COLUMN D: Technology and Screenwriting – Smartphones, Facebook & Google

Drew Yanno is a screenwriter, author, script consultant and teacher. Follow Drew on Twitter @drewyanno.

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Screenwriting is hard.

That’s hardly a news flash.  It doesn’t matter if it’s your first draft or thirtieth.  It doesn’t matter if you’ve never sold a single script or have a list of credits as long as your arm.  It’s hard.  There’s a reason why Academy Award winning screenwriter Matt Damon chooses to act instead of write.  Not that acting isn’t hard.  It just isn’t as hard as writing. Sorry, Matt.

technologyNot long ago, I wrote about how much more difficult it is to write screenplays today given that the prime movie-going demographic represents the most experienced “story receptors” in the history of mankind. Well, I was thinking the other day of something else makes it hard.

Every semester in my introductory screenwriting course we used to do a script-to-screen analysis of the film Witness, one of the top 100 screenplays according to the Writers Guild and an Academy Award winner for Best Original Screenplay. After eleven years, I got to know that script and film about as well as the writers and actors.

In one of those classes, as I was watching it for the umpteenth time, it occurred to me how differently that story would have to be written today than it was just thirty-something years ago. At one point, I decided to ask the class a simple question: How would this scene change for today’s screenwriter given the existence of cell phones and the internet?

There was silence for a moment, and then the answers started flying. The consensus was that entire scenes would have had to have changed. Huge segments of the main plot and most sub-plots. In other words, the whole story.

Go ahead. Give it a try yourself. Watch any movie from fifteen years ago or earlier. I’ll bet there are countless moments where you would be forced to question the writer’s choice back then, had the technology been the same as today’s.

Indeed, there are entire movie plot lines that couldn’t really be written today given our technology and how connected we all are. Looking for a lost love? Yeah, log onto Facebook, tap a few keys on your Mac Book Air. Sleepless in Seattle? Apply Google and watch it change entirely. Today, that’s one short movie.

Today’s screenwriter has to not only consider technology when thinking about their movie’s premise, but it has to be taken into account in every scene along the way. Want to disappear these days? Good luck. There’s GPS in your cell phone. Turn off the location services you say? Sorry. Law enforcement can still trace it.

And just try negotiating today’s world without a credit card. Again, they can track any purchase within moments of it being made. You’ll leave a trail of crumbs, and they can find you in minutes.

Think using only cash will help you avoid leaving that trail? Not if you use an ATM to get it. Which everyone does. When is the last time you asked a bank teller for a withdrawal from your account? Hell, when’s the last time you even saw a bank teller?

So what to do about this technology angle, beside whine?

Well, for starters, recall that we have the most experienced story receptors in history ready to read your script and they will have smartphones on their nightstand and Facebook open on their iPads. They will literally have technology in their hands while reading. (By the way, when I started out, scripts were three-hole punched and held together with card stock covers and brass brads. I know, and dinosaurs frolicked outside in the yard.)

So at the very minimum, you best do your homework and make sure that you thought of how Google, Facebook and smartphones might affect your scene and story choices.

Then again, at the same time, you can look at it as an opportunity.  We have technology today that even Alien hadn’t envisioned (remember the computer screen with all those green letters and numbers?). That provides you with story possibilities that didn’t exist outside the sci-fi genre just fifteen years ago. So use it! Remember those smartphones and the internet when you write your rom-com or drama.  Do your research and make them an essential part of your story.

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