Monday, August 22, 2011

Are You Writing A Film Or A Screenplay?

Here’s a question script readers, producers and directors all have in mind when they finally read your material: Is this a film?

We writers love to write. Words are our raw material, just like sounds and rhythms are to composers. But there’s a big difference between being able to write well and being able to write a great film. Sure, it’s essential to know how to construct a coherent, engaging narrative, populated by intriguing characters for whom something important is at stake. You also need to be able to express characters’ emotional struggles through visual action, locations, props and so on, as well as through dialogue. But a screenplay that reads like a film, makes effective use of cinematic language too, such as image systems, scene transitions, pacing, and so on. So that while you read, you’re seeing the film in your mind.

Cinematic Conventions
There are only so many stories or plots the human mind has come up with so far. We’ve all seen them countless times in different guises. So when a screenwriter sits down to write, say, a coming of age film, or an impossible romance, or a revenge-driven thriller, there are certain storytelling and genre conventions which need to be respected. Even to cleverly subvert these conventions you need to be aware of them first. Check out Jennifer van Sijll’s article for some specific examples. But besides knowing story per se, a screenwriter has to be well-versed in cinematic conventions too, for a screenplay to really read like a film.

Think Like a Director
When a director reads a script, they’re not interested in a writer’s flair with words. They’re focused on what’s going to happen on the screen. It’s all about images, and what story the images are telling, rather than what the characters are saying. It’s the screenwriter’s responsibility to tell a visual story, using only words. Which is far more involved than it sounds. One book I’ve recently found inspiring in this respect, is Gustavo Mercado’s beautiful tome, The Filmmaker’s Eye. This kind of material really helps me understand more profoundly what it means to write a film rather than a screenplay. It’s not achieved by cramming a script full of camera angles and technical terms, but rather by familiarizing yourself with and understanding how different shots and images affect the audience, mostly at an unconscious level. For example, repeating a similar visual composition at different points in the story, can suggest different characters experiencing the same emotion. Also interesting, is a recent episode of Pilar Alessandra’s On The Page audio podcast, entitled Production Weighs In On Screenwriting, which addresses some nuts and bolts issues about writing in a way that helps set and costume designers.

Scene Transitions
Another specific aspect of screenwriting that can distinguish a screenplay from a film, is how scenes follow on from other scenes. Here’s a useful article by Janice Hally, which sums up some of the ways scenes can dovetail effectively. But a more practical way to become fluent in this aspect of visual storytelling, is to simply pay more attention to how it’s done in films you really love. Check out how a transition that worked well, was written in the script. Watch and re-watch films by directors who have a very distinct visual style, such as Edgar Wright (e.g., Shaun of the Dead, Scott Pilgrim), Darren Aronofsky (e.g., The Fountain, Black Swan) or Quentin Tarantino (e.g., Inglourious Basterds, Pulp Fiction), and check out how they use transitions to tell their stories visually.

So, yes, writing a screenplay is all about breaking the story, getting its structure right, delving into the characters and their emotional dilemmas, and so on. But writing a film means screening the film in your mind’s eye while you write, and writing in such a way that everyone who reads the screenplay will know: This is a film.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Why Real Life Isn’t The Same As Drama

It’s one thing to experience or read about a dramatic event. It’s quite another thing to construct a screenplay with dramatic tension at its heart.

I just returned from a two-week family camping holiday in France. Along with my suntan, mounds of dirty washing, and a very crumpled tent, I also brought home a notebook bulging with new ideas for stories, inspired by things I witnessed along the way. I’m certain most of these ideas won’t survive closer scrutiny, but then again, one or two might turn out to be worth expanding into a synopsis or an outline. But besides reminding me that the supply of story ideas is more or less infinite, another thing this experience brought home to me again, is that there’s a big difference between ‘dramatic’ in its casual everyday sense, and Dramatic in terms of screenwriting.

Slices Of Life
During the course of the holiday, I drove a couple of thousand miles, stayed at five different locations, and encountered countless different people and situations. Too many experiences to remember. Which is what life is like. We don’t even consciously register most of what we experience, it just goes in one sense and comes out another. It’s events that cause an emotional stir that make an impression. Things that make you laugh, cry, shake with fear or anger. Like my encounter with an initially genial and helpful, ex-pat manager of a depressing camp site who, when I inadvertently disturbed him during his lunch hour to check out, turned out to be a sadistic psychopath, from whom I barely managed to escape with my life. In retrospect an amusing, if unnerving incident. ‘Dramatic’ in the everyday sense of involving fear, and perhaps even material for a scene. But not a screenplay, or even a premise for one, per se.

Real Life As A Starting Point For Drama
Observing the goings-on around me, say, at a swimming pool packed with sunburned tourists or in a huge French hypermarch√© teeming with gesticulating Gauls, I found myself fantasizing about who various people were, what their relationships were with people they were with, what would happen if… Which is where the writing starts. Simply transcribing reality into script format doesn’t make for a great screenplay. Just try it. At best, what you end up with is an interesting starting point from which to brainstorm a dramatic premise. Even reality–based films like Social Network, or biopics like The King’s Speech, are all carefully crafted dramatic works. Which means they engage the audience’s emotions, by putting characters in situations where they stand to lose something of great value to them personally.

What’s The Risk? What’s At Stake?
Most people’s lives (at least ordinary lives like mine, and most people I know), aren’t particularly dramatic, let alone cinematic. Take my encounter with the obnoxious camp site manager. We had an exchange of words, he pedantically tried to make me wait until his lunch hour was over before opening the gate and letting me drive out. We had something of a stand-off, in which I managed to stay calm because he was behaving like an indignant toddler, and then… yawn. It fizzled out, like most real-life encounters do. The worst that could have happened, was that I would have had to wait. But what if he had had my passport locked in his safe? Or what if he had been brandishing a knife? Or what if we were the only family there and the site were on an island? Or what if he had one of my kids locked in his house? Everyone experiences big emotions at some point in their life, and there’s a well-known list of 20 most stressful life events to prove it. However, for an emotional experience to become an dramatic premise, the character has to be forced to choose between losing something important to them or taking some sort of risk. In real life, most people will avoid taking risks if at all possible. In drama, the audience is engaged by the character’s decision to take the risk that they, the audience, would avoid at all cost, whether it makes them cringe, cry, laugh or shiver.

A Dramatic Event Isn’t A Screenplay
So, my experience reminded me that as a screenwriter, I need to be aware which sense of ‘dramatic’ applies to an idea for a story. When the news media refer to an incident as dramatic, they mean it’s fraught with emotion (usually fear of one sort or another, followed by relief or grief). But when you refer to a story idea as dramatic, you mean it’s constructed deliberately in a way that creates tension, poses a dramatic question, and makes you want to know what happens next. The bad news is that it takes a lot of hard graft to turn a real-life event into a workable premise for a screenplay. Which you then still have to write. The good news, though, is that you are surrounded by a potentially endless supply of events and characters, each of which could be the seed of a wonderful new story idea.

And no, my encounter with the narky proprietor didn’t yield any particularly great story ideas for me, although I can well imagine aficionados of the horror or thriller genres wanting to pick up the ball and run with it…