I, at some point, discovered that there’s something that holds a lot of screenwriters back for years when it comes to writing the first draft of their screenplays. I think it’s a common mistake, and, especially early on, it seems like common sense. However, I found out that it is unbelievably hard to shake off.
Wanna know what it is?
It simply is believing that screenwriting is something you do sitting in front of your laptop.
Yeah. Banging away at a keyboard has very little to do with writing a screenplay that people will read, purchase or produce. If you think it is then I’d question whether you really understand what a screenplay actually is.
Robert McKee, the revered American creative writing instructor and author of the definitive “Screenwriters’ Bible” titled Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting, makes a crucial point very early on in one of his screenwriting seminars. He says words to the effect that:
“Literary talent is ten a penny.”
Here’s what I understood from that statement:
Literary talent — the ability to shape words into musical, meaningful, or fascinating passages — is common enough to be relatively uninteresting. Millions and millions of people across the world can do it. What is rare (so rare as to bag a lot of money and accolades for the lucky few like Aaron Sorkin, David S. Goyer, and Judd Apatow) is STORY ability. Movies live and breathe and thrive on story ability. And very few people in the world have it.
A literary text exists on the page. A novel is a direct creation of (and only of) the words that compose it, as they lie, written down on the page, in that order. It cannot meaningfully exist in any other form. Not so with a screenplay.
Sure, screenplays are passed around on paper. But their essence is a story told in pictures. A movie MUST exist away from the written page. That’s why the dreaded idea of pitching your story is central to the industry. Believe me, few things make me as edgy as the idea of trying to pitch my screenplay idea, with all its complexity, and subtle story twists and turns, to a room full of bored and hostile studio execs (whom I lovingly refer to as “suits”. Thank you, Billy Walsh) or some self-proclaimed veteran producer with a few credits to their name looking for their next big blockbuster script.
The suits don’t make you do this dance because they are illiterate idiots (as screenwriters who don’t make the grade like to complain). Far from it. When it comes to stories, the good suits (and they do exist) are very literate. They really know their job. They know that a story which can’t exist off the page, that the writer can’t tell verbally, that doesn’t have a vivid existence hanging in the air between the pitcher and the listener, is going to die on screen. And you know why they know this? It’s because they are in the business of entertainment (emphasis on the business part). Their job is to put butts in cinema seats and make profits off DVD sales for their distribution companies. Which means selling a good movie/product, which ALSO means identifying a good movie/product. If you’re pitching a crap project, and they know it, then you get the boot!
But only recently did I realize I could do it, and, what’s more, I WAS happy to do it. Why? Because I know my story better than anyone and I have to convince others to buy into the idea. A story is a thing that exists out there, away from the page, in images, and actions, and choices made by the characters. It’s an essence, an idea, a slippery, sinuous thing that can change and twist and reform — and gain power and beauty every time it does so.
So why oh why would you try to create a story by staring at your laptop screen and go through the hard labor of typing words that will, whatever your best intentions, nail the thing down before its ready?
What you have to do (what you MUST do if you are going to get anywhere) is get used to seeing your scenes in your head before you write them down. You have to get used to writing your story in your imagination. It’s hard, of course, but it’s the only way to do it. If you find it apparently impossible, as I did when I started out don’t worry. Just start small.
In my last screenwriting seminar, someone told me he didn’t know how to craft his story. I told him to chart the course of his day from when he woke up that morning to when he got to the seminar. Take out the bits that were uninteresting and write it down. He came back to me later with a 3-page script and a smile. I then told him to write down everything that happens to his character (himself) after the seminar until the end of the week. This time he emailed me a 15-page script that included a near mugging on his way home, getting caught in a traffic jam, a mysterious lady who kept calling his phone, and the midnight explosion of his neighbor’s generator (the fuel cap wasn’t tightened)! All in all, I was impressed.
When writing, I have whole five minute sequences playing in my head. I let them build over days. I run them over and over again. I change the order of events, my point of view on the action, the cuts between characters, and so on until I get the rhythm right. Then, and only then, do I go to the laptop. And do you know what? The sequence writes itself. It pours out of my head and the screenplay draft ends up reading like a dream. Which, of course, is what it really is.
Sound like a plan? Cool.
Emil Biobelemoye Hirai-Garuba is a freelance screenwriter whose work spans feature films, short films, documentaries, television shows and the occasional commercial. Emil is also the Creative Director of Rated E, a content production company that develops original stories for transmedia outlets, and offers training and consultation services for individuals and various high-profile media clients. Emil has a sweet tooth and rumor has it he once offered his services in exchange for ice cream. He’s yet to confirm or deny this.