Monday, March 17, 2008

Screenwriting 101: The Big Secret of Screenwriting...

...It’s just like regular writing.

Unbelievable? Perhaps. There is a lot of arcane secrecy regarding the nature of screenwriting. Other than the screenplay format itself and the media itself being represented, the narrative structures and formats itself are no different than any narrative. Guys like Syd Field and Chris Voggler want to sell you a book. And I’m not going to knock their methods, because I’ve seen them work in the past for my friends and for myself, but they aren’t the only game in town. As a matter of fact, there’re so many different games, and ways and forms, you’ll be hard pressed to not find a way to write. You just need to know the basic rules, and from there it’s a matter of cherry-picking the devices or methods. If you can write at all, you can write a screenplay.

Writing a great screenplay (or even a good one,) however, may be another matter. I’ve been refining my craft for just 5 years now, which really is nothing. I’ve made a lot of leaps and bounds in just that time, and I hope I’ll get even better from here. To that end, I’d like to help you learn from my mistakes (and my successes) to expedite that process for yourself. If you can get through the awkward years one through three in less time than I could, you should really consider yourself blessed.

But, also, don’t be afraid to fail! Odds are you’ll be drafting, redrafting, or re-redrafting any script before it’s even close to good. Odds are you’ll find yourself sucking. And sucking hard. But do not give up. No matter how bad you think it is, you can make it better. Sometimes it just takes the right moment, the right perspective, or just realizing you can tell what you’re trying to a better way. But you can do it.

The screenplay format in and of itself is not that difficult to master. And even if you can’t get it right away, Final Draft or any other screenwriting software you care to use will automatically do the correct formatting for you. Before we get to the big problems of screenwriting, though, we need a very basic understanding of screenplay format.

Screenplay format is designed with a very utilitarian purpose: like a theatrical script, it’s a blueprint that shows the director and the rest of the production crew what they’re supposed to be doing for the next nine or more months. This might make it sound like screenwriting is very dry and technical. In a way it is. Given the space conventions I’ll explain in the next paragraph, you need to try your best to fit the action and the dialogue in a clear and concise way. But that doesn’t totally eliminate literary flourishes, it merely means you have to be creative about getting creative.

The standard convention is one page of script is approximately one page of screen time. So most feature length scripts are somewhere between 90 and 180 pages. Keep that in mind when you’re writing! A question I often ask myself while writing resolves the most important thing in comedy, and the most important thing in general. Timing. It’s everything. You want to engross your audience in the story you’re telling, and you want to hook them fast and hook them hard. (More on that in a later column.)

So, to review: 1) if you can write at all, you can be a screenwriter, 2) it’s hard, so do not get discouraged or give up, 3) formatting is important (1 page = 1 minute.)

Next week I’ll be discussing theme. Or rather, the theme of the column will be about themes. Good writing!

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