MEET THE READER: If You’re Going to Write a Script, Then You’re Actually Going to Have to Write a Script

When sitting down to write a script, some aspiring screenwriters have an aversion to the actual writing part. Ray Morton explains how this aversion manifests on the page.


Ray Morton is a writer, senior contributor to Script magazine and script consultant. His many books, including A Quick Guide to Screenwriting, are available online and in bookstores. Follow Ray on Twitter: @RayMorton1. Read Ray’s full bio.

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 When sitting down to write a script, some aspiring screenwriters have an aversion to the actual writing part. Ray Morton explains how this aversion manifests on the page.

Some aspiring screenwriters have an aversion to the writing part of screenwriting. This aversion manifests itself in a number of ways:

Sell the Idea

Some try to avoid writing by believing the myth that they don’t have to write a screenplay – that all they need to do is have a good idea and that if they develop a strong enough “pitch,” a producer or studio will buy it for huge sums of money. While such a thing might have been remotely possible twenty years ago at the height of the high concept boom, it’s an absolute impossibility today. Despite this, the notion is perpetuated by a few some dubious screenwriting gurus and by the fact that studios still do buy the occasional pitch (but only from well-established and very experienced screenwriters and never from amateurs or aspirants) and fervently believed by those who see screenwriting as a lottery of some sort – as a way of making big money fast without having to exert much effort.

Script EXTRA: How to Sell a Script (Sort of)

Bring in Another Writer

Some try to avoid writing by trying to get someone else to write their script for them. As I have related before, I frequently get requests from folks who – after assuring me they have come up with a brilliant, slam-dunk, can’t miss, guaranteed smash hit idea for a movie – want me to help them write the actual script. By “help” they usually mean they want me to take their one-or-two-line idea and flesh it out into a well-structured outline or treatment, then develop the characters, write all the scenes, and craft all the dialogue. In exchange, they usually offer me second position in the credits and a minority percentage of any potential proceeds (a deal they believe is more than generous because they already did the hard part of coming up with the idea and maybe scribbling down a few notes, whereas all I would do is everything else) – a reasonable proposition to one who fervently wishes to have written without actually writing.

Lazy Writing

Some try to avoid writing by summarizing. Instead of writing dialogue, these authors will pen sentences such as these:

  • Mary and Pete spend all night discussing their relationship and where it all went wrong.
  • Joe and Fred huddle in the corner and ad lib a heated discussion about global warming and its implications for the fate of all mankind.
  • The TV reporter delivers a story about the gas station explosion and how it tied up traffic and kept a kidney from making it to the hospital in time for a 12-year-old girl to receive a much-needed transplant.

Instead of writing full scenes and sequences, these authors will fill their scripts with lines such as this:

  • Luke Skywalker joins the rebel fleet, flies into the Death Star trench, fights off Darth Vader, and then blows up the planet-sized battle station.
  • The shark eats Quint and then Sheriff Brody shoves an oxygen tank in its mouth and blows it up.
  • Michael Corleone surprises all of the rival gang bosses who underestimated him by sending his men out to kill them on the day he stands godfather to his sister’s child.

Sometimes these authors will summarize half a script or more. If one is feeling generous, I suppose these hybrid documents could (with apologies to James Cameron) be described as “scriptments” – treatments that contain some dialogue and developed scenes. However, whereas treatments and “scriptments” are only intermediates steps in the script development process, these partial summarizations are being submitted to the marketplace as finished products. What I’m never quite clear on is who these partial-screenwriters expect will create the dialogue or flesh out the scenes if their work should ever be made into a movie. The director? The actors? The craft service people?

Script EXTRA: Are You Really Too Busy to Write? 

Indecisive Writing

Some try to avoid writing by offering options. Instead of composing a definitive line of dialogue for a character that reveals his exact persona, motivation, or goal, these authors will pen something like the following:

PETE
Jane, I love you.

OR

I have finally come up with
the perfect ending for my novel.

OR

Who wants a pizza?

Or, when writing the action lines, they will do something like this:

James Bond punches Blofeld in the face. Or maybe he shoots him. Or smashes him over the head with a crystal vase. Whichever one will be more exciting.

As has been discussed in this column before, the most important task in screenwriting is deciding – deciding what story you are telling; deciding what characters will people it and who they are; deciding what actions and behaviors will dramatize your narrative; and deciding what its intent and meaning are. If these decisions are not made, then you don’t have a story – all you have is a collection of meaningless people and action. Authors who provide options are deferring making these decisions and instead transferring the responsibility for doing so to the reader, developer, or interpreters. In the process, they are transforming the art and craft of screenwriting into a choose-your-own adventure-style diversion.

Script EXTRA: 7 Lessons in Outlining, First Draft & Fear, Oh My!

Solution

It’s easy to dismiss these some who avoid writing as lazy, arrogant, or clueless.

But I suspect what this is really about is a lack of confidence – the common fear of the creative person that she/he is not smart enough or talented enough or skilled enough. In the case of aspiring screenwriters, it is the fear that they will not be able to transform the ideas in their heads into a fully realized dramatic work.

That fear is understandable, but if you are going to succeed (both creatively and commercially), it must be overcome in whatever way works best for you: through education, mentoring, therapy, or the method that will probably work the best – practice. The best way to learn how to write – to choose the story you want to tell and its attendant elements, to learn how to develop scenes, to learn how to craft dialogue – is to write. To write every day. To not give up, even when it is going badly. Especially when it is going badly. If you persevere, you will eventually learn your craft and then you won’t have to try to avoid writing or avoid writing. Instead, you can just write. Which is what you need to do if you want to be a screenwriter.

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