Why Are You Writing A Screenplay?
I love this question and I’m surprised by how often I come across someone writing a script who has never had to explain or articulate why they want to or what they hope to get out of it. The answer is almost always fascinating and I can learn quite a lot about the writer from whatever their answer may be. There’s no “wrong” answer of course, but their are a lot of genuinely misplaced or misinformed assumptions attached to some of them.
In very simple terms, there are two basic motivations / goals that a screenwriter can have:
To create a screenplay that will be made into a film, either via a production of their own or that they will directly be involved in, or via a sale of their screenplay to a filmmaking professional.
To have some fun and explore an unusual form of creative writing with no interest or aspirations in selling the work or using it to make a film.
For business, or for fun. Those are the only options available. Most of the people that take the Sighthound Fundamentals of Screenwriting course hope to sell their script. They’re in the “business” category. They want to become a working screenwriter or maybe they already make films and want to “up their game” at storytelling to aid their career and / or to help them make better films. It’s not complicated.
There are always a few who just want to have some fun as well and I should point out that I have absolutely no issue with instructing people who just want to explore their own creative talents and have no interest in going pro or even sharing their work. It’s all good. And screenwriting genuinely can be fun.
So, for those who are writing purely for their own personal satisfaction, there are - in theory at least - no rules. There’s really no requirement to observe standard formatting practice, run time considerations, budgetary considerations etc. None of that matters if you’re the only person who is going to read it. But, despite the fact that the work will never be shared with anyone in the industry, I still do my best to discourage folks in this category from ignoring the norms, because - and this is important - if you write something that does not adhere to the industry standards, you’re not really writing a screenplay.
You don’t become a great soccer player by making up your own rules. You learn the universally accepted rules and then dedicate yourself to developing the skills required to execute them better than everyone else on the field.
I’ve always said that a screenplay is a really weird beast within the creative writing animal kingdom. It’s like the platypus of creative wring. There’s nothing else quite like it. There are no close relatives. The closest I can come up with is with the Haiku poem and I only say that because - like the Haiku - if you wander off the formula even a little bit, it’s no longer a Haiku.
So … when I instruct the Fundamentals course, I feel a great deal of obligation to start by resetting some expectations and correcting some common misconceptions. Believe it or not, the film industry does actually want fresh voices, innovative narratives, shiny new concepts and clever re-inventions of the genres and themes that everyone loves. But it also wants - and demands - that your screenplay looks and acts like a screenplay.
A lot of new writers get frustrated by this demand for conformity and lash out, complaining that this very philosophy is what makes all Hollywood films the same boring, predictable, regurgitated slop year after year. It’s not. Have we run out of ways to write new Haiku’s? No. And we never will. Just because there are copious “rules” or “guidelines” and specific expectations from the industry does not mean that your unique voice can’t be heard as a writer. That you can’t develop the skills to stand out. You simply have to know what the rules are and why everyone values them so much so you can then use them to your advantage.
Think about it: Hollywood comfort food (the big, often shallow blockbusters that fill up most of our multiplexes) may be making all the money at the box office, but it’s the innovators and fresh, unique voices that spark change, that push the evolution of the genres and the two-hour narrative forward. It’s the new and unusual and different that propel the industry. The industry constantly needs fresh blood to survive. And these days there’s never been so much demand for fresh content, so your chances are as good as ever.
What’s often lost on new writers is that the entire film industry system is dramatically different than any other creative writing world. It shares very little with the publishing world, for example. And there is very little about screenwriting in particular that is intuitive. In fact, I’d say nothing about it is intuitive.
Most of us have had to engage in some form of creative writing during our school years and the skills we learned during that period are very easy to translate into writing novels, blogs, journalism etc., because the rules are very much the same. The “rules” for screenwriting, however are not at all the same. The language (English, French, Spanish whatever your primary language may be) that you use to write with may be the same, but the visual “language” of how the story is presented on the page is radically different. So radically different that it actually informs what kind of stories can and can’t work as a successful film.
I say “successful” because, again - if you are writing for only yourself - then it can look and read however you want it to with absolutely no negative impact on you, your career or your reputation. You’re just in it for fun. Your goals are all internal. But for those in the “business” category, it’s much more complex and there are many, many more details that require tending to before you have any hope of doing business and getting paid.
Even the most wonderful stories don’t automatically make great movies. And they regularly make terrible movies because those translating them don’t recognize or observe the attributes that are unique to and required by screenplays to survive the translation.
It’s perhaps best not to even think of a screenplay as a story. Incredibly, it’s a fact that at times, the story isn’t at all what is important (we’ll get into that another time)! It’s the platypus of creative writing remember, and it is something very, very different than just a story. There’s a story in there, of course, but that’s far from the whole picture. It’s a blueprint for a motion picture. And it’s the blueprint part of the equation that is most important because everyone in the industry knows how to read a “blueprint” and needs to because that crazy format can tell all of the other people working on the final film what they need to map and plan out the production. Without proper formatting, you are expecting professionals to guess. How likely does that seem to you?
It can be tough to swallow for some , but there really is only one reason for a screenplay to exist. They exist to be made into a motion picture. There are no screenplay stores. You do not go to a library to read screenplays. The vast majority of the public have no interest in reading a screenplay. They don’t care. They do care about movies however, so that is the only logical goal: to get your story up on the big screen (or, these days, perhaps Netflix or some other streaming service).
So … if the only reason a screenplay exists is to eventually make it into a film, then anyone writing a screenplay must observe that endgame in their work and in their process. You can’t just write anything and present it in any old format. First you need to learn a new language. The Hollywood language. The strange, exotic, frustrating and counter-intuitive language of screenwriting. And you need to ask some questions that are unique to screenwriting before you start.
Questions like “Does anyone want to see this movie (other than you)? Is there any hope of paying for this thing and getting a healthy return on that investment? Will actors want to play these characters?”And more recently … “Can we turn this concept into a franchise?” These are the kinds of questions you have to ask (because these are what producers and executives ask themselves) and have in mind when you sit down to create a screenplay. It may not be romantic, but literally nothing else makes sense. You have to understand what can and can’t be a successful film - and why.
So, to find success is screenwriting, you really do need to commit to some form of study. Books, seminars, courses, videos, whatever you prefer. All avenues can work as long as you learn and get fluent in this very strange language - first. All that is important is that you learn and continue to learn as much and often as you can afford because there is no way to succeed without knowing why these strange “rules” and expectations exist. Once you understand them, you can use them as tools and not see them as barriers standing in your way.
Don’t kid yourself into thinking you’re some kind of “natural”, either. Don’t try to convince yourself you don’t need to bother learning this language to succeed. “Naturals” do not exist in screenwriting. None of the worlds greatest screenwriter’s found success without copious amounts of study and practice. It’s a skill that has to be learned because , again, there is noting intuitive about it. There is simply no way to apply “raw instinct” or “natural talent” to screenwriting. I’ve had to good fortune of being a judge for screenwriting contests and I am not just shocked, but genuinely insulted when I find a script submitted that is not in any way a properly formatted screenplay. I don’t read those because no other professional will either. They have no value. Period. Do your homework. Take it seriously. If you don’t take your work seriously, why would anyone else?
Another of my unromantic beliefs is that screenwriters are not artists. Not by any definition that I recognize, anyway. They can certainly bring artistry to their work - and should - but they are not artists per se. Here’s my definition so that you can understand why I say that:
Screenwriters are not artists because they are not creating art. They are - as many have said before me - creating a blueprint for art. Screenwriters are narrative architects and like any architect, the final product cannot be completed until the blueprint is given to the developers and contractors who then build the actual art ( the motion picture).
To be an artist, you must be either the principal creator, or one of the principal creators that create the work of art. Screenwriters are not the principal creator. They are only one of many people who are required to complete the final work of art which, again, is the motion picture, not the screenplay.
To be an artist, you must share your work directly with your audience - something screenwriters can’t do - which then creates an opportunity for the final piece of the puzzle to occur. The final ingredient of any work of art is the opportunity for a public discourse about the merits of the art amongst the members of the audience. Again, the general public will never see or read your script. And aside from a very small group of people who study and discuss screenplays, the public is not interested in reading your “blueprint”. At best, they just want to watch the film.
This is not meant to discourage anyone by the way. I hope it doesn’t read that way. There’s nothing in the challenge of becoming a successful screenwriter that most people aren’t capable of achieving with focus and discipline and a commitment to years of study and practice. I apologize if that sounds hard, but it is. It’s very hard, but It can absolutely be done and I would love to help anyone achieve it. That’s why I teach.
So… with all of that now in mind, my next question for you is …
ARE YOU SURE YOU ARE ACTUALLY WRITING A SCREENPLAY?
How can anyone be sure that the story they are developing has any chance of becoming a successful screenplay and film BEFORE they waste months or years writing it?
In short, you write a killer logline for it. Because if you can’t make your logline work, chances are your screenplay won’t work either. One or two short sentences written in a very specific style with a very specific purpose will either legitimize your concept, or quickly prove you’re in trouble. So that’s what we’ll talk about next time - The critical importance of being able to write A KILLER LOGLINE.
Presented by The Forest City Film Festival
March 23: 1-5pm
March 24: 1-5pm
March 30: 1-5pm
March 31: 1-5pm
(* All 4 dates and a 280+ page reference manual included in price)
BMO Centre, 295 Rectory St, London ON
Second floor, Meeting Room “B”.
Note: No food or drink from home is permitted, but there is a snack bar on site.