Sunday, July 21, 2013

Screenwriting - The Basics

I'm not a screenwriter, nor am I a "writer." I spend a lot of time writing and I have spent a lot of time editing screenplays and reading screenplays. I have studied one book on screenwriting quite a bit which I credit in helping me form 2 finished feature length screenplays which I've gotten a ton of feedback on from Triggerstreet and American Zoetrope forums.

The Tools of Screenwriting is an amazing book that presents the nuts and bolts of screenwriting and also then compares all those elements to actual movies you've probably seen in an attempt to drive an understanding of it all home.

In my years as a filmmaker I've pored over many drafts of many different screenplays in an attempt to make them better. One thing I would say to anyone writing or who wants to write screenplays is - read "professionally written" screenplays.

There is SO much to be learned from reading actual screenplays that got made into successful movies. Especially with regard to formatting and the manner of writing that is most accepted for screenplays.

As for my meager contribution to the craft of screen writing, please take these items to heart:

What a screenplay is and is not

A screenplay is not a series of events in which characters do stuff.

I've had film stories explained to me in those terms multiple times by filmmakers, and each time I had to inform them that they in fact had NO story.

A screenplay in simplest terms is a A) Protagonist struggling against opposition in the form of a B) Antagonist in order to C) achieve something and during the course of this struggle, the Protagonist experiences "growth," better known as a "character arc."

That, in a nutshell is what you need to do with your film story. All the gun fights and carnage in the world will not mean much if you don't have these elements firmly established in a written script and depicted in your film story.

Save the drama for your mama

Beginner or untrained or inexperienced screenwriters tend to write stories that involve primarily arguments and similar conflict between characters. This in itself is fine, but when it's essentially all you have in a script, it can get very tiring for an audience.

Many of the feature length films I worked on as DP early in my career featured primarily characters bickering and arguing, with little else of interest. Constant melodrama in a film can work IF the script is crafted by a skilled writer. If you're a neophyte writer, do yourself a favor and steer clear of melodrama.

Start with an outline and an ending

It makes very little sense to just start writing, believing that it's somehow going to all work out by the time you reach page 90. Nobody ever sets out on a journey without a map unless they don't mind a high probability of failure. Without a guide, your script (especially if it's a first script) will more than likely end up a meandering mess or you'll spend far too much time re-writing.

Half the battle is a good outline. Think about that. Having all the major points of the story laid out in order will alleviate a lot of frustration during the crafting of scenes in the screenplay. Do it.

Don't ever start writing without an ending already determined. Again, nobody sets out on a journey without a destination in mind, unless it's only the journey that's important. To you, the screen writer, if you want something to show for your work - have the ending in mind.

Consider the names of characters

Use character names that are easy to remember and that don't sound or look similar. Even if your story is very well told, confusion can creep (for a reader) in when lapses in scene descriptions occur or non-linear story telling technique is employed. Confusion will ruin your screenplay especially if added to those shortcomings - you also have a high number of characters in the story. Pick names thoughtfully, as you would for your own child so that they're not distracting and not adding to the potential confusion a reader might experience.

Don't leave out scene intros

Consider this scene & character intro:


COLIN is wild eyed.  He stands over with a gun aimed at man on
tied to a chair.

OK... so as we're reading this, we're trying to form a mental image of the setting where the scene is taking place rather than just concentrating on the story, most likely based on the action(s) of the characters depicted.

The scene intro should set the stage for the scene with just enough words. Adding descriptive words that characterize the space is helpful. What size is the warehouse? What condition is it in? Is it dry? Wet? Clean? Dirty? What else is in it? Cars? Boxes? Nothing? Is moonlight streaming in through the skylights or is it completely dark except for a single nearby light bulb?

You don't want to write a book here, but a lot could be said in one sentence about the setting your characters are in and it helps to frame the scenes so a more complete picture unfolds in a readers mind.

Don't leave out character descriptions

As in the above scene and character intro, COLIN is not described at all. So this leaves the reader to forced into using their intellect to uncover who this person might be. THAT is not what you want a reader to be doing while reading your screenplay.

COLIN is holding a gun, so we know he's probably a male with at least one functional arm and hand, and two legs...

We don't know if this is in fact a male just because COLIN is a males name. We don't know the age of this character, the race, and nothing about them except that this person is "wild eyed."

"Wild eyed" is not nearly enough of a character description. Not even close, and again ONE sentence of carefully worded writing can provide a suitable mental image of this character so the reader doesn't have to waste brain power putting clues together to do it themselves.

Proof read - please

Nothing says "I don't care" to a reader more than poor grammar, spelling, punctuation, and diction. It's very hard to have a 100% correct screenplay, but if you have typos, misspellings, and odd phrases throughout a screenplay, you'll lose the reader and chances are you'll be asking for feedback on your work so don't make it harder for readers to get through your screenplay.

Take the time to proof read because not only will you look like a dumbass if you have more than a few dozen instances of the above shortcomings, but the reader's interest will wain if they sense you rushed through the writing.

The writing happens in the rewriting 

Don't ever think you'll write a script and then take your first draft and produce a film from it unless you don't care about anyone ever liking your film. Rewriting is what separates the men from the boys and it's where the story and dialog is made to really work for an audience.

If you're so enamored of your own writing that you don't feel rewriting is necessary, please stop writing.

If you're unable to improve a script through rewriting and aren't willing to pound away at the writing until it's perfect, please stop writing.

The writing really happens in the rewriting.

©2013 Chris Santucci