What made you decide to try this strange form, screenwriting, when you’ve probably never read a screenplay?
By Chris Keane
This question nets a wide variety of answers. “I needed one more class to graduate and
thought I’d take a look at screenwriting, but I’ve got two backups in case I
don’t like it.” I love the honesty.
crazy about movies. That’s what I do when I’m not doing anything else. And I’m
hardly ever doing anything else.”
I’ve had students who have seen just about every movie ever made.
With this group of people, who must have spent 40% of their lives watching
movies, they are living, breathing human resources in class. They know plots,
characters, and truckloads of arcane information.
One thing about teaching screenwriting that you rarely get in a
novel or short story is full context, a almost complete frame of reference. You
mention a movie title in class and everybody has seen it or knows something
about it. Everybody can give you plot details or dish dirt on cast members. The
frame of reference is immediate and massive.
For people to attempt writing a novel is like facing a mountain
they do not want to climb. Short stories are satisfying but can you make living
writing short stories? Or poetry?
Everybody should read poetry, wherein lives the soul of our language.
Screenwriting is the new manna from heaven. One hundred and seven
pages. Do-able. If you write three pages a day for 40 days you have a first
This is attractive to people that have wanted to tell a story but
couldn’t find the medium with which to tell it. Screenwriting is all about
character and action. Character is
action. In movies, what one does is what one is. In writing movies you can’t
see thought but you can see the manifestation of thought through action.
For instance, in A Beautiful
Mind, instead of trying to gauge John Nash’s imaginary world through voice
over and having others explain his problem, we understand, in one shocking
scene, that an entire part of his life that we think is real (as he did) is
In this way, screenplays differ from the novel, short story, and
poetry: if you can’t see it, it doesn’t belong on the page. Action replaces
thought, dialogue replaces thought. Screenwriting takes place first and
foremost in a visible and visual world.
Watching a movie is a passive experience. Reading, on the other
hand, is active. The reader controls the environment, can pick up and put down
the book at will. In a theater, there is not this option. What does this say
about the different audiences? Books take time to read. Watching a movie takes
one hundred minutes.
For me, books are lifeblood. They belong to you. In a book, you set the pace. Why would you want to
write for the movies? After you finish your masterpiece and hand it in, all they
want to do is change it.
Let’s say your script garners interest from agents and managers
and producers, stars and directors, and looks as if it’s got a shot at the big
screen. The first thing they do is fire you and hand your baby to fifty foster
parents, all of whom are convinced they have striking ideas on how to improve
Then, let’s say it’s
produced. It comes out in a totally different medium. You write it on paper and
it appears on celluloid or it’s digitized.
The story has changed shape, and look what they did to your characters!
And what about that great dark ending you put on it, which is now light and
airy and everybody gets what they want? You want to kill yourself. Is this the
writing life you want?
They say that in the New York publishing world the writer is king.
In Hollywood, he’s jester.
And then, the final insult: It might not even have your name on it
because the first thing they did when they fired you was to hire another
writer, then another, then four others, none of whom you’ve ever met. The
actors and producers and directors added their changes to it, without
consulting you. The Writers Guild’s arbitration board gathered all drafts and
awarded credit to another writer, someone you have never met nor perhaps even
But, hey, you have a picture on, sort of, and people are willing
to meet you, to hear your new ideas, and pitches. All so that you can go
through that awful process again. Come on!
What are you, a masochist?
Why would you want to work in a medium whose writers Louis B.
Mayer once called “Schmucks with Underwoods” (a derogatory smear against
ancient typewriters), a perception that has changed little in the last fifty
Ah, because you want to write. You need to write. And you love
movies. And this is your manna from
heaven. You’re determined, huh? You have a story burning in you, fifty stories
burning in you, and you need to let them out of their cages. Writing movies is
the only way you can do it. This is the only way you think you’ll be able to do it.
Okay, if that’s what you want, give it a shot. You already connect
with movies in ways you have never connected with books or short stories or
poetry. Digitized or celluloid veins snake through your body. Your blood runs in
frames per second. Your eyes are projectors.
It’s your manna, your heaven.
A reminder: the writer always gets paid. If your picture is made
you get to visit offices of agents and production companies that might have
been denied to you. You get to work and hobnob with talented, gainfully
employed movie people. You get to pitch treatments, scripts and ideas that
prior to this nobody wanted to listen to.
DRILL: There is
something you love about movies and something else that makes you want to write
them. If you’re going to write, what is it about movies (as opposed to books or
short stories, etc.) that give you this urge to scribble in this form? It may seem
obvious to you, but a reality check is always a good idea. Write down 5-10
reasons why this form is the most attractive to you. What can you say or do in
the script that you can’t get across in any other form?