FilmMomentum BooksWriting Fiction

What I Learned From Screenwriting

For several years during and after I finished at university, I wrote scripts. Mostly for screen, though a few for stage performance. I would hazard a guess to say that all were awful, but a handful I really liked, and there were a few moments in some of the lines that I really loved.

Regardless, I stopped writing scripts. It is a strange existence, writing a story where you are merely a tiny cog in an enormous machine, that keeps turning long after you do. Furthermore, the script is often merely the beginning of it all, and rarely – if ever – the end result.

But writing a script for performance – whether stage or screen – comes with its own set of insurmountable stresses. You can make a great film out of a great script (Chinatown, Lawrence of Arabia, Seven). You can also make a terrible one (hello Prometheus and Mystic River). Occasionally a good script can inch its way into being a really great film (most Michael Mann films), due to the inherent storytelling capabilities of the director. Rarely can you make a good film, let alone a great one, out of a bad script. Bad scripts beget bad films. For the single greatest exponent of this rule, see the entire tradition of Australian cinema.

Moving along, the pressure on writing a script brings a host of beneficial tools with it, tools that have translated well as I’ve moved back to writing fiction again. For while it’s a relief to only write for myself, to see the finished product my own way and not have to wait for someone’s interpretation of it, the few decent things I learned writing scripts have helped enormously.

Writing an ending

If there’s one thing a script can’t do, it’s remain unfinished. It demands an ending, it demands resolution. We’re so used to watching endings unfold on screen, we forget that sometimes books get away with only half-endings.

Knowing your ending when writing a script is paramount, and making the ending function as a visual resolution is something worth devoting a lot of energy to. Witness this glorious moment in Adaptation:

It’s tempting to not plan the ending for a story. I find myself avoiding thinking about it, as if knowing what it is myself is going to ruin the experience of writing it. I know. It’s not clever thinking. Being able to objectively see the ending for what it is, and what it structurally brings to a story, has been one of those happily learned accidents from screenwriting.

The show, don’t tell thing

It’s tempting to write scripts as if you’re telling a story. Take a look at the following godawful screenwriting from Unforgiven:

As the men disappear into the house Sally leads the Albino toward the barn.  Her sharp eyes don’t miss the stock of the shotgun where it protrudes slightly from the bedroll.  Her eyes seem to see even into the future… and all they see is trouble.

Ugh. It really is terrible. Fortunately those moments are rare in the script, in what is largely a damn good one, and a great film. But what it is doing is forcing the writer’s telling of the story down the viewer’s throat. Good screenwriting is absolute adherence to letting the image tell the story. Show it, effectively. Have the viewer experience the story as if they are completely unaware of being guided through it by a conscious hand. Great instruction for good writing.

Pacing and structure

This all comes down to good planning. And also relates strongly to one of Kurt Vonnegut’s writing rules:

‘Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel time was wasted.’

This is crucial in scripts, in that you only write was is absolutely necessary for the story to be evident. There is no wasting of words, of description, of unnecessary details that trivialise but don’t enthral a viewer. It comes down to understanding the effect you are having on a viewer, and then anticipating it. Messing with it. For example, every Hitchcock film ever made.

These days, I try to write with a mental flowchart that documents how the reader is feeling during the story. If at all I feel I’m straying into the territory of meeting expectations, I try to turn in a different direction. But do it in a way that lets them feel like they knew what was going to happen, until they suddenly don’t.

Dialogue

The best screenwriting, my tutor taught me, should be able to work without dialogue. Film did originate in a silent era, and many foundations of the medium were developed that way. Writing never had to worry about silent characters.

One trick I was taught is to read through your story as if it’s been muted, so that you can’t hear the characters talk. Does the story still work? Is it still comprehensible?

What then becomes clear is a lot of dialogue is meaningless. Or unnecessary. And again with the paring back and trimming of the details until all that is needed is only what’s on the page. Dialogue then becomes a punctuation to a scene, a representation of what people say, rather than a reflection.

Exceptions abound to this, obviously, but what happens there is that the dialogue becomes the action in the scene, replacing physical interaction with verbal. This is most obvious in Quentin Tarantino’s films, particularly in the scene below in Django Unchained (sorry about the subtitles).

I love that the demise of these two characters is down to their verbal formalities – the dialogue between them – rather than any strength of physical attributes. The words become the weapons.

These are just some of the things writing in a different format have helped me with. Writing across different formats and mediums can allow one to seeing where a story works, where its strengths and weaknesses are, and how to best impart that to the chosen audience.

Leave a Reply