Screenwriting VS Everything Else

When I first graduated college, I wrote a novel. It took about six months. The second draft took an additional three months. Today, it remains a total POS. (That’s a technical film industry term that means Piece of Shit.)

Then I wrote a feature film. That took about month. The second draft took about a week. Curiously, that also was and remains a total POS. But I did learn something. Screenwriting is very different than other kinds of writing. For one thing, there are fewer words involved.

In a novel, the writer must visualize everything for the audience. Here’s the description of the protagonist’s office from my novel.

It was long and thin, about eight feet across and fifty feet long. In a bygone era, it had been the hallway that led to the boiler room. To the left, a single row of cubicles lined the left side of the wall. Naked incandescent bulbs hung from the ceiling at ten-foot intervals giving the room a certain film noir effect. The floor was dusty concrete. The walls were actually steel and copper pipes with a layer of newer PVC piping over top.

Here is the same description adapted for TV.

INT. OFFICE AREA – DAY

Four rows of cubicles nestle amid water pipes and spider webs in the basement of the Transportation Building.

A little more succinct, no?

Thing is, I realized I was kind of a minimalist. My prose wasn’t winning any awards, so why inflict more of it on the world? Sure, a handful of people will read your scene descriptions, but your audience never will. In fact, production will pay a dozen people (Art Department, Locations Department, Wardrobe Department, AD’s) to build, decorate, and populate your world. If you, like me, are more interested in the story than the set pieces, why waste your time writing about the curtains?

The trade-off for this is that screenwriters must abide by certain “rules.” The most important one is that everything must be visible. Your characters cannot “think,” “realize,” “feel,” or “remember.” (“Chuck realizes this is the girl he remembered from earlier.” How the hell can you show that?) Characters can, however, furrow their brows, smile, laugh, cry, and stare into space. (“Chuck smiles at the girl wearing the same bright red sweater from scene 5.”) Dialogue, which might sound snappy—or at least benign—may come across as wooden or “on the nose” when read aloud. (“Oh, I see. You think I was trying to get your attention with this bright red sweater.” Always read your dialogue aloud!) And just because something happened doesn’t mean it’s interesting. It especially doesn’t mean it’s visually interesting. Screenwriting is a different beast.

Screenplays are always written in third person present tense. I don’t know why. I’ve been told it makes things more dramatic. Some people use the first person plural “we,” but that’s pretentious and can create problems. (Strangely, I find the first person present tense particularly absurd. This was the primary reason I couldn’t read The Hunger Games. “Strong arms lift me as I blast the head off a mutt… I begin frantically pulling people up off the ladder.” Is she writing in a journal while all of this is happening?!)

Bit by bit, I plan to break down some of the mystery of screenwriting for you. I’ll augment this with samples of my own work to help illustrate my point. For now, I’m going to recommend 3 screenwriting books to you. You should read them IN ORDER. Even if you have some background in film or screenwriting, I can’t endorse these books enough.

The Screenwriter’s Bible by David Trottier. Updated every couple of years, it’s currently in its sixth edition. It’s billed as 5 books in one. Depending on where you are in your writer’s journey, not all of the books will be applicable. But even if you’ve spent a decade on film sets and have a box full of scripts, you’ll find yourself dragging The Screenwriter’s Bible out every couple of months for formatting suggestions. Trottier also has a great blog www.keepwriting.com.

Save the Cat by Blake Snyder. Snyder, God rest him, has a very unique and accessible approach to analyzing and writing scripts. He breaks things down into simple rules, and while I don’t agree with all of them, the unique take lets you look at your scripts in a new light. He doesn’t go into formatting or most screenplay terminology, which is why this shouldn’t be the first book you read about screenwriting. He does, however, give you lots of fun tips and tricks, and a fantastic tool for outlining (the Blake Snyder Beat Sheet). It really helps you look at screenwriting from a different angle. And the tips can get you out of that writer’s block. Much of Snyder’s work lives on www.savethecat.com (Bonus credit. If you have free time, check out Save the Cat Goes to the Movies.)

Finally, the granddaddy of them all, Robert McKee’s Story. This is a master’s level tome and I DO NOT recommend it unless you already have a grasp on the basics of screenplay structure. At times it feels like a philosophy textbook, but the sections about clichés, diction, and “slice of life” are priceless. I don’t want to scare you away from McKee-this is a seminal work-but it’s not a good place to start.

Once you tackle those, you’re lightyears ahead of the next “aspiring writer” or “idea guy” you know. Check back in, and hopefully I can offer you some more insight.

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