The Secrets of Scriptwriting

Of course, there’s only one real secret in the arts – work harder.

That is the Big Secret, but there are plenty of others. Here’s another big one for writers. I started as a scriptwriter, and writing scripts is excellent training for writing fiction. It teaches you to write in scenes, to tell stories through images and dialog, and most importantly? It teaches you to write for an audience. There’s a lot more to writing for an audience than any of us know.

First, a caveat. Fiction writers are known in the film industry as terrible scriptwriters, and I have a notion as to why. I’ve heard two excellent fiction writers speak of their scriptwriting experiences, and they both said, “Oh, it’s so easy, there are so few words per page.” And one admitted his script was bad, and the other failed to sell the script. They were right in that a page of script has about a quarter the word count of a page of manuscript. They were wrong about the other part.

I have sold cartoon scripts that were broadcast on BBC and the Warner Brothers’ website. It takes me twice as long to write a page of script as a page of prose. Which means I spend about eight times as much effort on a word of script as a word of prose. If fewer words meant easier work, then poetry would be the easiest thing in the world to write. It ain’t. It’s the hardest. Get me?

Now for the good stuff.

Scenes are one of the basic units of dramatic fiction – a story is made up of a series of scenes, and in fact a scene is a small story in itself, with a beginning, middle, end, and central conflict. However, many times writers will use exposition in place of scenes. By this I mean that instead of a fully-described set of actions occurring in a fully-described setting, we are given a synopsis of the events in question –

The Detective rubbed his chin and gazed into the gas jets of the fake fireplace. “So, how did you come to realize that someone had modified the scrimshaw work on your sister’s false leg?” (scene)
The Lawyer’s reply was halting and difficult to understand. (exposition)

This is weak. Exposition does not engage the reader. A scene does. Exposition can be the most graceful way of handling things that the reader needs to know and doesn’t want to read about…

… but a movie does not give you the option of using exposition. In film, all you have is sight and sound. So you are forced to tell the story entirely in scenes, and every scene has to hold the reader’s interest. In the script you can bring in other sensory cues or small bits of exposition for the people who will film it, but they won’t make it to the audience. And what is necessary in a film is frequently preferable in a story.The idea that fiction should be primarily sight and dialog predates film – I think Flaubert might be the man responsible – and it still holds a lot of truth. I do think a full sensorium is best in fiction, but a strong visual focus is key. If the reader can’t see what’s going on, they’re lost.

Additionally, working only in scenes teaches you the value of the cut. Too much of the time writers – and I include myself here – spend time to-ing and fro-ing, having characters walk and turn keys and open doors and attend to various personal matters.

Sometimes they do this in movies. And when they do so, the actors use it as an opportunity to show you the character. But usually? They will cut from one important scene to the next one, no interval, bim-bam. This works in fiction as well. There are quiet scenes, there are times when you want to give the character a sandwich and some time to think – but those thoughts have to be important to the reader, the sandwich has to mean something to the character.

Quiet moments should only be in your story if they are real scenes, and most stories work best if they consist of nothing but important scenes, one right after another. Don’t be afraid to leave out the boring stuff. Your first question about any difficult passage should be, “Can I leave this out?”

Dialog functions differently in scripts than in prose. It carries more weight because it is spoken by actors trained to add to the delivery, or even modify the script to best fit their portrayal of a character. Scenes are constructed around the rhythms of dialog, and it’s the flow of conversation that determines when a scene starts and ends. There are things that can’t be done on film that can be done on the page. The reverse is not true. You can bring your characters to life on the page through skillful dialog and description. How does your dialog sound when you read it out loud? If you’re a scriptwriter, you’re gonna find out the hard way. Read it yourself. You never know which passages that look simple on the page will tangle in the mouth.

Here’s the central conflict in scriptwriting. You have to write for more than one audience. When I did cartoons, I wrote for the story editor and the director of the show, for the actors, for the animators, and for the viewer. All in addition to myself. The story editor and the director wanted something that filled the formula of the show and succeeded as a story. The actors wanted dialog that was fun and engaging. The animators wanted exciting visuals. And the people watching the cartoon wanted three minutes away from working on their spreadsheets.

A script isn’t a work in itself. It is a set of instructions for creating a story. This is also true of fiction. Fiction is not a work in itself. It is a performance that you write and the reader executes. You must equip the reader to design the sets, to get the best performances from the actors.

Fiction is a set of instructions to the reader, telling them how to create the story in their minds. There are formal and experimental aspects of fiction that can play against story, but for the vast majority of fiction, this is a true statement.

So. You might want to write your next short story as a script. Or rewrite part of a completed piece as a script. Or you might go crazy and try your hand at a full film script. Look into scriptwriting. It’s one of the secrets.

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2 Responses to The Secrets of Scriptwriting

  1. I believe you are right on the mark with this insightful, educational and fantastically written blog entry.

  2. herndy says:

    I should have read this before posting my bad dialogue post! 🙂

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