Thursday, September 25, 2008

How Screenwriting Helps by Cash Anthony

On the occasions when I've given talks to writers' groups as a screenwriterwith some good contest results on my C.V., one of the points that comes upfrom many audiences is "How can you stand to write under the dictates of somany rules?"

Many people think screenwriting is simply too hard -- too confining --because of what they perceive to be its stricter-than-other-fiction demands.Its most stringent demand turns out to be an excellent standard, however:the artistic selection of powerful images, against sparseness and brevity.When a writer is creating a blueprint for a cooperative effort as well as astory, intended for a highly sophisticated viewing audience that haswell-known expectations, it forces the writer to be specific only when itcounts. When everyone can be assumed to 'get it', or it allows for artisticlicense in the reader's imagination and later, hopefully, in the artdepartment's designers, no one wants to read what's obvious. You have 110pages, a page a minute -- you can't waste words.

It's also true that when you have to learn a craft mostly by yourself, you may tend to try to find a set of rules and follow them like a slave, figuring that not knowing the rules is the mark of an amateur.And this is one thing, at least, you can do.

Here I think the answer is to turn off the critic and forget the rules when writing first drafts, and then turn it back on for rewrites. At that point, all the theory, allthe techniques you've mastered, and all the better second thoughts you taketime for, the more likely your work will in fact improve.

Since there are professional standards and story structure expectations, then unless you're the one in the million who breaks through to an Oscar from acareer as a stripper (a la Juno), it can't hurt to look like you know whatyou're doing: make your format perfect, proof and proof and beg your writerfriends to proof your manuscript, try to hit your designated pages for majorplot points, and so forth. And have a great story to tell.

Despite the strictures of writing screenplays, I've found that working under the peculiar dictates of this genre has three advantages.

1) It forces you to learn at least a modicum of story theory, which appliesno matter what genre of story-telling you do. It may not be strictlynecessary for a novelist to know theoretically how to write for the screen-- the rules may seem a block to a more organic approach, feeling that onemust be so conscious of where and when a plot point is supposed to bereached -- but many of the excellent story consultants working in Hollywoodtruly know their stuff when it comes to theory. Their books are worthreading.

2) It makes you write in visual terms, since the script can only serve as ablueprint for a picture taken by a camera. "Talky" movies insist on usingdialog to move the action along, but better films combine silent actionscenes, or scenes with dialog not about the action (see Pulp Fiction), andthis helps any fiction writer produce a more vivid, and potentially morecomplex, realistic and interesting scene.

3) It makes you choosy. Producers prefer screenplays to be only 110-115pages long. Why? Shorter films mean more cash for the theatre owners, whocan sell popcorn each time a new audience comes in. The studio has to sellthe film to the distribution chain, meaning to the theatre owners who aretrying to get more people in the door to buy popcorn, Coke and hotdogs.
That means that you must not only write with a spare hand, but you also must make vitally important choices about what scenes to use and what to discardby examining your original notions with a cold eye. You can't afford to havedull scenes, even if you've had to write a few to get the first or seconddraft into shape. You can't afford to fall in love with scenes that don'thave to be there.

But when you're doing your rewrites, an objective appraisal gives you theopportunity to look for another perspective to spice up those dull scenes:have a character overhear it secretly (Hamlet behind the arras); have badguys doing exactly what will make a plan impossible to carry out, intercutwith the formation of that exact plan being made by the [ignorant] goodguys; have a character turn out to be working for the other side, repeatingexactly what has just happened at a secret security council meeting to theenemy, word for word. And so forth...

Even if you don't ever plan to write a "real" screenplay hoping to produceor market it onto the big screen, the format can serve as a kind ofspecialized outline that you'll probably do anyway, if you're writing anovel or intricate short story.

And if you want to go even farther and take up screenwriting as yourprincipal genre, seriously wanting your movies made, you might considerwriting a short screenplay and producing or directing it yourself.The tools to make independent films on a scaled-down basis are easy to findthese days, and the expense can be minimal. (Many actors will show up forthe off-chance of fame and for cold pizza.)

But the lessons you learn about what to write, or not to write into yourscreenplay -- when it's something you've personally got to deal with on areal set, with all the location variables and with live actors -- areincalculably valuable. It makes the distinction between reality and fantasy(call it animation) very clear.

I expect soon to take out notes from a novel started long ago. It'll beinteresting to see how I view those scenes now, after writing screenplaysinstead of fiction prose for the last seven years.

Cash Anthony is a Writer, Director, Actor, and Producer

Ninth Lord of the Night - screenplay, novel adaptation, Blue CatSemi-Finalist

Taking Up Serpents - screenplay, multi-competition Finalist

Do Me No Favors - short film, written, produced & directed

Complaining Witness - short film, written, produced & directed

False Negative - short film, written & directed

The Best Man - short story, in A Death in Texas anthology

The Stand-In - short story, in Dead and Breakfast anthology

The Secret of the Acequia Stone - B&B play and puzzles

The Case of the Baker's Dozen - B&B play and puzzles

A Week of Wednesdays - Novel (WIP)Other B&B plays, puzzles, clues and poems


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