What I Learned About Screenwriting

The classical Hollywood narrative is a clearly defined character with clearly defined goals and objectives, in a film in which everything one sees on screen is about him or her (far more often him than her) achieving or being confounded in achieving those goals and objectives.

When I got to California, I thought I was pretty hot stuff.  I had successfully networked a job that got me a credit on a TV show fresh out of Grad school – my very first job in Southern California!  Prior to that, I’d been published and won tons of writing awards.  I sold a comic book script, and even got published while I was working in Hollywood, something my bosses at the time got a real kick out of.  It felt like I could do no wrong.

When my inner demons from my past caught up to me, I fell hard.  I’m not ready to talk about that yet though.

Instead, I’m going to use this blog entry to talk about something specific I learned while I was there: how to write a screenplay.  Or well… I’m going to skip the specifics about how to write because I figure most people know whether they’re actually good writers.  If you don’t know the basics about writing, period, this blog entry isn’t for you.

If, however, you believe you’re a decent writer and want to try your hand at screenwriting, here’s what I learned about that over my seventeen years in California; hope you find it helpful —

1 – Writer’s block is the fear of writing badly.  I learned this from my first boss in Hollywood, an Emmy-award winning producer and professional television writer.  He felt that most people don’t write or get stuck because they’re afraid they’ll do it wrong.  Once he taught me this, getting started was never a problem again, because I committed to the idea that the first draft of anything I wrote would stink.  I write everything (including this blog) to this day this way – a first draft that’s little more than stream of consciousness; the actual writing occurring in the revising stage.

2 – Just because you’re a good writer (or film geek) doesn’t necessarily mean you will be a good screenwriter.  When I first went out to California, I assumed that because I’m a film geek with a minor in Cinema Studies who graduated with high distinction in English and has forgotten more films and TV shows than most people have ever seen, I would intuitively know how to write a film.  What I discovered is that while I know the parts of a film when I see them and have a general sense of what goes where, generating a film whole cloth from zero is not easy.  I discovered that writing a screenplay of 80-120 pages (the rule of thumb in screenwriting is that a page is approximately a minute of screen time) was far more than I’d ever written of anything, having won awards for writing essays or short stories.  A screenplay is inherently a huge piece of writing, with many moving parts, almost a novel in miniature.  But not really that either, because…

3 – A screenplay must follow the classical Hollywood narrative.  In this respect I had a slight advantage because I knew what that was, but from my experience in California I found that the average person, no matter how talented or brilliant, really wasn’t familiar with it despite watching movies with it their whole lives.  I myself didn’t know until my Cinema Studies professor in college taught me that the classical Hollywood narrative is a clearly defined character with clearly defined goals and objectives, in a film in which everything one sees on screen is about him or her (far more often him than her)  achieving or being confounded in achieving those goals and objectives.  From what a screenwriter friend told me, screenwriting books commonly refer to this as “through line,”  yet most new screenwriters I’ve found think of great scenes, characters, and even worlds, but take those and just start writing.  What I think they need to figure out first is who their protagonist is, what s/he wants, and then start telling their story, which hopefully will lead to those great scenes or take place in those great worlds.  Without the classical Hollywood narrative, I find that screenplays turn out aimless, boring, and often confusing too.

4 – In screenwriting, you get your scenes and your dialogue, and that’s it.  It took me forever to learn this point, which I find odd because I am a published comic book writer.  Nonetheless and going back to point #2, what I found in California is that many screenwriters, myself included, write screenplays like we would write novels or essays, where we explain in parenthetical what characters are thinking or in long action lines why they’re doing what they’re doing.  As a friend pointed out to me though, “how do you shoot that?”

What his question made clear to me was that a screenplay really is just a road map for a director more than anything else.  It instructs them in what to shoot, not necessarily why.  The why needs to come from what the characters do or what they say.  Parentheticals are there to help actors do that, but even then I think they’re best used sparingly, not as a way to direct the film on paper.  Comic book scripts are similar: I learned that a good comic book writer just tells the artist what to draw a picture of in each panel.  For years people would tell me “show, don’t tell,” but I never got what that meant.  Now I understand that it means you write what the director should be showing the audience in the action lines, and tell the actors what to say in the dialogue.  That means no long bricks of text either in action or parenthetical.  Just a sparse description of what the director needs to shoot and how an actor delivers his / her line.

5 – It is easier to edit than to write.  Writing is time-consuming, no matter how fast you type, and I believe that if you think about what you’re going to write as you’re doing it, it gets harder still.  This is one of the reasons why I think most screenwriters use outlines or scene cards – they give you some structure that you can rewrite into your script.  I feel that editing being easier than writing is also what gives many the false sense that they can easily write a screenplay – if you see a film and can think of things that might’ve made it better that’s all well and good, but I think that’s a form of editing, not writing.  I believe that screenwriting, or any kind of writing really – is about taking nothing and making it into something, not just editing what’s already there.  Want to make things easier for yourself?  Remember point #1 and write anything, and then edit it from there.  I find that it’s a lot easier that way.

Had I learned to write screenplays sooner, I might have been able to get further in Hollywood, but realistically, the trick is getting somebody that can do something to help you professionally to actually read your stuff.  Most screenwriters I know say that even getting friends to read your material is hard, let alone somebody with the power to produce it in some way.  Nonetheless screenwriting is a challenge and a skill I find intrinsically rewarding, and my hope is that now that I’m not in California I can get even better at doing it to the point of winning contests and awards once again.  I always regretted that I never did anything with my then-nascent screenwriting ability, and now without the stress of just surviving in California, I hope that I can.  Who knows?  Maybe that will be the skill that ultimately gets me back there.