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Screenwriting, the Golden Rules

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Old 05-04-2013, 11:29 AM
amberzak (Offline)
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Default Screenwriting, the Golden Rules

The following are a set of guidelines for if you are writing a screenplay. Writing a screenplay can be one of the most rewarding forms of writing, but it can also be one of the most difficult, especially if you are used to writing prose or poetry.

Why should you trust what I say? Well, my dissertation for my degree was a screenplay, I write mainly screenplays (working on one now) and I am applying for a Masters in Screenwriting. Screenplays are my life.

The difference between a screenplay and a novel/poetry/short story/article or any other form of writing, is that a screenplay isn't written to be put on the shelves as is. Even theatre plays, that are put on in theatre, can be easily bought or taken out of the library. All these other writing forms have to take into consideration that it will be the general public that will read your work. For a screenwriter, however, the final product will be (we hope) a film that people will watch rather than read. The person who will be reading your screenplay will be a producer and actors, and maybe other screenwriters if you are lucky enough to get your screenplay turned into a film or TV show.

There are some very strict guidelines on how to format your screenplay. Don't try to fight the system. No one will ever see your masterpiece if you don't follow convention with regards to formats. You can be as original (or as formulaic) as you like with your story and characters, but the technical aspects of screenplay outline must adhere to certain industry standards. It's just the way it is.

The key thing to remember is you are writing a manual for how your film should be made

It is always written in the present tense, as the action should be happening right now in your minds eye as read.

Rule 1: The format
The format of a screenplay is rather complicated. You begin each new scene with
INT/EXT (int meaning interior and ext meaning exterior) LOCATION (type in location) DAY/NIGHT
for example:

The reason for this is so that when the film is made, the directors and crew can easily see the essentials of each scene.

There are fantastic programs that will lay it all out for you how a screenplay should look. CeltX is free (just look it up on google). You get scene heading, description, Character's name, parenthetical (how a character says something) and dialogue.

Don't worry too much about fades and cuts.

Which leads me to:

Rule 2: What not to include
Your job is not to direct the camera - that is the directors job. Do not say where the camera moves, or mention the camera at all. Do not insult the director by doing his job - believe me they do get insulted. If you want to imply a particular shot, you have to work out a way to write that without actually saying 'the camera zooms in'.

Obviously you can only write what is seen or heard. So no 'Jack thought to himself'. If we can't see it on the screen, you don't write it in the screenplay. Simples.

Rule 3: Every Word Costs a Pound
This is another very interesting way that screenwriting can differ from novels. Loose the fluff, as my screenwriter friend says to me whenever he reads a screenplay of mine.
My screenwriting teacher told me to imagine that every word costs a pound. A screenplay has no space for the fluffy, descriptive writing we are used to in prose. Equally, don't be vague. The art of screenwriting is concise writing. You can play with the dialogue - if your character always goes around the houses when speaking that is fine. But for the description, get rid of all those non essential words that clutter the place up. Instead of 'The sun shines brightly and warmly on the streets' you would say 'warm sun shines brightly on streets'. 9 words into 6. Do that throughout your whole feature screenplay and you will save pages and pages worth of words. You can use fragmented sentences in screenplays.

Equally though, you can still make it interesting. We could shorten that sentence down even more to just 'sun shines', but that doesn't set the scene. Don't lose the atmosphere (film is built on atmosphere), but don't ramble either.

Rule 4: It's all visual
As I said before, unlike a book, we cannot get into a character's head without a monologue (which can work very well - see TV series Dexter). It should be noted that in a screenplay, a monologue, or vocalised running thoughts of the protagonist is a form of dialogue, not action.

You cannot say in the action 'he stands in the rain contemplating the existence of God' because there is no way to show that. We cannot see that. We can see he is standing in the rain contemplating because of the acting, and if that character has just come out of a church, we can take an educated guess at what he is contemplating, but we cannot state what we cannot see or hear. Instead, write 'he stands in the rain clutching his cross. In anger he throws the cross away and walks off.

Recommended Reading!!!
I am well aware of just how many 'How To' books there are out there for screenwriting, and for writing in general. A university library s littered with them. If I could go back to when I was first starting out, and give myself a list of the books that are well worth the time, I would. But time travel hasn't yet been invented (as far as we know), so instead I shall post them here.

Some books are very restrictive for the writer - Syd Fields, for example, while is good at what he talks about, insists that on page three of every screenplay there must be a line of dialogue or action that sums up the whole film. Where as Christopher Vogler talks about the 'Hero's Journey', where you follow a rough path and pick a choose elements that match your genre and style - a much freer way of writing and forming your story.

The Writer's Journey by Christopher Vogler the third edition is the best, and looks the nicest on your book shelf. This is a must have for any writer, not just the screenwriter. This book talks you through the steps your characters go through in the story, but allows for the freedom to interpret those steps how you please. Although taken in it's literal sense, it is referring to the epic, fantasy type film, I have found the guide equally helpful for my detective screenplay. It's got archetypes of characters too that I have found helpful.

Screenplay, the Foundations of Screenwriting by Syd Field. He is the guru of screenwriting. Even if you find what he says too restrictive in places, his books are essential for grasping an understanding of the way screenplays work. Search his name and you will find his website - there are plenty of tips on there as well.

Story by Robert McKee This is quite an analytical book, so may be a bit heavy, but worth a skim through. Focuses on story.

And one of my personal favourites:
How NOT to write a Screenplay by Denny Martin Flinn

These books offer a wide variety of techniques and different perspectives of how the story develops. Many of the ideas in these books come from a great philosopher from ancient Greece - Aristotle. Purely from an academic point of view, anyone interested in a really challenging read and wants to know where story formation began, find a copy of Aristotle's Poetics. But it isn't for everyone.

One final point. You might be able to get away with writing without planning your story, but you wont get away with it in the screenwriting/film world if you want to be taken seriously as a screenwriter.
PLAN PLAN PLAN. I cannot emphasise that enough.

Don't think outside the box; think there is no box

A molehill is a mountain to an ant
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