Sunday, September 09, 2007


There is so much tedious and annoying stuff you need to do in order to write a good screenplay.

I think when most people think about it, they think about sitting down at a computer and somehow cranking out 100 pages of dialogue and cuts and fades and people opening doors.

But this is L.A., where people are more informed about the ins and outs of movie-related endeavors. So when most of them think about screenwriting, they probably think about writing an outline or a treatment or whatever you want to call it and then turning that into 100 pages of dialogue and cuts and fades and people opening doors.

Yeah, all that stuff is pretty easy. Comparatively, anyway. Which is why practically every screenwriting class or book on earth will only teach you about those two things -- writing an outline, and turning that outline into a script. It makes sense: those are the things you can teach. And really, you can teach both of them in a total of around ten minutes.

Here's a list of things about writing that I really don't think you can't teach.
  • Making up an interesting story that also makes sense and will fill a movie; and
  • Making up interesting characters who will change over the course of the story and whose words and actions will be believable based on what you know (or will later learn) about them.
It's not a very long list. It's only two things, actually. Except it's kind of, well, everything. If you can't do these things there's pretty much zero point in going any further. And yet, tons of people who really can't do them go ahead and write their screenplays, and then they show them to you and want to know what suggestions you have. I've been reading a lot of scripts recently on (a co-op site for aspiring screenwriters) and I can sum up my notes on practically everything I've read so far thusly: Clearly you don't know what the fuck you're doing, so throw out everything and start over and make up something better.

It's hard to say that politely, so I end up doing one of two things: ignoring the script and moving on; or poking enough holes in every aspect of it for the writer to (hopefully) get the point that he/she just needs to start over and really think about it next time. Most of them probably don't take this advice, because all they wanted to hear was that the scene on page 67 needed some work, and then they could fix it and have a perfect script. I don't blame them; that used to be me. When I finished my first screenplay and handed it in to the teacher of my college writing course, the notes I got back were that the story and characters were basically unworkable and I should really think about changing the whole thing entirely. My reaction was to furiously assert (to myself) that he didn't know what he was talking about and it just needed a little work here and there to be great. Which of us was right? Well, since I've had zero temptation to even touch the script since then, I'm thinking it wasn't me.

But I digress. Those two things I bullet-pointed up there? Yes, they're applicable to pretty much any storytelling medium, from short stories to naughty finger puppet shows. It's just that they really, really, really matter in a screenplay, because there is absolutely nothing else to hide behind. Which is way ironic, because in a movie there are like a zillion things to hide behind. 20th Century Fox logo! Fancy credits! Pretty actress! Explosion! Helicopter shot over New York City! Sex! That new Fall Out Boy song! The End! A movie doesn't need to be good to be good; it just needs to be watchable.

On the other hand, a screenplay can't even be readable unless it's freaking great. This is because standard screenplay format --to which any first-time writer must adhere-- is like a giant Roomba that glides over your story and sucks up every last bit of surface-y cleverness and wit, leaving behind nothing but the most basic elements of plot and character. Take it from me, a person who has read a ton of scripts in his short-ass life: screenplays are not fun to read. There is no subtlety to them, no room for personal touches, absolutely nothing to make you forget that you are reading instructions for shooting a movie. Instead of explaining this more, I'm just going to go ahead and link you to the screenplay for Jaws. Go ahead, read it for a little while. Try not to get bored, even though it's one of the most exciting movies ever made. Or here's Raiders of the Lost Ark.

So. A screenplay is horribly difficult to write and not all that fun to read. But if you love movies, if you think you have an idea for a better than average one, if you're secure enough in your talent to believe that you could put that idea down on paper in a compelling way, if your quixotic nature lets you dare to hope that one day that paper might be bought and eventually filmed... then you really. Have. No. Other. Choice.