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Specs and The City: 5 Screenwriting Lessons from 'Gravity'

This past weekend, Gravity was the number one film at the box office, a title it’s now held for three straight weeks. When something like that happens in the era of the opening weekend boom-or-bust, it’s time to sit up and take notice. Director Alfonso Cuarón’s survival tale in space is tension filled from start to finish, spectacular to behold (see it in IMAX 3D if at all possible), and, like any Hollywood success story, chuck full of priceless lessons for screenwriters. Let’s take a look at…

5 Screenwriting Lessons from ‘Gravity’



1) Jump Right Into Your Story: There’s nothing extraneous in Gravity, and it’s that way from the very beginning. After being introduced to our characters, Cuarón drops us right into the deep end. The satellite debris bombards the shuttle, and we’re off the races. Think about your own script and how much time you spend getting to the meat of your story. Don’t let some article you read about a page count for your Inciting Incident hold you back from kicking your story off hard and fast.

2) Have a Kick-Ass Antagonist: We all know the saying that the hero of your story is only as good as their villain. In Gravity’s case, the villain is a hurtling mass of space debris that comes at the main character with unfeeling ferocity. When you do it right, you’ll find your audience as afraid of the antagonist as your main character is.

3) Have Both An Internal and External Journey: One of the things that can elevate a good script to a great one is the development of both an internal and external character arc for the main character. Sandra Bullock’s Ryan Stone has an obvious external arc; she’s trying to stay alive long enough to make it back to Earth. But she also has the internal arc of trying to overcome the death of her daughter. These two arcs overlap and, as she struggles to stay alive, Stone also struggles to move past that tragedy and find some joy from living.

I will NEVER go into space.

I will NEVER go into space.

4) Deliver on the promise of your premise: This one’s pretty straightforward, but it’s amazing how often scripts seem to misfire on it. Your audience will forgive a lot things, but feeling like they were lied to isn’t one of them. Gravity promises a space adventure with tense non-stop action, and that’s exactly what it delivers. If, after the first act, it has turned into something more along the lines of 2001, you would have (rightfully) felt betrayed.

5) Sometimes, Less Is More: This one’s true in two different ways. First, is that you should make sure that everything in your script HAS to be there, and then cut it if it doesn’t. Gravity clocks in right around 90 pages; lean and mean. There’s nothing on the page that’s not needed. That’s not saying there’s no room for 120-page scripts, but you better make sure every single one is vital to the story you’re trying to tell. And second, don’t be afraid to tell a small story. Sure, it’s set in space, and there are some amazing special effects, but at its heart, Gravity is a story about a woman trying to stay alive. With every Summer blockbuster centered around saving the world (and a recent article from David Lindelof explaining why studios think it has to be this way), it’s refreshing to see a film that’s willing to go the other direction.

And there you have it. Five tips from Gravity and Alfonso Cuarón to help improve your own writing (Technically, I suppose that's 6 tips, but I won't tell if you won't.) Now, go find an IMAX screen, check out this amazing film one more time, and marvel at how a strong story, expertly executed, can captivate the imagination.

Good luck, and until next time, keep writing.

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