In Lesson One of this series I started out by making sure that you understood that, until about a year ago, I knew NOTHING about screenwriting. The point of this entire journey is to share the experience of starting from square one and trying to learn screenwriting from the Internet and from sources recommended by writers on the Internet. As a life-long autodidact (one who can gain mastery of various subjects by pure research, without the aid of face-to-face human interaction) I am not against classroom instruction nor do I belittle the benefits that flow from attaining academic certification in the form of scholarly degrees. If life circumstances would have allowed, I would have gladly gone the formal route and would probably have six or seven additional alpha characters appended to my name. As it stands I have none.
So, rather than making this course an advertisement for self-learning I hope to merely make it a resource for those whose life circumstances and perhaps, current personal finances, make it impossible to pursue an academic degree, or even to attend classes in screenwriting at the moment. Actually, I assure you, from my own experience and that of some family members: gaining mastery in a subject by self-study can be a virtual jet-assisted takeoff, if the opportunity to attend college ever presents itself.
Short of enrolling in an accredited and widely acclaimed screenwriting degree program at a famous school, like the University of Southern California, one can enroll in many short courses, webinars and seminars offered by recognized film-industry professionals. (Many of these offer the option of attending class and/or home study.) If you have done a Google or Bing search on the subject of screenwriting, you have probably already been inundated (as I warned earlier) by offers to purchase such learning. So far I, personally have spent nothing on formal education in my pursuit of this knowledge, but that doesn’t mean that I won’t–once I feel that I have sufficient knowledge to be able to sort out the good offerings from the spurious ones and the inapplicable from the relevant. If my readers have neither time nor money to burn, I would advocate following my “curriculum” for the present. And, as I mentioned earlier, don’t treat unsolicited emails as merely spam. Most contain helpful free information along with their offers for paid courses, books seminars and screenwriting competitions.
The Beauty of the Milieu’s Chaos
I call it chaos because–so far–it appears that there is no right or wrong way to do anything pertaining to the production of a script for Hollywood, Bollywood, Pinewood, Broadcast or Cable. I have come to this opinion by reading some of those professional scripts I earlier recommended you download from BlueCat and other reputable web sites. Short of the general difference between a “spec” script (a bare-bones copy produced on speculation and used for promotion and marketing ) and a “shooting script” (a script containing actor’s direction, blocking, camera angles and calls for props and music) you will find every “hard and fast” rule violated–and a few totally unique and creative approaches introduced. I find that the scripts by famous writer/producer/director/actor-types are the most “creative,” in that respect. Their status in the industry seems to give them immunity from the rules the mortals must follow. And to be fair, some scriptwriting conventions that seem odd, especially in shooting scripts, are the result of one particular production company’s internal style sheet. If you are ever so blessed as to have one of your future scripts optioned and produced, your script will need to be re-written if for no other reason than to apply the style sheet of your production company customer.
Although there appear to be no hard and fast rules–in general–there are definitely guidelines that a new, unknown screenwriter must follow so that his or her spec scripts will be taken seriously; these are, very briefly, by order of importance:
A spec script should be between 90 and 125 pages, no more. The general rule is that one page equals one minute of screen time. Since most movies are an hour and a half to two hours long, you must keep an initial script within those constraints. On the Internet you will probably encounter shooting scripts of 180 pages or more but those extra pages are frequently caused by the addition of detailed direction in regard to camera-angles, props, music and even set-design.
A film script must have conflict and resolution. Conflict and resolution are the essence of plot. Some have expressed it in terms of “character flaws,” the overcoming of which provides the conflict and resolution that make a plot. Although such a simplistic definition might be true in many cases a much more general and helpful description is offered in an excellent book, How to Build a Great Screenplay, by USC Professor David Howard:“Somebody wants something badly and is having difficulty getting it.”
Howard, David (2010-04-01). How to Build a Great Screenplay: A Master Class in Storytelling for Film (Kindle Location 4095). St. Martin’s Press. Kindle Edition.
Howard’s assessment boils down to “Somebody wants something badly and is having difficulty getting it.” Test it yourself. Whether the overcoming of a character flaw is the protagonist’s stumbling block, or it’s having difficulty conquering Godzilla, someone-wanting-something-very-badly-and-being-blocked fits almost everything.
Here is a helpful article that expresses this in terms of various types of adversity:
Why is adversity and the overcoming of same so successful in film? Isn’t it because each of our own lives are the story of experiencing one adversity, one challenge, one crisis after another? Involved movie-viewers empathize with the protagonist because they see themselves in the scene and they are curious how this character will overcome the situation. This shared experience in overcoming adversity is the single most important contribution of the dramatic arts to our human saga on this Earth.
Scene descriptions, direction and narrative should be spare and concise. As a self-described “poet-critic-novelist-essayist,” at first, I attempted to display my writing prowess in my film script narrative. I wanted to make the script entertaining to read. After reading professional scripts downloaded from the Internet, I have had second thoughts about that tack. Those gatekeepers who judge spec scripts are not doing it for entertainment. Their first pass (and perhaps the last pass) through a spec script is to judge dialog, plot, and the presence of conflict and resolution. Your narrative should merely provide signposts that, at a glance, guide the analyst through to the “good stuff.” If you are so talented as to be able to write clear, concise narrative, which is also entertaining, that’s a plus, but don’t force it.
You “must” follow a three or four-act structure. Within a screenplay, and on the screen, the divisions between acts are usually transparent. There is no curtain that falls as a hint that an act is over. One doesn’t even have to show these divisions, explicitly, in the script itself. But the three or four act structure should be evident to the educated observer. Caveat: even three or four acts is not a hard and fast rule. There are millions of words written on this subject alone. More, later.
A spec script must be properly formatted and bound (if physical hard copies are distributed–or “dished-out” in industry jargon.) There are even YouTube videos out there that show you how to bind a hard copy for the purpose of dishing-out. We have previously discussed proper formatting using either an MSWord template or a software program like Final Draft. I presently get by with using a template but if I ever have a script optioned I will probably buy something like Final Draft. http://store.finaldraft.com/final-draft-9.html
Why is a pep-talk needed by beginning screenwriters? Because everyone will tell you, perhaps quite accurately, that the odds of any given screenplay ever being optioned and produced are about equal to winning the Power Ball Lottery. Even screenplays by successful Hollywood insiders suffer similar, although better, odds. The odds are further improved if a studio or producer has paid an option fee for that script, but still, the stories of optioned scripts languishing in a studio vault somewhere are common.
Why bother then? If your goal is to be famous, make money , see your name in lights then I would suggest: don’t. Don’t bother. But if your goal is to learn a wonderful art and technology, become proficient in it and maybe—just maybe create something that will give other human beings a bit of help in successfully living life, then go for it. The joy is in the journey without regard to destination. But, above all, avoid like the plaque, the stilted, pat, formulaic Internet-based advice on how to write a block-busting money-making, fame-producing piece of successful garbage that will contribute to today’s “lowest common denominator of public taste.” That sort of get-rich-quick advice is directed at those whose main goal is to get rich, those who get little joy out of the process but would rather forego the pleasure of creation and take their chances with the lottery.
Next in Lesson Four:
Writing narrative, professional examples.