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Screenwriting: I know a little bit now

This summer I am sitting in on an introduction to screenwriting course in my academic department. The final output is 30 pages—the first act—of a screenplay.

The teacher is doing a fine job and this is not a reflection on him or the class. An instructor is not the only responsible person in the success of the class, despite what students think. The students must bring their best effort, their “A game” as the cliché goes, as we co-teach each other. When the class is about creative writing, we are also critiquing and encouraging each other.

So what have I learned?

Final Draft is great and worth the frustration. $129 is not that bad for a life-time access and the ability to do other kinds of scripts, not just industry-standard screenplays. The format of a screenplay is so specific and so hard to do in Word and I can’t imagine how hard on a typewriter (which thankfully we don’t have to use any more).

Writing a novel is totally different from writing a screenplay. How?

The writer controls how long the novel is, within reason, of course (I’m no David Foster Wallace). A screenplay is like a sonnet, under strict page and time limits.

A screenplay is based on scenes and visuals. A novel is based on words and character. (Of course, a screenplay has those, but they are secondary to scenes, action, sights and sounds.)

A screenplay is a foundation for a collaborative art form. The novel or short fiction is what it is.

A screenplay is simpler in vision, in some ways. By that I don’t mean it is simplistic and easy to create. No, no, no. I mean that it has a spine of what it is about and who it is about. A screenplay is really about one person’s quest to “get” his/her desire or want. If that’s not clear, it’s not going to work as a screenplay. It’s going to be all over the place, unfocused, and unfilmable.

A screenplay has to have lots of scenes. That is what I am struggling with now. Our instructor says that a scene should only be about two pages or two minutes. Yikes. I’m adapting a play, and a play is even less like a screenplay than a novel is. I know that’s hard to believer, but a play is all dialogue. Dialogue in a screenplay should move the story forward or reveal character. Dialogue in a play should do that but also explores themes and worldviews of the writer. That can work, but it can also end up as “talking heads,” to quote our textbook author.

Speaking of the textbook, ours was Syd Field’s Foundations of Screenwriting. It’s definitely …. formulaic, but one must learn the rules before breaking them. Or not so much breaking them, as bending or building on them or knowing when the hard and fast rules don’t necessarily work.

I still don’t understand the “beat” thing (at least not to verbalize it) and the “card-method” is still a mystery. I have a lot to learn. And that brings me to the final points.

Taking every possible screenwriting course and devouring every popular book on the subject will not a good screenwriter or screenplay make. It’s a start, but there’s a lot more involved.

I’m very aware of what my fatal flaws as a novelist and possible screenwriter are. Impatience. Boredom with revision (death knell). Default. Minimal research. Not willing to sacrifice the time. I am trying to get an agent for my latest novel, and this will be a long journey, despite my age.

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