Notes From a Film Writing Student

pwatem casablanca

My last semester at VCU was what I considered “my easy semester.” I had just finished all the requirements for my major, and I had to finish a few more for my minor before graduating. Because of this, I took this time to expand my skills as a writer. I picked an Intro to Screenwriting class because of my fascination with cinema. Having written film reviews for Poictesme and Quail Bell Magazine, I found a passion in watching and writing about movies, so the next natural step was to learn about writing them. Part of me (the haughty, somewhat narcissistic part) assumed I could write something really good, something more akin to the kind of movies I watched. Of course, I was very wrong. Screenplay writing is very different from writing prose or poetry, and it was hard to switch from those mediums to writing a script. I am still very much a student to the art of writing for film, but I have learned certain things so far that have given me a better appreciation for both film and writing.

Find a screenwriting computer program. Screenwriting has a lot of formatting rules you have to follow. If you’re trying to do this on a simple word processor, it’s going to take a lot of effort to adjust everything and make it look nice. There’s also the fact that there is a specific font people expect you to use when writing a screenplay, which some word programs might not have.

Someone in my class recommended we use Celtx to write out scripts. It’s a free download, and does a lot of the formatting for you. It also includes page numbers, which is very useful for a screenwriter (generally, each page of a script should encompass one minute of screen time).

Don’t be afraid to deviate from your plans. In this class, we had to turn in an outline and a treatment for the script we wanted to write. The outline assignment asked us to apply the three act structure to our story idea. Act I establishes the characters, setting, story, and tone. Act II puts the characters through the ringer, and should end with the characters at their lowest point. Act III sees the characters rising above the conflict and reaching a conclusion. The treatment expands on these ideas, asking the writer to do a scene-by-scene outline of the story, telling everything significant that happens in a scene.

Although you may have a good idea of how the story might go, never be afraid to deviate from your outline and treatment. When I was writing my story, I had to change a lot in the process. Scenes got moved around, ideas were dropped entirely, even certain parts of the characters were modified from their original incarnation. However, making these changes helped me to understand the story and characters better. Because of this, I was able to craft what I believe to be a better version of the story.

Just because you read a script like a book does not mean you should treat it like one. Film is a visual medium. A script is not. Even if you can visualize what is written, you will have to assume that other people will not be able to see what you see. As a result, there are a few things to consider. Even though a character’s name will be on the page, the viewer will not know that person’s name until a character says it.

This also applies to descriptions. You need to describe everything important, but you can’t spend too much time describing something. There’s a lot that will be filled in when the movie is being made, so all you need to describe is what the cinematographer will focus on, or what the characters in the scene will interact with.

There are a lot more intricacies involved in how a screenplay reads on the page. Essentially, make sure that you are writing it so it can translate to a visual form, and cut back on any superfluous details.

If you’re writing genre, you are going to have a lot to explain. When writers attempt to write a genre piece, they will have to make complete sense of that world. If they are going to make up a word to describe something, they better immediately say what that word means. If they are detailing magic or supernatural abilities and events, there has to be some explanation for how those work. In a novel, the writer has plenty of time to explore and build these kinds of worlds so the reader can come to understand them.

Film is completely different. In a film, you generally have 90 to 120 minutes to tell a story. If you’re going to tackle something like sci-fi or fantasy, it has to be something the viewer can easily understand. They don’t have to be fed how every little thing works, but there has to be enough that they can draw conclusions on how things work. If they get too confused, they can’t enjoy the story.

Voice-over can be lazy, a.k.a “Show, don’t tell.” This was one I got hit with hard. My first draft of Act 1 of my story had tons of voice-over in it. Since film is visual, a viewer doesn’t want to be told details about a character or a story, they want to be shown something. In my story, I needed to show how a couple lived their lives, instead of having one person narrate details about it.

Now, I know there are many great movies that use voice-over well, but those generally use it because the narrator is a creative voice with a unique way of delivering information to the viewer.

Part of the appeal of having someone off-screen to spread information is to add a new spin on the story. This is also the same with a person calling another person to talk. My professor told us that an interaction in person is almost always more interesting than one that takes place over the phone. True: Sometimes scenes only work if they are done over the phone. But mostly, it’s better to have the characters face to face as they talk. This way, the viewer can pay attention to more subtleties in the actions of the characters.

Be as open to criticism as possible. This is something that really shouldn’t be a surprise considering the Poictesme audience is mostly writers and artists. You are going to get a lot of criticism when writing a screenplay, much like you would writing a poem or painting a picture. I feel what makes screenwriting different is that a lot of the critics look for mass appeal.

People reading your screenplay are looking for relatable characters, a story that keeps them interested, and a narrative that builds towards a satisfying conclusion. There will be a lot of criticism directed at how you’re writing your characters, where the story is going, and the level of interest. This semester, several people told me my main character was too unlikable, forcing me to rewrite a few scenes. It can hurt to hear these kinds of comments (admittedly, I was amused by how much of my class disliked this guy and even wrote a part where he’s really chewed out for his behavior because of the criticism), but it is a challenge as a writer to develop the characters and story in the best way you can.

Have fun with it. I had a blast writing a screenplay. I really did. I was challenged as a writer, and I had a semester where I felt very engaged creatively. Sure, there were times when I wanted to toss the whole thing in the garbage and start over but, at the same time, I had the liberty to do whatever I wanted. I wrote something that appealed to me as an individual, and I got to try something really experimental. I know this kind of piece of advice isn’t really groundbreaking, but you really should try to enjoy it as much as you can. I made it a tradition to write my script in Panera Bread, usually after having a meal and having unlimited refills of sweet tea to fuel four hour writing sessions.

If you really are interested in writing a screenplay, I recommend reading Story by Robert McKee if you want to get a more professional perspective on screenwriting. A lot of the lessons in my class came from that book. In the class, we also watched Casablanca, which McKee says is the greatest screenplay ever, and Adaptation, a movie that shows the horrors and fears that come with writing a movie, but also imparts some wisdom on the subject.

This post was originally published in Poictesme.

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