Saturday, October 19, 2013

Lessons from the Script

The screenplay draft is complete. It ended up at 114 pages rather than 112. Boo hoo.

Here's some of what I've learned so far.

The books all say that screenwriting is hard. And it is. IMHO, it's harder than poetry. Makes writing a novel seem like a stroll on the beach.

Screenwriting is a lot like a stroll on the beach—Omaha Beach.

In his book On Writing (a fine book, BTW), Stephen King talks about how he develops stories. Basically, he creates interesting characters, puts them in a dramatic situation, and lets them figure it out. There is no conscious attempt to plot or create subplots; the characters do what they must, inevitably (given their proclivities and their situation) do. King merely transcribes. He gets all the way through a novel this way; following the headlights all the way to the destination, so to speak.

It works for King because he's a master at what he does, and the form (the novel) allows it.

Screenwriting is so constraint-intensive, there is precious little room (although there is some) for organic story growth. You almost have to come at it with a complete structure in mind. Screenwriter Matt Bird has a story structure checklist (encompassing character development and all sorts of other things) that's 100+ items long. You're not going to hit even a third of the points in that list using an unprepared "structure it as you go" approach. If you can, well, congratulations; maybe you're channeling Robert Towne; in which case please accept my unworthy bow as I exit stage-left.
Alien would work well as a silent movie. The dialog augments the story.

You'll run out of room. Guaranteed. Budget 32 pages for Act I and you'll go sailing through that mark like a drunk through a stop sign. Set an absolute page limit of 110 and you'll be at 120 before you know it.

Therefore the best advice I can give you is: Enlarge all margins and tab limits at the start, just a smidge, so you'll get fewer words per page. You'll gladly kill any number of grandmothers later to widen them out again.

Another tip that may keep you from busting your page count: One day when you're thoroughly blocked, write the ending. Write the final two scenes (more, if you can) of the script, complete. Behold: Your "active writing area" is now bookended by the already-written beginning and the already-in-place ending. You have less surface area in which to work, and the paint dries faster, forcing you to up the pace. Which you were wanting to do anyway, right?

Thirty pages seems like a lot in the beginning. But when you've got just thirty pages left to write, it's never enough.


Let actions and situations do the talking whenever possible. Let characters speak only if and when they must, and even then, let subtext, not the actual words, tell the story.

Never forget one thing. Watching a movie is an act of voyeurism. Hence, all dialog is overheard. Hence, no conversation needs to begin at the beginning. Think of the times you've overheard a conversation (whether at a bar, a social function, standing in line, or whatever) in real life. Did you ever hear the actual start of the conversation? Chances are you came along in the middle. Yet within a few seconds, you figured out the essentials of the conversation (who, what, where, when, why) from context. That's how all movie dialog works. The film viewer is an eavesdropper, not a court stenographer.

Take a scene, any scene. Cut the first line of dialog. Does the scene still work? Yes? Then why did you ever think you needed that line of dialog?


More often than not, dialog is about subtext, backstory, misdirection, and/or foreshadowing, not just what's going on at the moment. We can see what's going on at the moment.

Dialog, properly done, wears a hairpiece. It's never bald.

It helps to know something about stage magic and its crazy stepsister, comedy. Both are all about misdirection.

Would your script still make for a good moviegoing experience with the sound off? Alien would play damn well as a silent movie. My Dinner with Andre would not. Look at your script with dialog turned off (in your head, at least). Which did you write? Alien, or My Dinner with Andre?

I was fortunate, with the script I just wrote, to have a multinational story, with lots of non-English-speaking characters (but zero subtitles, thanks). Try it sometime. Write a scene that involves foreign nationals, speaking their native tongues, using no subtitles, with the idea that the scene has to be understandable to anyone, of any language. See how far you can take it. Can you still make the scene work? Why or why not?

There's more to tell. Suffice it to say, the screenplay-writing process has taught me a lot. And I thought I already knew a thing or two. I was right, as it turns out. I knew a thing. Maybe two at the most.



If you'd like to see my (WGA-registered) screenplay, drop me a line. My hushmail dot com address is kasthomas. Inquiries held in strictest confidence. Please mention your Twitter handle (if applicable).

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