In a crazy sequence of events that I sometimes have trouble believing, I was able to write two movies and a novel. Does that make me an expert on writing either of those? No way. But I do feel like I have a good grasp on what both require and what differs between the two. I’ve read a lot of posts about what it’s like to write a novel, but a lot less on what it’s like to write a movie. This post is for my novel friends who are thinking about writing a screenplay. There are plenty of guides out there to teach you the art of screenwriting. This is not one of those. This is not about making your writing better, but about what you can expect and what you need to look for moving between these very different disciplines.
1. This Is Not Your Movie
First and foremost, any budding screenwriter needs to understand that the movie they are writing – it’s not yours. Maybe you are planning on directing this future movie you are writing. Congrats! That’s amazing. There are many, many examples of writer/directors killing it in Hollywood. I wish you the best of luck.
But for the majority of screenwriters, that’s what they are: screenwriters. You may serve as a producer, a consultant, something – but you are a screenwriter first. And that means you are writing for someone else. The director is the true owner of any film. When Transformers 8: Age of Explodo-tron comes out and it’s terrible, the audience points to Michael Bay as the culprit. Not the six screenwriters (although, maybe we should).
The sooner you internalize this thought, the better. Someone else is going to change this movie and you need to make peace with that. Unlike a novel, which will have the author, an editor, beta readers, maybe another editor, going at it; a film will have hundreds of creative decisions made by people who are not you. Yours are just the first. This is important because…
2. Somebody Else Is Going To Kill Your Darlings
Usually after the first draft, but generally sooner if you’re anything like me, your novel just won’t work. You’ll clean up dialogue, re-order chapters, add a new character, but at some point you’ll realize something isn’t working. William Faulkner’s most recognized adage comes into play and you must delete entire chapters because, let’s face it, they just aren’t serving the story.
Now imagine you’ve written a screenplay. Perfected it down to every EXT/INT shot. You’ve gone over it with the director, with the cinematographer, with the editor. Everyone has approved. The script is locked. One year later, you’re at the movie premiere and BAM! your favorite scene isn’t in the movie. You were not told, you were not warned. Your favorite lines, just gone.
Guess what? It’s not your fault. It’s not the director’s fault. It’s not even the actor’s fault. The scene just didn’t work and no one could see it until after it was filmed. When you approve a novel with an editor, that’s the final say. The book isn’t going to change anymore. Not so with movies.
Take a look at this example below. These are the first five pages of my first film YouthMin. This car wash scene is the setup to the entire movie. The antagonist is introduced. Our main characters get some important characterization. And it’s funny. (Well, I think so)
The directors filmed this scene. Someone actually dropped an expensive piece of equipment into a bucket of water. But this scene as it is written is not in the movie. Parts of it do make it in, but it is no longer the opening I imagined it to be. I was sad to see the scene go, but it had to go. Am I bitter about it? Heck no. That’s the movie making business and expecting more is not realistic. Fight for your script, believe in it, but be prepared to lose parts of it you love.
3. You Are Writing Three Different Movies
I alluded to this earlier. You are writing three very similar movies. But they are different nonetheless. But this is a way to think about your screenwriting that might help you accept the previous two points. Unlike writing a novel, which goes through multiple drafts, and may change immensely, you are a part of that whole process. As a screenwriter, you may not have a part in the other two movies.
The first movie you are writing is the script. This is where you have the most effect and make the most impact. Your concerns here are very story and plot based.
The second movie you are writing is the one in production. The movie while it is being filmed. This is where the script can get thrown out the window because of unforeseen flaws, actor schedules, equipment needs, etc etc. Things that you mentioned, or failed to mention, in the script pop back up here. Did you provide enough detail for an action sequence? The director may follow your vision. Did you write something vague? They’re going to imagine it for you, whether or not it is what you envisioned.
The final movie you are writing is the one that gets edited from the hundreds of hours of raw footage shot during production. This is the movie that will deviate most from your original script.
4. Less Detail, More Dialogue
Screenwriting is an awkward balance of details. Your job as a screenwriter is to provide just enough detail for a director to imagine the world, without too much that you’re dictating the entire movie. This will be extremely different for novel writers who include incredible amounts of detail in a book. That’s because film, as a visual medium, won’t get that detail until it is filmed. Here’s a small example from the script for The Force Awakens. Do you remember one of the very first scenes where the storm-troopers run out of a landing ship and exchange fire with soon-to-be decimated villagers? Here’s the entire description of that 30 second scene.
That’s twenty one words, if you don’t include the scene description. Can you imagine how a writer would describe that scene after seeing it? I picture at least a half page of detail. But that’s all this intense scene needs in the script. We don’t need to hear the tramping footsteps or hear the screams of the dying, because it is relatively unimportant. We need to get back to what Poe Dameron is doing. We need to see him give the map to BB-8 and tell him to flee into the desert. That’s the important stuff. Dialogue is going to fuel most of the plot movement in any screenplay. Since most screenplays are around 90-110 pages (1 page = 1 minute of screentime) you don’t have a lot of leeway to describe action sequences. You need to be setting up the events that get your characters from point A to point B. Let the director, the cinematographer, and the production designer figure out how those action sequences will play out.
5. Your Screenplay May Never See the Light of Day
This is the saddest difference between writing a novel and writing a movie. I am incredibly lucky in that both movies I have written have become feature length films. That’s insane. It does not work like that. In a description of the infamous Black List I read that something like .3% of written scripts get produced. That’s nuts. Even if it’s actually 3%, that’s still nuts. That’s lower than Harvard’s acceptance rate.
Now, a lot of novels go unpublished by a major publishing house. But with a few (hundred) dollars spent you can turn your novel into a self-published work and have it on Amazon next week. Like I did. Scripts don’t work that way. Even the smallest of independent film productions need something like $100,000 to make their films. Those famous examples like Paranormal Activity are the exceptions to the rule. You may spend months on a script you really like. Maybe it’s a script for your novel. You’ll find that most agents do not represent scripts, especially from unproduced screenwriters. You’ve submitted it to contests like Final Draft and the NYC Midnight Screenwriting challenge and it was not accepted. Years can go by, and it may never see the light of day. And you have to be okay with that. Because all writing is practice and the next script you write will be even better than the first and has that much more chance of getting made.