The joy of screenwriting

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FinalDraftI’ve been toying with screenwriting for years without actually finishing anything, until we started Zolascope. The first full-length works of fiction I completed were two novels, Lady Caine and Black Project. So when I came back to screenwriting with renewed seriousness it was with a sense of discovery and surprise.

Writing screenplays (long or short) is entirely different from writing short stories or novels. And the differences are both creative and structural.

Here’s an example of a structural issue. When you’re writing fiction for the printed page, it’s easy to throw in a phrase such as, ‘he tidied up the apartment’ or ‘they chatted for a while’. Each of those phrases is just five words, takes up hardly any space on the page, and requires just a fleeting moment to write or read. But what happens when you come to film it? How much tidying up do you show? What’s being tidied up? Are the objects significant – and if not, why are you seeing them on the screen?

In the second example, what are people chatting about? They’re going to need words to say. And for how long? You probably threw that five-word phrase in there to denote a passage of time without much happening of any note. But in a film, having time pass idly by risks boring the audience and having them think, ‘why am I watching this?’.

In a movie, you’re focusing your lens on an object or an action that the viewer will assume carries some significance. A throwaway line, stuff that just fills out the timeline in a short story or novel, just doesn’t work.

Creatively, the differences are even more significant, and sometimes difficult to grasp. The writing has to be visual – which seems obvious, but can be more difficult to achieve than you might think. You can’t put anything in the script that can’t be captured by the lens. There’s always a temptation – especially during emotional moments – to give a character some interior realisation such as, ‘she flashed back to her childhood and it made her sad’.

Yes, I know, you might argue that this is simply guidance for the actor, to help her get into the right frame of mind. But really this is the sort of thing that should be left to the actors and director to work out. The mood, the pace and the significance of the scene should be evident from the dialogue, basic action descriptions and the overall arc of the story.

For me, screenwriting is a case of less is more – and that’s the joy of it.

Unlike a novel, you don’t need to spend time and effort building a picture and setting the scene. The camera will do that for you. You can focus on the real core of the story.

A lot of that core will come from dialogue, which is why your characters should never utter inanities unless you mean to use the mundane in a significant way.

But expressing everything through dialogue turns your film into a play, and that’s not good. Because film is a photographic medium – it is a story seen through a lens.

So here’s the paradox. Your action descriptions must spell out what the camera sees. But only up to a point. You should only ever describe those elements of the image that mean something.

For me, a clear sign of an inadequate or insecure screenwriter is a piece of action text that goes into intricate detail. Unless it’s important, you shouldn’t mention it because the director might want to do it a different way. Maybe the director doesn’t want the car to be a new Peugeot but a rusting Ford – or a horse, or nothing at all. Maybe the actor feels it wrong to ‘slouch away’ but thinks it better to stride confidently or sit or simply leave the frame instantly.

This is why I think it’s wrong to use ‘morning’ or ‘evening’ in scene slug lines. ‘Day’ or ‘night’ should be as specific as you get, unless there is something very, very important about shooting the scene at a specific time of day. In any case, it may simply be impossible, from a production point of view, to film at the time you specify.

You have to trust the director, crew and cast to fill in the details. That’s their job, and being too detailed and specific in the screenplay not only shows a lack of confidence in them, it also restricts their creativity too much. This kind of writerly prolixity is the kind of thing that leads to that horror of horrors, voice-over narration. Only a few writers/directors can do that well (Scorsese for one). Generally, narration just ends up telling the audience what it can see on the screen, and so is both annoying and redundant. It’s a sign that the writer can’t think in a filmic way and doesn’t trust the director to portray the scene. If you want to write that sort of thing, write a novel.

Once you rid yourself of the need to describe too much, you may find screenwriting immensely liberating. There’s an awful lot of work you don’t need to do (other people will do that later) and you can just get on with what’s important – telling the story.

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