In my continual quest to improve my writing, I’ve taken a look at screenwriting. (It has nothing to do with a possible deal for a movie adaptation of Murder In Absentia, about which I’m legally not allowed to talk just yet).
Screenwriting is an interesting medium of storytelling, one with both similarities and differences to novel writing — and understanding those aspects can improve both.
I’m sure you’ve seen plenty of novel-movie adaptions (in both directions). Some are great, for example The Princess Bride. Both the book (1973) and the movie (1987) are amazing, different enough to stand on their own right yet convey the same charm. Some adaptations are even better than the original (GRRM’s Game of Thrones as a possible example. The TV series is much more focused, leading to a less meandering — and therefore more captivating — story). Some, admittedly, are absolutely atrocious (happens all too often).
As a way to understand why some adaptations work and some don’t, as a way to ensure that any future movie of my books will be different-yet-awesome, and as a way to grow as a writer in general, I’ve looked into the basics of screenwriting. Here are a couple of great resources you can learn from.
First is the FutureLearn course on Screenwriting. I’ve mentioned their free, online courses before when talking about researching ancient Rome. The format is easy to consume, and they impart the basics you need very engagingly and efficiently. This course is only two weeks, so not a great time commitment.
The course does an excellent job in exposing you to basic elements of screenwriting as a medium of storytelling — how, for example, since it’s written for a performance, your tools are only external aspects in building scene and dialog, leave actions to illustrate the character’s internal state (while on the flip side, you have a lot more visual and auditory tracks to play with). Movie scripts are like blueprints, a set of instructions for the filmmakers and actors, not a complete story like a novel.
Some advice in the course will resonate with novel writers, such as the 3-act, character driven story structure, and the way to reduce it to “someone wants something, and has trouble getting is”. Discussions about approaches to character and scene construction, about how much the character is self aware, how much agency they have or how proactive they are, and how this reflects in reader engagement, are also good.
A drawback of this course is that the panel of educators does tend to drift into abstract discussions and constantly allow that “there are always exceptions”. While going down the blockbuster formula (see next resource) may be the other extreme, one doesn’t need to always reference the avant-garde, alternative cinema in what is a course about the basics. The aim of the course is also to draw students to the University of East Anglia (the producer of the course) Creative Writing program, so there’s a bit of self-promotional material that can be skipped (if, like me, you live on the other side of the planet).
Bottom line: it’s a nice, general intro to what screenwriting encompasses, but it isn’t aimed at giving you specific tools to use. The lesson about screenplay formatting was helpful, as were some of the discussions, though I suspect there might be easier and more concise ways to learn these lessons. It’s useful for a different perspective on story-telling to make you think rather than directly applicable tools, if you have the time to spare.
The second resource is the book Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder. This book has been called both the best and worst thing that has happened to Hollywood.
(Funnily, although the subtitle reads “The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need” Snyder has gone on to write a few sequels.)
Snyder takes a look at what elements make a screenplay work in a commercial Hollywood environment. The explicit assumption is that you intend to be able to sell the script, and for it to eventually make a satisfying movie. (Don’t read this book if your aim is to win the ‘French movies no one actually sees’ award).
The tone is very conversational and the approach is very practical, but that doesn’t diminish from what Snyder is saying. It’s an easily consumed book that nonetheless condenses very useful, intelligent information. Though focused on movies, he’s looking very much into what forms of stories and storytelling work — and that approach is applicable to any forms of storytelling.
From ‘loglines’ (the movie equivalent of subtitles and blurbs), to story archetypes (not genres, but commonalities between unlikely types), to sympathetic characters, to conflict and emotional arc, and on, Snyder’s words are for the most part applicable to any medium of storytelling. He presents ‘rules’ as shorthand for do’s and don’ts that have proven impact. It’s always advisable to understand the common narrative and why it works before (or if) you plan to challenge and break it.
A lot of the detractors seem to focus on two aspects of the novel — the ‘Save the Cat’ scenes to make the hero likeable, and the ‘Beat Sheet’ that lists emotional highs and lows at particular points of the story. One, there is nothing wrong with an approachable protagonist (and a lot of right to it), and, Two, I think the twists and turns of the beat sheet and its rhythm make a lot of sense. While you may stretch or shorten or twist certain aspect, your goal as a storyteller is to make readers connect emotionally with the characters and their story. Snyder’s Beat Sheet is a helpful tool in ensuring that your story doesn’t meander or comes flat — and who wants that?
I’d highly recommend this novel to any writer, whether novelist of playwright, who’s interested in reaching readers (and make no mistake — there is no glory in being an unappreciated artist; success as an author lies in reaching and impacting people, and selling and marketing your novel is a necessary step for this).
There are, of course, different view points. One that are on my TBR is Story by Robert McKee. I’m continually tweaking my own processes — see for example my blog post about the balance between plotting and pantsing. Snyder’s techniques, rules, and approaches are something I think would help me as I write.
Now, would just consuming these resources turn you into a hotshot screenwriter who sells every script to make a blockbuster? Err, nope. Exactly in the same way that no book on writing craft will turn you in the next JK Rowling.
My view is that it’s always good to read about various approaches to storytelling, and then let them sink in and ferment in the back of my mind. When I’m writing, I’m focused on the story and not consciously thinking about technique. But, one, these ideas do come through subconsciously in the writing, and, two, when editing I take a more critical analysis that can see flaws and possible solutions.
I don’t read these resources in order to follow some secret formula (there isn’t none), nor do I seek comprehensive education (because as most authors with an English degree will tell you, it delayed their career rather than directly aiding it). Some of the things taught by these resources echo other writing advice, and I think that serves to reinforce and hammer in the underlying core aspects. (e.g. creating a conflict and tension by having every character want something that they can’t easily get is an advice I came across before).
Over time, I do find that consuming such resources improves my craft. While I always had a “feel” for story beats (what needs to happen when) which I blame on excessive reading from a young age, I believe that consciously reading about story structure etc makes the writing process smoother. I can identify problems sooner and address them while still drafting, making editing easier (or at least concerned with even higher level aspects), and the final result even better.
So what are your thoughts on screenwriting, and on improving your writer’s craft in general? I’d love to hear!