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Playwriting & Screenwriting

Many beginning screenwriters (or even experienced ones, for that matter) have made the mistake of inserting camera instructions in their scripts. At various points, they have included directions to ZOOM IN, ZOOM OUT, ANGLE ON, PAN TO, TRACK, EXTREME CLOSE UP, or TILT, or have even tried to dictate where the camera should be placed. Though there might be some exceptions, directors generally despise this. In fact Ken Russell, in his book Directing Film: From Pitch to Premiere, discusses how he uses his “five-page test”

Successful playwriting depends not only on dialogue, but on intelligent plotting, credible characterization, and the ability to develop a theme through 70 to 90 pages of encounters and exchanges (in a full-length play). The pleasures of writing drama can be significant. Writers for the stage can have the satisfying experience of watching an audience hang on every word, laugh at every witticism, and show their appreciation at the play’s end with grateful applause.

Writing for the theater also allows the playwright the advantage of having actors, designers, and a director with whom to collaborate; it’s the rare playwright who hasn’t learned more about his/her play during rehearsals.

To genuinely “speak” is so powerful that few do it. And those who do speak do it rarely. Human beings use dialogue to avoid speaking. Dialogue is the dance we do to avoid the music. It is, in Harold Pinter’s words, “the speech to cover speech.”

Dialogue is one of the tools we have for negotiating what we want and for negotiating our relationships.

To master dramatic dialogue, one must master both the unspoken and the spoken. Playwrights must work both sides of dialogue’s “street.”

Concision—saying more with less—is an undervalued but critical writing skill, especially when writing a screenplay. Part of the reason that concision is so undervalued is that it seems easy but is actually quite difficult and takes skill, intellectual effort and ruthlessness (as a well-known bit of writing advice goes, you must “kill all your darlings”).

If you can eliminate a sentence, a phrase, or even a few words, you probably should. This is especially true in a screenplay, which is a space-bound genre; screenplays typically run approximately 90-120 pages because 1 screenplay page is roughly equal to 1 minute of screen time and most movies run between 90 minutes and two hours.

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.