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Screenwriter Series: How Greta Gerwig Writes a Scene

Updated: May 9

As writers, we often talk about the elusive act of “developing our voice,” but what does that even mean? It’s one of those slightly intangible literary elements that is both highly necessary and incredibly difficult. A writer’s voice is the quality to which you can identify that writer just by reading their work. It’s the same quality a painter might have that allows you to look at the art and say “Yep, that’s a Picasso.”

As part of this new blog series, we’re going to look at a few scenes from different screenwriters to take a look at how they write, and what distinguishes them from other writers.

Our first screenwriter is a personal fave–Greta Gerwig. Gerwig began her career as an actor, notably part of the Mumblecore movement (which you can read more about here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mumblecore). She made a name for herself collaborating with husband Noah Baumback, as well as a host of other accomplished directors.

An important note about Gerwig’s career is that all this impressive work allowed her to develop her artistry so that when she did evolve into filmmaking, she already had a platform. This gave her a bit of freedom to write in ways that might not necessarily work for up and coming spec screenwriters without the same level of industry networking. That, paired with directing her own work, allowed her to hone her voice in a direction that is slightly prose-heavy, but still absolutely sings on the page.

Let’s take a look at some scenes!

Lady Bird – Screenplay | Coffee Class

Scene 1. Lady Bird begins right in the action, and we can already begin to see how Gerwig uses emotions and specific references to convey what she’s trying to portray.

This action line isn’t technically “shootable”, but it contains an emotional specificity that gives the reader the exact tone she’s going for. This will become a hallmark for Gerwig’s writing, as we can see later on in the same scene.

She could have left it at the “show” of them laughing and wiping away their tears, but that emotional addition of what it means allows the reader to pick up on the emotional event of the moment. This likely comes from Gerwig’s acting expertise. When she writes, she’s not only setting up the story, but providing specific moments for the characters to find meaningful connection.

Just above, we have a great example of exposition in action. Instead of Lady Bird or Marion talking about their college trip, the exposition is framed in mother and daughter finishing an audiobook of The Grapes of Wrath. This is a clever way to reveal they are on a college trip (and showcase their relationship) without it feeling heavy handed.

Another hallmark of Gerwig’s writing is how she lays out dialog. It’s often quick, with characters cutting into and over one another, much like a real high-conflict conversation.

Just reading this dialog, you can feel the opportunities for actors to play with it, add inflections, and personal quirks. The dual dialog amps up the conflict of the conversation as they talk over one another, showcasing that neither one is really listening to the other, when all they want is to be heard.

There is also a lot of story and character built into the dialog, which allows us to feel like the characters are real, but also gives us so much context without the need for exposition.

In this small exchange, we get important character information without it feeling like it’s being spoon-fed to us. Knowing Lady Bird can’t pass her driver’s test is critical character information without someone saying “you’re irresponsible”, packaged with dialog that conveys the Lady Bird name conversation has already happened, and provides us with great conflict that allows us to feel like we already know these characters, even though we’re still in early pages.

Little Women – Screenplay

Little Women is an interesting adaptation, because it presents the story in two different timelines–the present, and the past. Gerwig has formatted “past” scenes in red text, which makes for a unique reading experience.

The important thing about these flashback sequences is that they flow seamlessly, and the way Gerwig has done this is by focusing them in action. The first flashback on page 11 moves from the present at a dance hall, to the flurry of the March girls getting ready for a dance in the past.

The flashback feels like it pushes the story forward, as opposed to tampering down the tension, and this is what makes it work. Often, flashbacks can strip all the tension and emotional buildup, so finding a way for these scenes to maintain momentum was part of what makes this so successful.

On page 20, we have a “present” scene early, which sets up some elements that will hit harder later on. In this case, it’s an argument between Amy and Laurie, who readers will know end up together. Most importantly, it sets up Laurie’s ring, and his unrequited love for Jo. This will come into play later on, when Laurie proposes to Jo and she declines. Having this set-up/pay-off structure is captivating, and makes the later scenes pack that much more punch when they pay off.

On page 97, we get the flashback of Laurie proposing to Jo, which is so heartbreaking, especially because we have already seen how deeply it affects and changes him.

Everything culminates in Gerwig’s beautiful denouement, which suggests the book’s ending was a recommendation from the original publisher, and the Jo we know wouldn’t have hurriedly married at the end. It’s subtle, but clever, and gives the reader the emotion needed to understand the point of the scenes.

What Can We Learn?

The main takeaway from Greta Gerwig’s writing style is to analyze every scene from an actor’s point-of-view and determine opportunities for moments of emotional connection. You don’t need to be an actor to do this, by the way–if you don’t have a background in theater, consider reaching out and making friends with actors and asking them to read your scenes and provide their feedback. As we can see from Gerwig’s films, giving the actors something to chew on results in characters who feel more real, and elevates the story as a whole.

Every writer will develop their own voice and writing preferences, and that’s what makes screenwriting such an interesting artform. Keep reading screenplays from your favorite writers, and experiment with your own writing until you find what feels right, and is compelling for the reader, and the future audience.

Hungry for more screenwriting education? Young Screenwriters has a range of courses for every writer on each step of their journey! Get started with our FREE Writing the Short and Writing the Scene courses to learn the basics.

When you’re ready to take the next step, sign up for Writing the Feature and learn NYU Professor John Warren’s complete writing process, including generating powerful film ideas, forming dynamic character arcs, creating beat sheets and outlines, and finishing that screenplay with proper formatting and a plan for what’s next. Writing the Feature is the perfect way to work on that screenplay from start to finish, and our Discord community will lift you up every step of the way!

If you need deeper story consultation and feedback, book a Story Consultation with Alexie and Adam to work through your story questions and ensure your screenplay is the best it can be!

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