The best part about writing for the screen is how well prepared even the least experienced screenwriter is at the outset. By the time a person decides to write a film, he/she has likely seen hundreds of movies and has subconsciously absorbed all sorts of “rules”—about genre, character, dialogue, action, suspense, and, all things considered, how to satisfy an audience. There’s a danger here too—that the author will fall into the use of formulas and clichés—but if this pitfall is avoided, the serious screenwriter will discover that he/she already knows a lot about the medium of film and can think cinematically with just a modicum of effort. Of course there are still things to learn.
But much of this knowledge will seem to fall into place for the movie writer who’s also been a movie viewer since childhood. Then the screenwriter is free to begin the movie he/she has always wanted to see, the one that somehow didn’t get created in the last century of filmmaking. With talent, perseverance, and the blessing of good luck, the screenwriter will eventually get to page 120 and those meaningful words “FADE OUT.”
First thing to learn: format. The look of a screenplay on a page is distinctive: the font is 12-point Courier, and there are things called “slug lines” that introduce each scene of the script (EXT. KENYAN JUNGLE – DAY). The description that follows is usually laconic: a sketch, not a painting. Dialogue appears approximately down the center of the page, with so-called “parentheticals” occasionally telling us that a character speaks “tearfully,” “angrily,” or however. Descriptions of a scene are broken up by white space—it’s well known that script readers in Hollywood and elsewhere don’t like to see big blocks of text—and there are special methods of dealing with certain closeups called “inserts,” quickly moving scenes called “montages,” and even telephone conversations. In short, correct formatting isn’t intuitive: it has to be learned even if one decides to use formatting software like Final Draft. Fortunately, there are books that teach formatting, the best of them being perhaps David Trottier’s The Screenwriter’s Bible. But wherever one learns it, correct formatting is an essential part of writing a contemporary screenplay, especially if one intends to try to get one’s script produced.
Having mastered the formatting, one can now turn to the good stuff: action. Action in a screenplay doesn’t mean mere physical activity: it means characters striving to attain some end (to find the Maltese Falcon, to get back to Kansas, to beat Apollo Creed), and battling with the obstacles that threaten to stop them. Conventionally, these actions and obstacles emerge within the architecture of the “three-act form.” What this means is that the narrative is broken into three main sections, with narrative moving in a different direction in each segment. Critics of the three-act form feel it’s too constraining (for example, a film like Four Weddings and a Funeral has five acts), but for most writers, it elicits a more surprising, eventful script than they might otherwise write. Many screenwriters include one or two subplots in their work, along with the main action: this can keep the film’s movement from seeming too linear or monotonous. Important too is the concept of the “inciting incident”—an occurrence that takes place no later than page 10 of the screenplay and that sets the film moving in the first of its three directions. Are there fine scripts that exist that do away with the “inciting incident” and three-act form? Sure. But most writers will want to master this architecture before striking out for unfamiliar territory. Even working within the “rules,” one is constantly called upon to innovate: from minute to minute the story must evolve, remain interesting, and feature surprises and reversals. Not one of those 120 pages must ever feel inessential.
Characterization in film is no less demanding than in drama and novels. A character in a film should be three-dimensional, credible, “round” and not “flat.” Although it’s not absolutely necessary, it helps if at least one major character changes significantly in the course of the screenplay, and if that’s the screenplay’s central figure, all the better. A good test of whether a character is round is to see how many adjectives it takes to sum him/her up (“loving, tenacious, dishonest, alcoholic”). If a single adjective is all that’s necessary, the character is flat; if at least three or four adjectives are needed (some positive, some negative), the character will win the credulity of the audience. Character is disclosed through word and action, so the screenwriter should use both in constructing his/her personages, always remembering that the point is to provide a performer with the raw material from which a complex human being can be built. Finally, if a character is exposed to what he/she most fears, the result can be riveting. Spectators want to see characters in various situations; characters under pressure are the most fascinating of all.
And then there’s dialogue. What’s to be avoided is a character who says exactly what he/she means at any moment: this so-called “on-the-nose” dialogue isn’t nearly as interesting as elliptical, indirect, suggestive speech: not “I saw you from further up the beach and want to get to know you,” but “Hey, that bikini sucks.” Not “He’s not very smart,” but “His piano’s missing a few keys.” Of course there are times when on-the-nose dialogue is absolutely appropriate—at a moment of great emotion, for example—but “off-the-nose” dialogue keeps the moviegoer attentive—even eager—to hear the next line and the next. Similarly, the writer should avoid clichés and language that, if not cliché, is still predictable. And speech should always be appropriate for the race/class/ethnicity/education/profession/gender of the speaker. (A police sergeant shouldn’t sound like an English professor.) At best, screenplay dialogue should be vivid, colorful, and above all, original. One of the drawbacks of living in a film-besotted world is that we feel as if we’ve heard it all. The intelligent screenwriter nevertheless manages to sound new.
A Minor Miracle
There’s a lot more to screenwriting: for example, the dictum “get in late and get out early” suggests how to make individual scenes efficient, and the approximate formula “one page equals one minute” helps one determine how long physical descriptions should be. But as with every type of creative writing, the main instruction is to write—to make one’s mistakes sooner rather than later, to learn from doing. A good screenplay is a minor miracle: efficient at 120 pages, filled with believable characters, stunning in its action, delightful or heartbreaking in its totality. Every writer who masters the form will have at his/her command a form that can reach deeply into the viewer’s psyche, that can shed light on what it is to live, and that can thrill with its surprises or touch the emotions with its poignancy.
All film scripts begin with the words “FADE IN.” If the work that follows is well written, a writer’s screenplay may resonate with his viewers for years.