Christopher Nolan is behind some of the most successful movies ever made. He is undoubtedly one of the most respected filmmakers in the world and has been for over two decades. He’s directed dozens of movies and has written just as many.
Some of his most successful movies include: The Dark Knight (2008), Batman Begins (2005), Interstellar (2014), Memento (2000), and Tenet (2020). In addition to directing these masterpieces, he can also be credited with the writing of each.
So, while there’s no doubt that Christopher Nolan is a genius, let’s take a look at his writing process and what we can learn from him to apply into our own writing.
Who is Christopher Nolan?
A legend, simply said. Christopher Nolan is a film director, screenwriter and producer in Hollywood. Before moving to the United States to make a career as a filmmaker, Nolan lived in London, where he’s from. He was born in 1970 and his parents were both in the film industry.
Nolan went to the New York University Tisch School to learn filmmaking.
Nolan’s first two movies were Following (1998) and Memento (2000).
What makes a “Nolan” movie?
Nolan movies are certainly known to be high with twists and turns and are meant to get you thinking. These are movies we usually call “intellectual” movies, since it gets you thinking, and at times the movie leaves you with many questions and your own theories – such as in “Memento” or, obviously, “Inception.”
As you may know, “Memento” explores the plot backwards while “Inception” does so through dreams within dreams. Yes… sounds complicated!
Nolan’s use (or lack of use) of outlines
I know, you either love the word outline or you hate it. For me personally, it took some time until I learned to love outlining. And now I absolutely love it. It works for me.
Every writer is different and has a different process ultimately. You need to find what works for you, and only you. It does not matter what others do or what you’ve been taught in screenwriting classes. Whatever gets you writing is what works for you.
For some, they will not get started on a script unless they have an outline. For others, they’ll go directly into writing. It doesn’t matter, we’re all different and we all have different ways to tell a story. It’s the final result that matters.
With Nolan, we know the final result is award-worthy but what does he think of outlines?
Well… Nolan does not write outlines or any form of treatment. He starts his entire writing process by typing Fade In on a page and turns it into an award-winning script.
He will write the story as it comes to him, as he feels like telling it, and while I’m sure he pictures the movie in his head, he does not follow an outline.
The Writing Process
Another particular and interesting aspect of his writing process is that while most writers write an entire script first and then enter the rewrite phase, he will write four to five pages at a time and then spend a considerable amount of time rewriting those pages before continuing and doing the same again with four to five pages.
Isn’t that interesting? I’ve heard of writers rewriting as they go but it’s not something I have done myself. I always find it intriguing.
Sticking Stuff To The Wall
While Nolan does not follow an outline, that does not mean he doesn’t know where he’s going. And since he is well known for brilliant complicated plots, he must certainly know how to make sense of it all, since it always does.
What Nolan likes to do is instead of writing an outline, he draws shapes and diagrams and other structural things that help him keep track of where he’s going. And he then sticks these drawings to the wall.
While this is great to be able to have some sort of an idea of what to do with his story, he will always take the liberty to ignore his drawings and initial ideas if a better one comes along during his writing.
This openness to change and adapt your script for the better is something I encourage you to seek, even if you have a detailed outline.
Always give room to the story to tell you what is the best way for it to be told.
You can hear Christopher Nolan’s point of view on writing and directing “Memento” here. In this video you will also have a look at some of his drawings.
Using Index Cards
In addition to drawing images and sticking them to the wall, Nolan is a big fan of using index cards. He likes to write big moments down and color codes his index cards. Additionally, he keeps these in labeled boxes. Quite organized for someone who doesn’t use outlines, right?
He sees using these cards as a tetris game, where you are continuously trying to figure out what fits where.
No Use Of Computers When Crafting A Story
While he writes his screenplays on his laptop like you and I do, he doesn’t use computers when crafting his ideas. His ideas are all drawings on papers, messages on index cards or more writing on note pads. Staying away from electronics helps him keep creative.
Working On More Than One Script At Once
It’s difficult to know how long it takes Christopher Nolan to write a script. However, what we do know is that he works on many different scripts all at once for a long period of time.
Personally, I can relate to that. I have always liked writing more than one script at once since it helps me stay creative and in the flow. If I’m ever stuck on a script, I just go to the other one. Nolan does the same and it helps him continuously have fun with his writing since he never gets bored of a story.
According to Trevor Nunn (Les Misérables (2012), Cats (1982), Lady Jane (1986) who has worked with Christopher Nolan before on “Inception” has mentioned that it takes Nolan about two to three years to write a screenplay. But, when Nunn got to see “Inception” in the theater, he understood why it would take so long since the plot and storyline is so complicated and perfectly executed.
There Are No Rules, Movie Making Is An Art
One of the rules Christopher Nolan follows in his writing process is that there are no rules.
Movie making is an art and so is screenwriting. He does not limit himself to any books or to specific acts.
He tells the story however he feels the story needs to be told and that is probably why his stories are so well crafted and so fascinating, it’s because he breaks the codes and tells the story as he feels it needs to be told.
Always Put The Story First
Something that Nolan likes to do in his process is to give just as little information to the audience than his characters have. The story always comes first and the best way to tell it is the way he will go, and that’s something that comes to him as he writes on the script.
Use Your Strength To Your Advantage
Nolan is a big supporter of the idea that everyone is good at different things. Find what you are good at and use it to your advantage. If you are good at breathtaking actions, put that forward in your script. If you’re extraordinary at writing memorable dialogue, focus on that instead. Take what you do best and use it.
Add Layers To Your Story
When Christopher Nolan writes, he always imagines his stories with different layers. He purposely crafts his stories in a way that the story has more than one POV and more than one layer. He wants his characters to be multidimensional, but also the events happening.
What are the consequences of actions taking place in the story and how many layers get affected.
Explore Non-Linear Timelines
What makes Nolan so iconic is how he uses time in his movies and screenplays. He likes to invent his own rules when it comes to time. Time is known to be linear in real life, but it does not have to be in your script.
As a writer, think outside the box and imagine what it would be to play with time in your screenplay.
When he writes his screenplays, he likes to play with time and his scenes are not necessarily linear.
This also means adding flashbacks in your writing sessions, flashforwards or other ways to reveal important information.
Don’t Be Afraid Of Exposition
If you’ve ever watched “Memento” you know that early on in the movie, Leonard tells Burt his condition in a piece of dialogue. He very clearly states that he has no short term memory. That if he takes too long to do something, he’ll forget where they started and Burt tells him that he basically knows what he’s going to do, but not what he just did… like everything is backwards.
Ultimately, this is the entire concept of the movie Memento said in two pieces of dialogue… that would be considered a “no no” by many screenwriters, but… Nolan always advises not to be afraid of exposition if the scene serves a purpose and is clever in the writing. Without this exposition, you wouldn’t understand and enjoy the movie Memento, and the way this scene is crafted is extremely entertaining… and in this case necessary.
What About His Directing Process?
The way Nolan is with his writing, he is with his directing too. While he does not prepare an outline for his screenplays, he also does not prepare shooting lists or storyboards for his shoots. It takes a brilliant mind to be able to visualize where you are going without even having anything down, especially when you need to take care of a million other things on set.
In summary, Nolan does write down notes and drawings of his movie ideas, but doesn’t use outlines or treatments. He writes more than one script at a time and does not rush the execution of a screenplay. He believes that the story needs to be told organically and doesn’t believe in screenwriting rules.
My advice is to try different writing processes for yourself and see which ones make you the most creative. Ultimately, whatever gets you writing is what works for you!