STORY DEVELOPMENT: Articulating the Intuitive – Screenplay vs. Movie

Tim Long has sold, optioned, and pitched feature film projects at the studio level, along with having original screenplays in development with Academy Award®-winning and nominated producers. A nationally recognized screenplay consultant and Screenwriting Instructor at the MFA level in a top ranked University film program, Tim’s currently Founder and C.E.O of PARABLE, an online, interactive, screenwriting course. Follow Tim on Twitter: @ScreenplayStory

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One of the more omnipresent pitfalls that aspiring screenwriters tend to succumb to in the actual writing and execution of their script is to think of their screenplay as a movie.

I know, I know, that doesn’t sound right at all. A screenplay is a movie, right?

Well sorry, but no, it’s not. For non-established spec writers a screenplay is a written story that if enough industry folk love, can then lead to being set up at a studio, and hopefully produced into a movie.

It’s an extremely valuable distinction to make for aspiring screenwriters and here’s why…

Yes, writers should be envisioning their screenplay as a movie, which means writing visually, externalizing actions and conflicts, applying form and function, etc. However, the story has to be executed on the page first. And that means the narrative intentions of the writer have to be clear in the writing. The ideas associated with the story; individual beats, moments, subtext, emotional nuance, and the plot itself, have to be transparent to the reader.

I’m guessing most reading this article would think that’s a complete given; yet lack of clarity is a trap that far too many screenwriters fall into and never even realize it.


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HOW IT HAPPENS

Screenwriters can get so locked into the movie they’re envisioning in their head, one that’s filled with amazing images, and casted with brilliant actors, and has amazing cinematography and sound…

Tim Long discusses the importance of executing your story on the page. | Script Magazine #scriptchat #screenwriting

…They get so caught up in seeing it, that they lose sight of the fact that it has to be read first.

In other words, they’re so engrossed in envisioning the finished product as a movie that they fail to fully articulate the story on the page. And as any studio reader will tell you, that’s a knife in the belly of any screenplay that will instantly cut the life of your read short.

Simply put, instead of writing a story for a reader, they’re writing a movie for a producer. Instead of telling a story, they’re explaining a movie.

THE REPERCUSSIONS

Writing a movie for a producer or director in mind instead of writing a story for a reader is a mistake, as it can directly lead to the story being ambiguous in the writing. Meaning parts of the story are on the page, yet other parts are vague and still in the writer’s head, attached to that awesome three-dimensional finished movie that one has to actually see in order to fully comprehend its story.

In my years of teaching and script consulting I’ve seen it happen far too often. I would read a writer’s spec only to be constantly stopping because of lack of clarity. I’m constantly being “taken out of the read” because the writer’s narrative intentions aren’t clear on the page. Instead of being engaged, I’m confused.

However… when I sit down with the writer and he or she explains it to me, it all makes perfect sense.

As an example of this at play, let’s take an excerpt from a spec script I consulted on that illustrates this notion of envisioning it but failing to articulate it. The following is a before and after snapshot of the scene. Here’s the before version…

screen-shot-2017-01-07-at-2-08-54-pm

Now when I sat down with the screenwriter, I explained that the scene confused me on many levels, and that I sensed there was supposed to be much more here that wasn’t being articulated.

Upon hearing this, the writer eagerly launched into an emotional explanation of the scene and its narrative intention as related to the story as a whole. It was both compelling and moving, yet none of it was on the page. It was still in the writer’s imagination in movie form.

After rewriting the scene per our discussion, here’s what the “after” version looked like…

screen-shot-2017-01-07-at-2-13-26-pm

As you can see, the scene took on a whole new life by simply clarifying beats and emotional intentions.

And therein lies the rub, because your screenplay isn’t going to come with a person to explain it. When your screenplay goes out into the world, it doesn’t go with a person attached who can clarify or explain scene intentions if need be.

For non-established screenwriters a screenplay has to be a piece of material that stands on its own merit. It’s not a blueprint for a movie. It’s a literary version of a movie. And it has to engage and move the reader just like a great movie does an audience.


Script EXTRA: Engaging Audiences


HOW TO OVERCOME IT

Ambiguity is the enemy of your screenplay. Curiosity is its hero. Meaning, truly engaging writing generates narrative curiosity, causing the reader to want to read more in order to know more. Ambiguous writing just causes confusion. Or as I like to put it, curiosity is “good confusion” whereas ambiguity is not.

STORY DEVELOPMENT: Articulating the Intuitive - Screenplay vs. Movie by Tim Long | Script Magazine #scriptchat #screenwriting

One exercise I would have my former MFA screenwriting students do was to read their finished first draft scene-by-scene as if they were a development exec reading it for the first time. In other words, step outside yourself and be an objective reader. What would the exec’s informational and emotional takeaway from each scene be? Does it match what your intention as a writer was for the scene?

Doing this forces the writer to articulate the intuitive in the rewriting stage. Meaning, it causes us as writers to take the intuitive ideas we wrote and articulate them into specific choices. (Sidebar: Most experienced screenwriters tend to do this organically in the outline or first draft stage of the process.)

WHY IT’S IMPORTANT

The bottom-line is… a spec writer’s audience is the people who will be reading their screenplay. (Agents, managers, development execs, readers doing coverage on it, etc.)

Executing the story on the page is everything. It’s the difference between the reader understanding the nuance of your story or not. Between them being engaged in the read or not. Between them continuing to read it or tossing it.

So always remember… in order for your screenplay to ever actually be a movie, people have to love it as a story first. And that story has to be on the page.

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2 thoughts on “STORY DEVELOPMENT: Articulating the Intuitive – Screenplay vs. Movie

  1. Tim LongTim Long Post author

    Will,

    The short answer is yes. But please know this: I’m a big believer in the notion that there is no ONE correct way to execute a screenplay.

    Whatever works to tell the story works – within reason. I’ve seen far too may young screenwriters get so caught up in rules and formulas that they locked into a box that they can NEVER think outside. One such so-called rule is that you can only write what can be seen or filmed. This is just not true. For example, take the following screenplay excerpt….

    “Goeth steps out onto the balcony in his undershirt and shorts and peers across the labor camp, his labor camp. Satisfied with it, even amazed, he’s reminiscent of Schindler looking down on his kingdom, his factory, as he loves to do, from his wall of glass. Life is great.”

    This from Oscar winning screenwriter Steven Zaillian, and as you can see he is using prose and editorializing. I can sight a dozen more examples from various successful screenwriters who all do the same thing.

    The one caveat here to aspiring screenwriters is this: I would advise not to “overdo” this type of writing. Use the technique but don’t overuse it. The reason being, A-listers can write anyway they want, their stuff is going to get read no matter what. Non-established spec writers are viewed through a different lens.

    Bottom-line is, people have to love your spec as a story first before it’s ever a movie. And that story has to be on the page.

    Hope this helps. Best, -Tim

  2. entertainscape

    Hi Tim,
    First of all, I’m brand new to this. Like, born yesterday new. I loved your article and was taken in with the notion of telling a story versus explaining a movie.

    Now, I may have gone too far the other direction in that my first and only spec script attempts so far have action lines that have NO analysis or explanation of anything audience can’t see.

    In your improved example above, I see “supposed to be dead in”, “should have killed him” and “realizes she wants it” . . . can I assume then that the idea is to err toward concise action lines, but not so concise that reader may not understand? In other words, if the dialog and action didn’t adequately make it clear that murder was intention, then something like “should have killed him” is appropriately editorial?

    Thanks much!
    WillT

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