Read an Excerpt
How to Write and Sell Them
By Craig Batty
Oldcastle BooksCopyright © 2012 Craig Batty
All rights reserved.
THE NATURE OF SCREENWRITING
A few years ago, when I was delivering a workshop on creativity at the London Screenwriters' Festival, three men walked out. As they left, one of them mumbled something along the lines of, 'This is ridiculous ... creativity's got nothing to do with screenwriting.' Maybe it was the way I was pitching it – though I'd only been talking for about five minutes – but creativity and screenwriting not connecting? Being creative having nothing to do with screenwriting? Well, actually, this is a view that many people have. But it's wrong. Screenwriting is creative writing. It's perhaps got more of a business slant to it than other kinds of fiction, but it's still creative writing. And it's through developing creativity that a screenwriter can make a film leap from being formulaic to formidable.
For those who stayed in the workshop – about 40 of them – we proved that, by thinking 'outside the box', ideas were strengthened and stories became more engaging and original. Some of the writers realised that their ideas had to be abandoned in favour of new ones that emerged – but that's what it's all about. After all, who wants to stick with an idea just for the sake of it, when there's a better one out there waiting to be tackled?
Nevertheless, a common perception is that screenwriting is driven by business. In one way, it is – there's a lot of money involved usually, and many more people needed to make a film possible, which of course brings with it financial risks. The development of a screenplay also leans more towards the business-driven model, with more people vying for their voice to be heard, and more 'at stake' when people like the director and financier get involved. All of this is important, and screenwriters should know about these kinds of factors, but that doesn't mean that creativity should be sidelined. Being a screenwriter is still about being creative. It's about having the ability to see things in different and interesting ways and, when the going gets tough, being able to find creative solutions to problems – your problems or other people's problems (which you might very well have to take on board).
JUST A WORKING DOCUMENT?
Another common perception is that the screenplay is only a working document. It's an artefact that will be turned into something else entirely – the film. So it goes from being a static, paper-based thing to a live piece of moving image. Although this is technically correct, it's philosophically incorrect. A screenplay isn't static at all – aside from the fact that it'll go through many re-writes, it's a document full of life. You don't just read a screenplay because you want to understand how the film will be made – you read it because it's a good story in itself, one that has the power to entertain and move you. The action on the page runs through your mind as you read. The dialogue comes to life in your head. Even the pace of the story emerges through the way the screenplay's been written – the overall structure and scene-by-scene construction. Because a screenplay is written in the active voice, in present tense, it speaks to you as you read it. Your imagination works just as much as it might when reading a novel. So a screenplay isn't 'just' a working document. It's a well-crafted and experiential piece of writing, one that will hopefully be made into a film afterwards.
More will be said later about writing the actual text of a screenplay, but, for now, think about all the ways in which you might create a 'good read' on the page. Think about how you might use evocative language to capture the reader's attention. About how you might use the layout of the page to help give a sense of the feel of a scene. About how you might connect scenes to punctuate meaning and build pace. And about how dialogue might be carefully crafted to complement or juxtapose with what we're seeing on the screen.
There's no point in giving a really detailed set of instructions about screenplay layout here, mainly because it can all be done for you nowadays using widely available software packages. The most well known package is Final Draft, which adheres to all industry standard layout guidelines. But it's not free – and it's actually not that cheap. Another one, slowly taking over the market, is Celtx. And this is free. The BBC also has one – Script Smart – which comes with a really handy instruction guide for laying out a screenplay, written as a screenplay itself. All of these packages – and others – are easy to use and allow you to save your documents in formats that others can open, such as Microsoft Word and PDF.
Nevertheless, I'll point out here a few guiding principles about laying out a screenplay:
A slugline, or scene heading, indicates where a scene's set, which is necessary for both reading and production purposes. INT. means interior, or inside, and EXT. means exterior, or outside. The slugline also indicates a general idea of the time, such as morning, day, evening or night. Occasionally, screenwriters will give specific times.
Scene action, or screen directions, details what's actually happening on the screen. It's used to describe both what we see and what we hear, and is always written in the present tense. Scene action is divided into short paragraphs, each paragraph usually not exceeding three or four lines. Scene action can also be just a word or two.
The character's name indicates who's speaking, and written underneath this is their dialogue. A character sometimes speaks in voiceover, and this is still written as dialogue, with 'voiceover' or 'v/o' in parentheses next to, or underneath, the character's name.
Parentheses are used when the screenwriter wants to indicate how something's said, if it's not clear from the dialogue. They're also used when a character performs a minor action between his or her lines, stopping the need to write scene action and break up the flow.
Occasionally, scene transitions are written at the end of a scene to suggest how one scene moves into the next. But this is usually only for specific effect. The start of a new scene (slugline) implies a cut between scenes anyway. 'Cut to' can be used, but isn't necessary.
Here's an example of how a screenplay might look:
There are two things to consider when thinking about form. Firstly, screenwriting as a form – what does it mean to write a screenplay, and does that shape the writing process? As mentioned above, screenwriting is like no other form of creative writing. It does have similarities, of course, but it also has its own distinguishing features. The dominant vessel for telling the story is usually imagery, complemented by dialogue and driven by a central character, sometimes multiple central characters. The currency of screenwriting, although it's a visual medium, is structure. When people talk about screenplays, they talk about what happens. Common parlance involves plot points, inciting incidents, climaxes, resolutions and character arcs. Although these are important in all forms of writing, in screenwriting it's much more common to plan these things down to their fine detail. In fact, some screenwriters work on planning the screenplay (treatment, step outline) for months, even years, so that everyone understands how it's going to work. More often than not, the screenplay won't even be written. Or it might be written, but it won't have been commissioned. Some screenwriters make good careers out of selling story ideas. They dream of seeing their work on the screen, of course, but they spend years developing and selling outlines, treatments and step outlines.
Screenwriting is also a highly collaborative form, where everyone and their assistant will have ideas and notes. There's a lot at stake in screenwriting, especially feature films, most notably money. Everyone wants to make sure there's a good return. So, with that, everyone wants to make sure the story works – or at least ticks the boxes they think will make it work. Collaboration can begin with a screenwriter and producer developing an idea together, and can end with re-writes on the day of filming. In between, a whole host of notes can come from developers, financiers, script editors, executive producers, even actors. There's also the screenplay re-writer – the person or people brought in and paid to re-write sections of the screenplay, or the whole of it. There's a career to be had just doing this! It's more common than people think, and certainly more common than people know, because re-writers aren't often credited. Or, the re-writer gets the whole credit – and the original writer gets nothing (apart from payment). It's certainly a minefield, and not a form of writing for the faint-hearted. There are extremes, of course, and not every project will have this many people involved. But it's something to be aware of. Especially if you're transitioning from writing short stories and novels, where your words are your art and there's a lot less interference. Paul Ashton has a really useful chapter on screenwriting form in his book, The Calling Card Script: A Writer's Toolbox for Screen, Stage and Radio (2011). It's well worth a read, if not to give you new insights, then to clarify in your mind exactly how different writing forms – in this case, scriptwriting – are conceived and executed.
Secondly, there's the idea of what specific screenplay form your story should be told in. In other words, is your idea feature-film material or short-film gold? Or does your story lend itself better to television, as a series (continuing) or serial (closed)? Increasingly, is there scope for your story to work across different forms? Maybe you start with a feature, but you follow it up with a series of short films or webisodes? Or perhaps you start with webisodes that develop your central characters and their backstories, then feed these into a feature film? The whole cross-platform concept is complex and challenging – yet very exciting – and there's no space to talk about it here, I'm afraid. But it's definitely something you should think about if you've got a story idea that has many potential avenues of exploration – spin-offs, audience interaction, multi-threaded narratives, etc.
Here are some things to think about when deciding on your specific screenplay form:
Short films tend to explore one event or an emotion, yet with great magnitude. They're tightly focused and, although they do have a narrative arc, may not have obvious or explicit beginnings, middles and ends.
Short films can also be more experimental, playing around with shape, style and pace. Because they're short, they don't run the risk of losing their audience.
Feature films tend to be much bigger in scale – not just length – exploring emotions and themes through various characters and situations. They're still tightly focused, but have a more expansive narrative and wider palette of characters, worlds, themes and subplots. They can be experimental, but, in the main, tend to follow traditional story structures and audience-friendly styles. Even 'alternative structures' are becoming mainstream, no longer feeling experimental and niche.
Television series and serials tend to explore greater numbers of central characters in much more depth. Whether told over six, thirteen or twenty-six hours per year, the stories have a greater number of beats (physical and emotional advances) and often weave together many character journeys from the same story world.
Choosing the right form is crucial, both for yourself (developing the idea) and others (pitching the idea). There's nothing worse than spending weeks or months on an idea for a feature, only to be told that it's worth about 15 minutes of screen time. Or writing a short film that's really just a trailer for a feature – setting up lots of dramatic questions and webs of character relationships, rather than saying something meaningful and with a focused cast in the time allotted. It might sound strange, the idea of getting confused between a feature and a short, but it happens a lot. I've seen people passionately pitch their feature ideas, only to be told that what they've just described as the story will only take about five minutes of screen time. Lots of detail doesn't mean lots of story – lots of story means lots of story. I've also read quite a few short films that just didn't work in their own right, but did set up a world, a cast of characters and dramatic questions that would make a brilliant feature. Someone listening to such a pitch or reading such a screenplay might not take too kindly to having their time 'wasted' by your not having grasped the most basic of points. Something good may come of it – a professional rapport, advice for re-shaping the idea, etc – but that's only if the person listening or reading is kind. Otherwise, you may have blown your chance.
Watching an array of short films can really help to distinguish between forms. Good short films aren't always easy to find, but websites like YouTube, Shooting People, The Smalls, the BBC Film Network and Australian Short Films are increasingly showcasing brilliant work. And, of course, short film festivals – a great way to see what's being made and what works. I recently attended two events at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, and saw a collection of original, powerful short films about wartime death, children and immigration, the pressure to please and what it's like being a drag queen in Cuba. They all worked because their stories suited the form – and they couldn't have been anything else.
If you're having trouble finding your form – especially whether or not your idea has enough fuel and appeal to be a feature – you might find some of the structural models offered in Chapter 6 useful. These models, along with the accompanying discussion of them, should give you a better idea of the amount of story and how big a controlling idea you'll need.
A FILM ABOUT SCREENWRITING
A useful – and fun – film to watch that explores the nature of screenwriting is Adaptation (scr. Charlie Kaufman & Donald Kaufman, 2002). This is a film about a screenwriter – Charlie Kaufman – and his attempts to adapt a book written by Susan Orlean. It works on so many levels – his attempts to adapt a book that we see her writing, his twin brother's attempts to also become a screenwriter, the character of screenwriting guru Robert McKee, etc – that, for a screenwriter, it's actually a great insight into what it's like to write. The irony of the film is that Charlie's trying his hardest to get away from the usual structure-driven methods of screenwriting and instead find the theme of the book that he's trying to adapt – the meaning that can drive the creation of his screenplay. All the while, his brother's foray into screenwriting is epitomised by everything he's trying to avoid. Donald talks about inciting incidents and act turning points, and even attends a Robert McKee seminar. There's a scene that visualises this dilemma – the dilemma of the screenwriter, not just the relationship of these brothers – really well. We see both Charlie and Donald in the same room, reading. But whereas Charlie's reading the book he's trying to adapt, The Orchid Thief, Donald's reading McKee's book, Story. It's a nice nod to the screenwriter in the audience.
What's really interesting about this film is how the energy changes around the end of the second act, linked to the brothers' preoccupations. As soon as Charlie invites Donald to New York to help him track down Susan, the film becomes much more like a 'standard' Hollywood film – everything that Donald epitomises. So, whereas Charlie is seeking help so that he can get the real meaning of the book from Susan, Donald arrives and totally changes the dynamic of what we're watching. We go from thinking about themes and the inherent problems of the characters to espionage, car chases and, eventually, dramatic deaths. As a screenwriter, then, it's really interesting to see this shift in the film's pace and tone, and work out what it means forthe character of the screenwriter, Charlie. In one way, Donald's arrival destroys the story – it turns dark, and two characters get killed. In another way, however, Donald's arrival helps the story: through the structure now imposed on the characters, both Charlie and Susan – the main protagonists – find their emotional arc, which is what Charlie's been contemplating from the start. So structure – through the character of Donald – is both a friend and a foe. It moves the story on, but also destroys two of the people in the story. And it's questions like this, raised through the complex, intertextual layers of the film, that make Adaptation a must-see for any aspiring or working screenwriter.
Excerpted from Screenplays by Craig Batty. Copyright © 2012 Craig Batty. Excerpted by permission of Oldcastle Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.