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.

1 comment:

Daniel said...

Hey Dave - is it a script or a film - good question. The many bad scripts I read are usually written by writers stuck in the writer's mode at all times.

Wrote a post about that - about the various hats a writer needs to be able to wear - if you master the hats, you'll end up with a film :-)