I was chatting with a fellow reader the other day and we were discussing the essential things we felt it was important for screenwriters (especially aspirants) to know – the knowledge screen scribes need to succeed at their craft and at their profession. Here’s the result of our brainstorming:
Screenwriting is a form of dramatic writing, so in order to craft screenplays successfully, you must understand the basic elements of drama – protagonist, antagonist, central conflict, rising action, overcoming obstacles, plot turns, reversals, climax, and resolution — and how they are utilized to tell a dramatic tale. You will also need to be familiar with the three-act structure, since – like it or not (and for some reason there are many people who don’t like it, although I have no idea why since it is such a useful construct) – that is the form that most movie storytelling takes. You must understand the purposes and functions of all of these elements so that you can employ them wisely and well when necessary and adjust or alter them effectively when it serves your purpose. The one thing you cannot do is be ignorant of them – you can’t break the rules if you don’t know what they are in the first place.
None of this means that you always have to slavishly employ these elements in some sort rigid, unbendable formula, but you do need to accept that these are the ingredients that make a piece of writing dramatic (as opposed to prose or poetry) and that if you omit them, then your writing may be many things, but it will not be drama and therefore it will not work.
2. The Basics of Cinematic Storytelling
Although screenplays are a form of dramatic writing, they are not stage plays – there are some very key differences: The prime storytelling element in a stage play is dialogue; in a screenplay it is dramatic action (along with imagery, although that is the responsibility of the director more than it is the screenwriter). Stage plays are usually divided into a small number of relatively long scenes, whereas screenplays are usually divided into a large number of relatively short scenes. Movies also have the option of telling their stories using a number of devices that are unique to the cinema: shots (to provide perspective and emphasis); cross cutting and inter-cutting (to create contrast, tension, and suspense); visual time transitions (cuts, fades, dissolves); montage; and narration.
To write effective screenplays, you need to know what these devices do, when to employ them, and (perhaps more importantly) when not to employ them.
3. Basic Screenplay Formatting and Terminology
Screenplay formatting and terminology are standardized across the industry, so it behooves you to learn and employ them both correctly so that your scripts can be easily read and understood by the people you hope will buy, develop, and make them. For some reason, many aspiring writers insist on making up their own unique formatting and terminology. Be careful about doing this because you run the risk of having people not understanding what you are talking about.
Most movies fall into one genre or another (romantic comedy, thriller, horror, action, biopic, sports, buddy movie, topical drama, etc.). Every genre comes with specific elements and formulas that must be addressed in some fashion (either by employing them as expected or by twisting or subverting them in some clever or original fashion). You need to know what these formulas and elements are so that you can fulfill expectations and not disappoint your audience (whether they realize it or not, most viewers are familiar with the tropes of their favorite genres and are expecting them and will be dissatisfied if they are not included in some fashion) – including potential buyers.
Understanding genre will also help you properly identify your work when you submit it to competitions and to potential buyers. (Genre expectations count for a lot in this business. If you tell me your script is a rom-com, then I am going to expect your work to deliver a specific kind of experience and will judge it by how well or poorly it delivers that expectation. If someone gets their brains blown out on page 1, then I am going to have a very negative reaction to the script; something that might not be the case if you had told me it was a thriller.)
Aspiring painters spend thousands of hours in museums studying the works of the great masters in order to improve their own skills, but it always amazes me how many aspiring screenwriters don’t watch movies – who refuse (and are proud of their refusal) to watch silent films or black & white movies or foreign films or “arty” movies or “commercial crap” or any film made before 1994 (the year Pulp Fiction came out, which seems to be the beginning of the cinematic universe as far as many young scripters are concerned). And many of the specs I read make this painfully clear, because their authors seem to have no sense of how the medium works. If you want to write movies, you need to know movies — how they tell stories; what they do well; and what they can’t do. You can only learn this from watching movies — good movies, bad movies, classics, junk, genre films, art house fare, and everything in between. The cinema is over one hundred years old – that’s more than a century of stories and storytelling to inspire and learn from. You’ll never become a good screenwriter if you don’t take advantage of what they have to offer.
6. Something other than movies
While it is vital that you know movies if you want to be a screenwriter, if all you know is movies, then your scripts aren’t going to be very interesting. It’s important to keep abreast of current events, politics, and social and cultural trends. It’s also important to know a little bit about history, science, art, literature, sports, and any other subjects that tickle your fancy. In addition, it’s a good idea to have a life – a rich full existence complete with friends, families, romance and hobbies and interests outside of the entertainment business that allow you to become involve and engaged with the big wide world. Writing is good, but these other things are vital if you’re going to have something to write about.
7. How the business works
The movie business is a confusing beast, but it has definite procedures, protocols, and preoccupations and it is vital that you learn as much about them as possible if you want to develop a viable career. I know too many aspiring writers who – not having a realistic idea about how the industry really functions (as opposed to the myths promulgated by desperate wannabes and those that exploit them) – have made very poor decisions about what to write and how to present, promote, and sell what they have written that have resulted in frustration, disappointment and heartbreak. The business already delivers enough of these things without bringing them upon yourself. It’s important that you learn all you can about the industry – by reading the trades, talking to insiders, and especially by working in the business (assistant jobs are great ways to start and excellent ways to learn the real ins and outs) – so that you’ll be able to make sensible choices about how to proceed. It’s also important to keep abreast of trends (both creative and industrial) in the business and to have a sense of who’s who so you’ll know what people and companies are most likely to respond to your material.
8. How to Research
I’m absolutely fine with screenwriters taking creative license to make a setting or a situation more exciting, dramatic, or interesting – that’s pretty much what writers are supposed to do. But in order to take license, one must first have a solid understanding of the subject one is exaggerating or else the elaboration won’t ring true. Too many young writers don’t take the time to get to know the subject matter they are writing about and instead tend to bluff their way through by making up the details out of whole cloth. The results are at best fantasy and at worst bullshit – phony, inauthentic, and just plain “off.” On a number of occasions I have received scripts about subjects that I happen to know a lot about that the author has clearly not researched and the results are almost always poor. But even when the script is about a subject I’m not familiar with, it is always obvious when the author is faking it because there’s always something not quite right about it – no solid basis for the script’s imaginative constructs. It’s imperative to know the topic you are writing about because it is the only way you’ll be able to embroider upon it effectively.
9. How to Behave
The film business is extremely high-pressure and competitive and the people in it don’t always behave well. However, it is important that you do. Many aspiring screenwriters hear stories about bad behavior in the business – about people acting aggressively or arrogantly – and think that’s the way they need to act to get ahead. But it’s not – most of the people that do behave poorly have already “made it” and so people are willing to tolerate their shenanigans (up to a point) because they have or already or hope they might benefit from their proven talents or draw. If an aspirant with no track record acts that way, then you are just a pain and if the choice comes down to you and some other equally talented but civil aspirant, then they’re going to opt for the person with manners. (I vividly remember one of the first producers who hired me for a writing gig telling me that the main reason I was chosen for the project was because he felt he could stand to be in a room with me ten hours a day; something he did not feel about my ill-mannered competition.) Being assertive is a good thing. Being a jerk is not.
And if you do get hired, it’s vitally important that you not be defensive, accusatory, or hostile when collaborating with executives, producers, and directors. You may find yourself dealing with a lot of people who taste or creative judgment you don’t always respect, but it’s their money and refusing to listen or calling them names isn’t going to get you anywhere except into a WGAW credit arbitration with the person they hire to replace you.
Finally, you must learn to accept disappointment gracefully. You’re going to get rejected a lot in this business (probably more times than not). It’s part of the game and you have to deal with it well – do your best not to bitch or moan or whine or complain or accuse the people who have rejected you of having bad taste or insist that the industry is conspiring against new talent or any of the other things that discouraged writers do instead of the one thing they should do, which is to learn…
10. How to Persevere
It’s not easy to make it as a screenwriter and to do so you have to train yourself to hang in there: to keep writing – doing everything you can to always get better and better – to roll with the punches, to let go of disappointment, to not give into bitterness, to keep your energy up and your enthusiasm high, and to always keep your eyes on the prize, which is, of course, to see your work produced on the silver screen.
Copyright © 2014 by Ray Morton
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