talk in broken sentences and they often rant on what they had for lunch or their favorite TV show. Tarantino has almost raised this true-life element to an art form.
When coming up with dialogue for your characters, say the lines out loud. Your dialogue should have a certain cadence like a drum beat, and your characters should never explain the plot or exposition. Find other creative ways to infuse this information.
3. Take a Popular Genre and Flip it on its Head
“A story should have a beginning, a middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order,” Godard said. Tarantino has taken this philosophy to heart in many of his films.
For example, Reservoir Dogs is really just a simple crime story. The characters plan the heist, the heist falls apart, and eventually the cops show up to take everyone down. This type of story has been told in a million cop shows and movies. Yet, in Tarantino’s version, this story seems original. How does he do this?
For starters, he flips the standard three-act structure on its head by telling the story out of order and in retrospect. This seems almost cliché now, but when Reservoir came out, you had almost never seen this in American cinema. Add to this his talent for dialogue and creating unique characters, and a seemingly original world is created.
Just about every story has been told. Assuming that premise to be true, what becomes important is not the destination but the journey along the way.
4. Make it Personal
The best films take a given genre and infuse a personal element. Instead of attempting to write a feature film based on a past break up or death in the family, try your hand at your favorite genre and inject your personal story into the fold. This will add a hidden dimension to the story that will hopefully make your script stand out.
Almost every movie Tarantino has written or directed falls into a standard genre. The originality comes from personalizing the characters to make them real human beings. The epic Kill Bill movies are essentially about a woman scorned. Try pitching “a woman scorned” story at your next meeting and see how far that gets you.
What Tarantino does so well—and you should learn—is taking those personal elements and letting his imagination run wild within the chosen genre.
5. Inject Humor Within Your Script
The Ku Klux Klan scene out of Django Unchained is hands down one of the funniest moments in recent cinema history. Tarantino is essentially an action storyteller, yet he’s known for infusing humor at the right moments throughout the stories he spins.
Think about your personal life. Even the most intense moments can often be followed by humor if you’re leaving yourself open to notice. Life is never one thing and the stories you tell should reflect all these aspects if you want to attempt to capture even a glimmer of real life. MM
This post originally appeared on Film Slate Magazine’s website. Film Slate Magazine is a guide to the world of film and television. From craft articles to filmmaker interviews, first-person blogs to insightful opinion pieces, FSM tries to dig a little deeper to find the stories you don’t normally see from the filmmakers, producers, and actors who are making a difference. Follow Film Slate on Twitter and Facebook.
Photograph by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for Relativity Media.