Saturday, April 9, 2011

Lessons from Screenwriting: Act I

Screenwriting-101Well, it’s been an interesting 8 days so far. I’m a little bit behind, but I’m not concerned. It’s taking a while to really get this screenwriting thing going. It’s such a different medium than literature. Everything is so condensed, so every line is critical. Here’s what I’ve learned so far:

  1. Screenwriting, like pimpin’, ain’t easy. There’s no convenient inner dialog, there’s almost no description, yet it requires the same emotional content as any writing. I’ve realized there’s something I call “embodied debate” where a character’s inner conflict must somehow be demonstrated with external action or dialog. It must be given voice. I have to create situations that demonstrate the internal struggle and the stakes, even if those situations never happened.
  2. Show, don’t tell x 1000. I suppose a narrator could blab, or like Star Wars, a long bunch of words could introduce the scene: In 1911, a young man sets foot on America, and over the next 9 years, blah blah blah. Then in 1920, he receives a letter. Open scene.
    Meh. But, for instance, how do I reveal the content of the letter without just throwing it up on the screen? In a novel I could just include it. Here ya go. (Not to mention the fact that the letter was written in Yiddish).
  3. Backstory? We don’t need no stinkin’ Backstory! Sure, I can throw dates up on the screen, do the whole “10 Years Ago in the Old Country” bit. Maybe I will upon revision. But I’m throwing it in like a drive-by shooting. Here a sentence, there an argument over the past. But it’s impossible to include an explanation of who the characters are, what their relationships are, what they do for a living, etc. It just needs to come out in the dialog.
  4. Nothing goes to plan. I spent a month thinking about all the scenes I could write. I looked at screenwriting books that screamed that I needed 40 scenes divided into fifteen major “beats”. Whatevs. Did I ever mention that I’m a natural pantser? Within the first couple days I threw out all the cards. Why? Because the story was boring, just a dude filling out paperwork and dealing with red tape. There was no emotional content, just a sense of vague frustration. This is a guy who has to go up against hostile forces and bad weather, not to mention backstabbing traitorous “friends.” Red tape bedamned! This is not a police procedural, it’s a gutsy drama. It’s not important how he gets the passport, what’s important is that he’s woefully unprepared for the  journey. So show that.
  5. Unlosing my religion. I’m not a religious person. The last time I went to a service outside a wedding or funeral was a 9/11 memorial service. I barely give a thought to the holidays. I don’t feel that my MC is particularly religious. But while doing the research for this story, I revisited Judaism, subjects and events that I hadn’t thought about since before my Bar Mitzvah when I was 13. Many of the major events of the story coincide with major Jewish holidays. While perhaps a coincidence, I can’t ignore this low-hanging fruit. So my MC may have a crisis of faith along with everything else that’s going on. It feels cheesy, but I can’t help but think that he’s going to experience an affirmation of his faith.

So what happened is that a couple days ago I was stuck; the story was going nowhere. I made a decision to just throw out about 8 pages and rewrite—something you’re technically not supposed to do during Script Frenzy. Whatevs. If the story isn’t working, do what you need to do to get it on track.

Another thing I did was to make a decision about the style of the story. I know this isn’t “my” story. It’s the story of a cousin (2x removed) of mine. But the thing is, I have my own style. I write how I write. I’ve written SF, Steampunk, Mystery, Spy Thrillers, etc., but they all have a similar feel. I realized that I have to write how I write. I have to write stories in the way that I enjoy, that motivate me. I needed to make this my story. My style, my pace, my types of conflicts. Once I made that decision, the pages suddenly started to flow. Characters crept out of the woodwork into importance. It may not be true to the “story”, but it’s true to me.

So on to Act II. Wish me luck!


  1. Just popping over from a post on Raquel Byrnes site. Good luck with the book, can't wait to read it. I am just starting a book in this genre and really looking forward to it.

    Have a great day,

    Sarah ketley

  2. Hi Sarah. Will have to check out Raquel's post.
    History is full of fascinating (and terrible) tidbits.

  3. Hey there! Glad to see you're making headway on the script. Thanks for the reference to Matt Delman. I'll have to go and search him out.

  4. Wow, I'm really impressed you're going on with the screenplay for that story. All the best.


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