So You Want To Be A Screenwriter…
I always knew I wanted to be a writer. I wrote short stories as a kid and read voraciously and loved telling tall tales to anyone who would listen. But I also loved movies and thought screenwriting might be an easier entre into a writing career. Not so fast, young padawan…
In college I chose to double major in English literature and theater arts. In both arenas I did lots of creative writing. I wrote short stories and plays and directed plays and acted in plays, all of which gave me insights into how to tell stories and write dialogue that actors could actually speak without sounding stilted or twisting their tongues into knots. Any of you actors out there know what I’m talking about.
For graduate school, I enrolled at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles to pursue my dream of becoming a scriptwriter. I learned television and film writing formats, as well as all the technical aspects of making a film. I wrote and directed some shorts, wrote television scripts, and submitted a final “thesis” screenplay that I never did anything with except utilize its themes in later stories.
After graduation, I partnered with two fellow film majors to make low budget, direct to video horror movies. You can find me on IMDB and those films are embarrassingly bad, but worth a few laughs. However, each was a learning experience. Whether I wrote, directed, produced, acted in, handled sound or some other technical function, each endeavor helped me understand writing a little better. As well-made as most Hollywood films are today, the weakest aspect is usually the script, and that angers me. It’s not difficult to get a screenplay right before going into production. Sometimes aspects of a script change or dialogue shifts due to realities of filming, especially if a film is low budget like mine were. But with the massive budgets these films have today, there’s no excuse for a bad script. Sorry, folks. There isn’t.
Most film schools today provide internship opportunities in the industry for their students, opportunities I didn’t have back in the day when I attended LMU. Having said that, breaking into the business via screenwriting is still probably the most difficult pathway. Everybody and their pit bull have a screenplay idea or an actual script already written. However, getting that script to someone who can actually move it forward is almost like winning the lottery.
I wrote a number of screenplays after grad school and tried numerous creative avenues to get those scripts to agents or producers. I even scaled the walls of the Burbank Studios one time to get a script to some producer but never found his office. I finally began teaching high school and put writing aside. I continued to enter my scripts in screenplay competitions, but never won any of them. Those competitions are about the only way an un-agented writer can get his or her script in front of people who might be able to move it forward. So if you write a script, that avenue might be your best shot. Francis Ford Coppola, director of the Godfather movies, has a big screenplay contest via Zoetrope Studios, and there are many others, large and small, to choose from. Google “screenplay competitions” and they will all pop up. There is, of course, an entry fee, but the fee rule applies to book award competitions, too. For that fee there is the possibility someone significant will read your work. All it takes is one person and you could be on your way. Alas, I have never found him or her.
I wrote my first book in the early years of teaching and attempted to interest agents and publishers. No dice. Years later, with the advent of self-publishing, I did release that book - a middle grade+ urban fantasy set in Northern California in 1970 entitled A Boy and His Dragon. Of course, with no budget for promotion, the book never went anywhere. But I had a number of screenplays in my file cabinet at home and decided maybe I should turn some of them into novels. After all, I already had the templates, so why not flesh them out? With small press publishers springing up, I thought maybe one of those stories might get noticed. I started with my longest screenplay, A Matter of Time. It was a time travel romance set in 1985 and 1912 and involved the sinking of Titanic. With the 100th anniversary of Titanic’s sinking approaching in 2012, I set about turning that script into a novel. Once complete, I actually found an agent willing to shop it around, but no publisher wanted it. So I self-published in early 2012 to coincide with the anniversary of the sinking and the book went nowhere, just like my first.
Since then, I converted my scripts Children of the Knight and Healer (which became Spinner) into novels that were published by small press publishers, and I’m currently novelizing Like A Hero, a finalist in the Shriekfest Screenplay Competition. So, how do the two art forms differ? Quite a lot, actually, which is why beloved books seldom feel the same when transferred to the screen.
The one essential element that’s necessary for both formats is “showing,” rather than “telling.” Obviously, film is a visual medium and the screenwriter has no option for “telling” the audience anything unless it’s via voice over narration, a lazy technique that seldom works. No, in a script the writer has to convey with action and dialogue everything important about a character and everything needed for the plot to make sense. Descriptions are kept to a minimum because the director will visualize the story however he or she sees fit. The writer provides a very basic outline of a character, i.e. “he’s fifteen years old, surfer blond hair, vibrant blue eyes, in a wheelchair, dresses emo style.” That’s the description of Alex, my main teen protagonist in the screenplay Healer (which begat the novel Spinner.) Such a description would never wash in a book. In a novel, the reader should get a general picture of a character at first, with further details added in along the way. Long paragraph descriptions of what characters look like constitute “telling,” rather than “showing” a character through setting or action or even dialogue, i.e. another character: “I love your eyes. They look so blue, like the earth from space.” Showing is always better than telling.
Another essential requirement for both mediums is a dynamic opening, specifically the first ten pages. They have to be good. If the reader, or the viewer, isn’t hooked right away, you’re likely to lose him or her for good. Agents and publishers are no different than film executives – they want to be drawn into your story immediately and feel excited about continuing. So start off with a bang whenever possible. Spinner begins with Alex dreaming that his favorite teacher is pushed in front of a truck after being mauled by cats. Children of the Knight begins with the police breaking up a large gang brawl in a barrio section of Los Angeles. Like A Hero begins with a hostage standoff at a middle school graduation. You get the idea.
Writing a script requires a screenwriting program like Final Draft or Movie Magic Screenwriter because the parameters are very specific. Scripts not adhering to the proper format won’t even be accepted in competitions. Each scene is established by a scene location and time of day. Character names appear in the middle of the page with dialogue in narrow margins beneath. Action blocks use the full margins and should be detailed enough for a reader to know what’s happening, but not as descriptive as in a book. If some object or person is very important to the story, you can use “CU” for “Close Up” or write “Close On” to highlight it. Otherwise, it’s best to avoid too much “directing” in a spec script, i.e. including camera angles and such. Spec scripts are those you were not hired to write, but have written on your own and submitted somewhere in the hopes it will be acquired by a producer. Most screenplays are approximately one hundred twenty pages, with the generally accepted notion that one page equals one minute of screen time. Obviously, this varies. Most competitions will accept scripts up to one hundred thirty pages.
Because of its limitations, screenwriting will feel restrictive to anyone who started out writing novels. However, the format teaches us writers how to think differently, more visually, with a greater degree of cleverness if we want to get our ideas across to a viewing audience. I began as a screenwriter and filmmaker, and both of those helped me as a novelist, I think. Reviewers have often commented that when reading my books they feel like they’re watching a film. They can visualize everything in more than enough detail, but don’t feel bogged down by unnecessary descriptive information or too much “telling” of what characters are thinking or feeling. They get to “experience” what the characters do and feel and seem to like that style of writing.
Converting a script into a book allows for more information and greater depth of characterization and character interaction. You can have lengthy conversations between characters in a book (though I try not to do this often), whereas on screen, dialogue scenes should be relatively short and always peppered with action or something visual to hold the attention of the audience. Obviously in a book, the author can share the thoughts and inner feelings of a character to give readers more insight. This cannot be done in a film. Much of that is left to the actor to convey, and good actors play subtext masterfully. Case in point – I found the character of Katniss Everdeen rather dull and almost entirely reactive in the Hunger Games books. However, Jennifer Lawrence brought astounding depth to that character and said more with a single facial expression than any author could do in pages of description. So yes, good actors truly bring your characters to life.
As an interesting sidelight, after I turned the screenplay Healer into the novel Spinner and added quite a bit to the storyline, I decided to turn the novel back into a screenplay to enter it into competitions. Even though I’d written the book, and had previously written the script, I found the task challenging, as I’d never adapted a book before. Character scenes that advanced relationships often had to fall by the wayside because the book was long and I couldn’t have a three hundred-page screenplay. Such scenes also slowed down the pacing. The pacing of a script is different than a novel because an audience will be sitting through the film all at once, as opposed to putting down a book and returning to it.
I also had to figure out how to visualize important information, like Alex’s backstory, into a format so the audience would not be bored. Turning key thoughts and feelings of characters into dialogue or action also proved tricky. Spinner is a very visual book with lots of spooky scenes (the kids creeping around a graveyard at night) and action sequences (Alex in his wheelchair hanging onto the back of a speeding pickup truck while the bad guys pursue in a car) that translated well to script format. But the supernatural “connection” Alex had with his friends, as well as his “spinning” ability, were less easy to “show,” rather than “tell.” The novel is four hundred sixty-one pages and the screenplay came out to one hundred sixty-one, so you can see I had to cut a lot, including a couple of subplots that enhanced the novel but were not essential to the script. I entered the screenplay in three competitions. It achieved semi-finalist status in one, and I’ve not heard back from the other two.
So, you want to be a writer, right? Here’s my take on novels versus screenplays: both are very difficult to market to the right people. Books are easier to get published these days, especially since you can self-publish, as I’ve done with most of my books. Did having a small press publisher help with the two books that had one? Not at all. Sadly, they have no greater access to the big journals than I do. And by big journals, I mean School Library Journal, Booklist, Library Journal, Publisher’s Weekly, to name a few. Especially with books aimed at teenagers or kids, without reviews and promotion from those journals, it’s almost impossible for an author to reach the target audience. If a writer pens books for adults, the field is wider and the chances for success are greater.
Promotion is left to the author whether the book is small press or self-published. There are a number of virtual online blog tours that can help raise exposure and interest level for a book (Tribute Books Blog Tours and Sage’s Blog Tours being two excellent choices), but again, these are mainly successful with books aimed at adults. For screenplays, as noted above, there are really just “competitions” that might showcase your script to industry professionals. If you actually know someone in the film industry who would read your script, then by all means write it. But make sure you have others beta read it and help you polish it so the script is the best it can be. You will only get one shot at impressing that person you know.
So there you have my experiences writing screenplays and books and attempting to market both to the appropriate people. I hope I haven’t discouraged anyone out there. Yes, it’s an uphill battle in either arena, and will require a lot of time and effort on your part. But your dream is to be a writer, right? So isn’t your dream worth all that effort? Only you can decide. But one thing I know from reading lots of books and seeing lots of films – we NEED good writers, especially those who think outside the box and don’t imitate the same old formula or try to create the next carbon copy of Hunger Games or Twilight. So please, if you have an original story to tell, tell it. Share it. Someone will appreciate it, even if you don’t become a best-selling author or six-figure screenwriter. Your story will change someone’s life. Even mine have, and I’m an author no one has ever heard of. But that’s another story for some other time. For now, keep writing!