Screenplays Collaborate, Novels Dictate.

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Would you find it hard as a novelist to hand over your MS to screen-writers? Truth is, I wouldn’t and here’s why: A Screenplay is not a Novel.

Every year:

  • Some 250,000 books are published, worldwide.
  • Random House, alone, publishes maybe 250 of them.
  • In contrast, about 300 Hollywood feature films get made.

A story for the screen is not a novel or a short story, it’s a blue-print of a series of events that will be interesting to watch – as well as to listen to.  You may be able to pare down 400 pages into 120 and think you’ve cracked it, but there isn’t even the need to do so. Screenplay options are signed on the strength of a treatment, (basically a detailed synopsis). And these days, just as less and less money is spent on marketing mainstream novels, few new screenwriters are given a chance to prove themselves. Publishers and Film makers feed off already established success. Such is life.

But, let’s say you have a successful novel out there, that sales are good and the title is recognised by members of the public. Let’s say that you also fancy screenwriting and that your treatment has not only been optioned, but someone’s put up the money to make a film.

Here’s what you could do:

Suggest how the characters should act within the scene and how a scene can be filmed to best effect, but don’t barrel out your chest and pretend you hold any aces up your sleeve. You don’t.

A screenplay involves at least one producer and director, plus actors, production manager, director of photography, production designer, sound recordist, costume designer, make-up person, etc, etc, etc, to organise a production to shoot even a low-budget feature film or TV programme.

The fun part is the creative process and how it differs from a novel. Not just in moving from past tense to present, but hey, don’t take it from me . . .

The Cut – David Mamet

‘If you listen to the way people tell stories, you will hear that they tell them cinematically. They jump from one thing to the next, and the story is moved along by the juxtaposition of images – which is to say, by the cut. People say, ‘I’m standing on the corner. It’s a foggy day. A bunch of people are running around crazy. Might have been the full moon. All of a sudden, a car comes up and the guy next to me says …’ If you think about it, that’s a shot list: (1) a guy standing on the corner; (2) shot of fog; (3) a full moon shining above; (4) a man says, ‘I think people get wacky at this time of year’;(5) a car approaches. Juxtaposing images like this is good filmmaking. Now you’re following the story. What, you wonder, is going to happen next? It’s the juxtaposition of the shots that moves the film forward. The shots make up the scene. The scene is a formal essay. It is a small film; it is, one might say, a documentary. Documentaries take basically unrelated footage and juxtapose it in order to give the viewer the idea the filmmaker wants to convey. They take footage of birds snapping a twig. They take footage of a fawn raising his head. The two shots have nothing to do with each other. They are not a record of what the protagonist did. They are not a record of how the deer reacted to the bird. They’re basically uninflected images. But they give the viewer the idea of alertness to danger when they are juxtaposed. That’s good filmmaking.’

(Mamet, 1991, pp.2–3).

Sydney Alvin Field

Screenwriting is both a science and an art; it demands both form and substance. Initially, it is the shape which matters. Sydney Field (December 19, 1935 − November 17, 2013) was an American screenwriting maestro who wrote several books on the subject. As with all experts, his words speak volumes.

‘Over the years, I’ve read thousands upon thousands of screenplays, and I always look for certain things. First, how does it look on the page? Is there plenty of white space, or are the paragraphs dense, too thick, the dialogue too long? Or is the reverse true: Is the scene description too thin, the dialogue too sparse? And this is before I read one word; this is just what it “looks” like on the page. You’d be surprised how many decisions are made in Hollywood by the way a screenplay looks.’

He also offered up the following (paraphrased) points:

Ten pages.

The first ten pages of your screenplay MUST grab the attention of your reader or audience.

Establish Three Things:

(1) Your main character.

(2) The dramatic premise—what the story is about.

(3) The dramatic situation—the circumstances surrounding the story.

The First Thirty Pages Are Deal-Breakers.

Syd Field gave writers thirty pages to set up the story, and if it was not done by then he reached for the next script on the pile. I suspect some aren’t even that generous.

Know the Ending, if possible, to Move the Play Forward.

You don’t have to know the specific details of your ending when you sit down to write your screenplay, but it helps your pacing to know what happens and how it affects the characters.

Basic Dynamics of a Story’s Resolution.

The resolution holds the ending in place. Billy Wilder once remarked that if you ever have a problem with your ending, the answer always lies in the beginning. To write a strong opening, you must know your ending. That’s why it’s OK to start the beginning after you’ve finished, just like an introduction in a school essay.

So, what makes a good ending?

  • The final fade-out MUST leave the film goer satisfied and that means the end has to be believable.
  • The ending comes out of the beginning
  • Someone, or something, initiates an action, and how that action is resolved becomes the story line of the film.

Go on then. What are you waiting for? Oh, BTW, Syd recommended the following screenplays to really hone your craft:

Read and study scripts like Chinatown, Network (Paddy Chayefsky), American Beauty, The Shawshank Redemption (Frank Darabont), Sideways (Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor), The Matrix, Annie Hall, and Lord of the Rings. (Fellowship of the Ring PDF)

Click the links and enjoy!

Tracy Thomson


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