Tag Archives: Screenplay

Screenwriting

This week I attended a screenwriting course. I’ve been trying to write a screenplay for a very long time and have never got more than about 20 pages in. I start to wander off into excessive descriptions about the surroundings, or worse, I drop into the thoughts of the main character. Neither or which are acceptable for screenwriting.

I was hoping this course would give me some tips about how to manage these sorts of things, and show examples of other scripts and how they deal with these situations. It didn’t. It’s my own fault for not reading the course description properly, but the course was more about the overarching structure of screenplay stories.

As a short and long-form story writer, I found the rules thing quite strange. I know scriptwriters are hung up on ‘rules’ of story structure far more than novelists. Everything must fit into 3 acts, the story should fit a beat sheet or plot plan, etc. I was prepared for that. But we looked at stuff like the types of power a character has and the exchange of that power. We looked at all sorts of things that I would just heap into the ‘stuff that happens’ pile.

If I tried to keep all these ‘rules’ in my head when writing a script, I would never get a word written. I find it hard to believe that scriptwriters keep all this stuff front of mind when they write. I think if the truth be told, they just stick to the same ‘rule’ as novelists; make sure you include a goal and motivation for your protagonist, and squeeze in some kind of conflict and hey presto, you have a story.

After today I think I’m almost ready to conclude that I am not a screenwriter. It’s a bit sad really.

A different view of a movie

The other day I accidentally started watching a movie I had seen before with the director’s commentary turned on. It was fascinating. You get a whole different view of the movie, and no matter what the genre or special effects I think the commentary takes the magic away and turns it into a product, so if you are going to do it, make sure you do it with a film you already know.

Intrigued by this experience I tried it again with an old favourite of mine; The Princess Bride. The edition I have has a commentary by William Goldman the author of both the book and the screenplay. How have I not done this sort of thing before? I also have the screenplay book, so not only did I get to hear Goldman’s commentary as the movie played, but I could read along and see the script directions, the deviations from the script and truly see how the script formatting translates into a movie. I think I learned more from that session than I had from the four or five screenwriting books I own.

It probably seems blatantly obvious to all of you out there, but I can see there is so much to learn about this industry from those oft-ignored commentaries. I think I might just have to revisit all of my favourites and see what gems can be uncovered.

Maybe scriptwriting is not so out-of-reach after all?

Script

The past two weeks I’ve been trying to write a movie script. Ever since I was a little kid I’ve wanted to write a movie. I actually wanted to make movies before I learned that books could be just as cool and so I changed my target to novels instead. So thirty years later I thought I’d go back to the original goal.

‘Show don’t tell’ is never as true as in a script, because telling isn’t really an option given that the audience watch the movie. True, you could do a voiceover, but people don’t go to movies to listen to a story, they’d get a talking book if they wanted that.

This means most thought, self-talk and observations are out the window. It also means quick bits of back-story need to be said aloud, not glossed over in a sneaky paragraph. All this is fine, I’ve watched plenty of movies in my time so I think I’m across all that, but movies have something books don’t have; viewer point-of-view.

This means you not only have to think about what the viewer is seeing, but how they see it. The story doesn’t just unfold for you as a writer, you have to know from which direction you are looking at it, who is sitting where in relation to what and all sorts of other things that I rarely ever mention in a story.

I know the director takes on a lot of this work when they actually film the movie, but if I want the viewers to notice something, in the script I have to do a CLOSE UP of it. I also have to CAPITALISE all the visual and sound effect as well as every character and any major props. It is very different to writing a novel where I just capture what is happening any way I can.

I’m not going to give up on the script, it is something I would like to master, but I’m not progressing very well and my time off is limited, so I’m going to spend it on what I know I can do. So back to the YA novel writing for me, the script has waited over thirty years to be written, a few more weeks or months won’t do it any harm.

Indecision

I have 5 projects I identified as being possible targets for my time off. Last week, when I was working, I thought I had identified the one I wanted to hit first. It was the epic novel I have been trying to write for 15 years that really needs some time dedicated to it. This week I’m questioning that choice because it is a totally brand new piece, and will realistically take at least 4 to 5 months to finish if I’m disciplined, over a year if I’m not. I feel like I need a quick win first.

I am a fiercely logical person, and logic is telling me to do the re-write of the novel I wrote last year. It won’t take as long and I have beta-readers lined up to give me feedback. The problem is that re-writing is never as exciting as writing new words. But maybe that is the best taste of a writer’s life I could give myself during this time off? After all it is the re-writing I always seem to sacrifice when I am working.

Then there is the young adult story which I got 30,000 words into and then totally dropped the ball. I love the story, it is funny, it is magical and it has no end. It probably only needs another 20,000 words, which seems like it should just be a few weeks work. Maybe that’s the one I should be doing?

The final temptation is the screenplay. Again, just 90 pages, it doesn’t sound like it should take that long, and I’ve wanted to write a screenplay forever. But knowing it is my first one, so likely to be crap, and both story ideas I have are stupid (yes, I’m thinking Spiders Man for those who know me), so I think it might also be a waste of time. But it would be a fun waste of time.

I’m a week in to my freedom and haven’t picked any of them, so I think it is time to just grab one and run with it. Re-write, here I come… I think.

Idea theft

My screenwriting studies have led me to discover a very big difference between scriptwriters and authors; idea theft. It is pretty universally accepted in the book writing world that there is no such thing as an original idea. We all get ‘inspired’ by other people’s tales, to put our own slant on them and write a ‘but what if this happened instead’ story.

Screenwriters don’t seem to hold the same belief. The universal law of copyright is not enough to cover your screenplay when you send it out, you actually need to register it (for a fee) with an organisation whose sole purpose is to say that you have written this script at this time. Most US production houses won’t even open a script unless it is registered here.

I guess the thing that makes me think it is weird is that I’ve got several rejections for my stories where the publisher says that they liked my story, but they have just accepted a similar story. Now while this might just be a line, I believe them. In all likelihood they may have just accepted a story about vampires that don’t sparkle when the sun hits them, or a monster/alien/genetically modified creature hunting people finally gets killed by our hero. At their core, they are not original ideas, it is all about execution; do we like the hero, is it full of typos, is it logical?

So why are screenplays so different? I know we are talking about fewer words than a novel, so language and voice is not as different between scripts, but story, character and theme are still king. The chances of two people doing the exact same thing are pretty remote, and if they have stolen it copyright and plagiarism laws cover you.

I guess I will go through with the whole registration thing if I do manage to finish a script, I want it to be read after all, but I can’t help but think it is a just another way to scam money from already struggling artists by preying on writer paranoia.

Screenplays

This week I’ve been looking at novels compared to their screenplays. It’s been really interesting to read a chapter of the book and then read the equivalent bit of the screenplay. Sometimes 5,000 words is replace with two pages of talking, or a paragraph, or it is cut completely! The strange thing is that the screenplay does not seem to suffer for this loss.

It makes you realise how much of a novel is asides, superfluous back-story, world building, scene setting and description, none of which is needed in a screenplay. The thing is, it is these extra bits that make me love the novel. I like knowing that the lead character has been fighting a battle with mint Aero for most of his adult life, or that the heroine still blushes in her 30’s when she remembers embarrassing dating episodes from her early 20s. It is these little things that make us know the characters and feel like they are friends.

I do barrack for the lead character in a movie, they are written that way after all, but would I feel like they should know me if we passed on the street? No, they are just actors. Characters in books really move into your brain for a while, if we passed on a literary street I would expect them to at least look at me with a hint of recognition after all we have shared.

Having said all that, I do still love movies. I even love movies of books that I have loved. Some movies I even like more than the books, but they are very different beasts and my expectations are very different. I think I’d like to have a go at writing a movie of a book. Maybe one of my own 🙂

Why write?

I didn’t start out wanting to be a novelist. Originally I wanted to make movies. As a kid I loved films. I loved getting lost in them, it was a place where magic was real and dreams came true. It was only as I got older that I realised books did this as well (better even).

I worked out pretty quickly that I didn’t want to direct movies, act in them, or produce them; I just wanted to come up with the ideas. Movies back in the 80s and 90s were very limited by budgets, which is why I thought about writing books instead. There were no limitations on the special effects or cast size in books.

Leap forward twenty-plus years and I’m still writing these unlimited-budget-special-effects stories, but very few of them are getting out to the big wide world to be read. I am finally conceding that perhaps what I find interesting and funny does not appeal to the average person. Which begs the question; how much should this realisation shape my next steps?

It all comes down to why I write. The past five years have slowly killed my dreams of being published to the point where I can live off my writing. I’ve known too many people now who have been published by big publishing houses and they are still working in ‘temporary’ jobs to pay the bills. Mix with that the fact that I actually like my day job, and enjoy the people I work with and suddenly living off my writing becomes less of a goal.

When I think about why I sit down at this computer for so many hours, the same truth comes back to me; I like stories. I like to live in a world of my own making and explore all the what-if’s. I would love to have others read my work too, but that is just a bonus. I am my first audience, and I love to watch the stories unfold.

So I know I will continue to write, and I’m comfortable with the idea that I’ll write the stories I want to read. Who knows, maybe now that CGI is so cheap I could turn my hand to a special-effects script after all? It is all about getting the story out.

Writing for the screen

Before I discovered Lois Duncan in grade 9 (at which point I decided I wanted to become a novelist) I wanted to write movies. I had always had ideas for stories, but thought I would never be disciplined enough to be able to write full sized novels, so to me it seemed that screenplays were the easier option.

Skip forward a few decades and I’ve completed two novels, have another five over half-finished, and about 20 in the first-five-chapters space (where I always hit a wall). I’ve completed exactly zero movie-length screenplays. I’ve written or co-written two pilot TV shows, each about 45 minutes long, and both nearly killed me. Screenwriting is hard.

I like writing flash fiction; short, sharp and shiny prose, get the story across and cut out all the guff. I thought screenwriting would be the same. It really is not. It is so much more.

Over the years I’ve bought and borrowed many books about how to write screenplays. They haven’t helped. They talk about story arcs, ‘finding’ ideas and making believable characters –all stuff I feel pretty comfortable with, but rendering and action scene on the page in a believable and understandable way for the director, they don’t touch on that. How that Int. Nat’s House – Night bit should be configured, they gloss over. I was ready to give up.

Then I started reading ‘The Da Vinci Code’ screenplay. I picked it up from the second hand books shop for $4. It opens with a forward from the novelist, the director, the producer and the screenwriter. I learned more in those 14 pages than I have in the equivalent number of ‘how to’ screenwriting books. The screenplay itself is fascinating, with extracts from the storyboards interspersed with the text.

Finally, I feel like I know what the end goal is! Suddenly it all makes sense. I want to hug the people who produced this book, it is like it was written to answer my questions. So I’m going to dust off my movie ideas (and some simply are movies, they never felt like novels) and try my hand at my first career choice.

That is my project for WriMoFoFo.