You may note that, in my bio, I sometimes refer to myself as a “screenwriter” in addition to “novelist,” or “game designer” or “freelance penmonkey.” (Also in addition to: “bee wrangler,” “canary in the coal mine,” and “fluffer.”) At this point I no longer consider the identifier a matter of wishful thinking: for years I’ve worked on scripts that remain unproduced, but by this point my writing partner and I have worked on scripts that have, in fact, seen the light of day: Collapsus and Pandemic, just to name two. Plus, we have a feature film in development and a television show up for pilot consideration.
And yet, you may notice that I don’t talk much about it.
Screenwriting, I mean, not the bee-wrangling or porn fluffing.
Reason being: I’ve only been doing this a few years. I can talk about being a fiction writer or game designer or the life of the slack-jawed freelancer because I’ve been living those roles for a long time. I’m no expert, but I can at least wade into such swampy waters without fear of being sucked under.
Still, I get a lot of requests to talk about screenwriting.
People say to me, “Talk about screenwriting! Do it now!”
And I try to reply to them and explain… but it’s difficult what with the dirty panties duct-taped into my mouth. I mostly just want to go back to the grocery store from whence I was abducted.
Good news is, I’ve managed to bite through my panty-gag, and now I will regale you with my ahem-cough-cough “rules” of screenwriting, which are really just “guidelines with all the firmness of gravy-soaked bread.” Again, I am no expert. Read this not with a grain of salt but rather an entire salt lick.
Ready? Let’s roll.
Brevity Is The Soul Of Wit, Anything Else Is A Bowl Of Shit
The screenplay is a bucking horse, a rammy stallion — the first time it sees the barn door open, that fucker is going to be off like a shot. Before you know what’s happening, you have a 300 page script in your hands. And, given that one page is equivalent to a minute of screen time, that’s bad juju.
So, you have to make a concerted effort to rein that beast in, always aiming for that sweet spot between 90 and 120 pages. This requires an almost religious devotion to brevity.
Conversations shouldn’t go on too long. Descriptions should be terse; this isn’t a novel. You’re not Lovecraft. Do not spend two pages discussing the insane non-Euclidean geometry of a lamp. Find and report on only those most critical of details. You’re not art directing the thing. Scenes shouldn’t go more than three, four, maaaaybe five pages. Keep it tight. Fast. Loose.
It’s like bad sex — get in, see the sights, pop your cookies, get out.
Think Of It Like A “Story Blueprint”
Don’t be married to the material. A novel is the end of the road. What you write is what ends up on the shelves (after edits, of course). Screenplays don’t work like that. The work is always in flux. It’s in flux up until the final director’s edit (at which point you’ve long been out of the equation). You are writing more a story blueprint than a story. It’s an architectural map. It’s not yet a constructed building.
And Yet, It Needs To Be A Compelling Read
By the same token, it still has to read like a kick-ass compelling story. Characters must leap off the page. Descriptions must be vivid. Dialogue should be sharp, pointed, purposeful. And you must do so with that aforementioned devotion to brevity. Which, yes, is like saying, “I need you to spit liquid gold into this thimble,” but fuck it, that’s your job.
I write my scripts in accordance to screenwriting rules, but I also try to make them interesting. I want them to read a little bit like novels or short stories without conforming to those particular conventions. (Oh, and for the record, I do not believe that novel = screenplay. I believe short story or novella = screenplay. Anybody who tries to adapt a novel into a screenplay will find the challenging task of determining what massive cuts the novel will require. Just my two cents.)
Write so it will be read at the same time you write so it will be filmed.
No Matter How Much Your Struggle, Structure Matters
I read blogs or screenwriting advice and you hear a lot of, “Adhering to the three-act structure is a myth, blah blah blah, don’t do it.” Except very rarely do they cite films that don’t adhere to this classic filmic structure. Most classic films do. Most modern films do. Seriously, you can check your watch during a film and predict the act turns.
For better or for worse, it is the accepted and expected structure in film-making. You can do differently, but you may be challenged. Just lie back and think of England, love.
Structure is a beautiful thing. The challenge — really, the art — is how you subvert structure, how you brainwash it to make it your own. That is, at least, how I see it.
Do Not Write A Shooting Script
You’re a writer, not a director, so unless it’s demanded of you, leave all the camera voodoo out of there. That also gums up a clean and compelling read. So. Uh. Don’t do it.
In TV, Characters Are Static; In Film, Characters Are Dynamic
The nigh-universality of it sucks, but in television, we don’t like our characters to change. Yes, you can point to characters that have changed, but it’s not common. In film, however, we are granted the opportunity to see change in our characters, and in my ego-fed megalomaniac humble opinion, you don’t want to waste that opportunity.
Action Action Action Shit Be Happening Action Action Action
Novels offer the writer and reader a luxury that a script does not. In a novel, we are often treated to a sense of history, of thought, of internal monologues, of peeling away layers.
In scripts, you still have to think about all that stuff. But it just doesn’t end up on the page. Characters with rich character histories will not find those rich histories on display like in a museum.
Screenplays are about shit happening. I don’t mean “action” in the sense of “constant karate kicks and exploding F-14 Tomcats,” I just mean, things must be in perpetual motion.
You don’t have time to stop and wax poetic. That’s not to say pacing fails to matter or that you don’t get those same peaks and valleys — it’s just that pacing does not account for 10 pages of talking about your fantasy kingdom’s oh-so-fascinating history or five pages of a character’s internal process.
Shove it all beneath a layer of wordsmithy and bury it there. Text must become subtext.
Writing Is Rewriting
Be ready to rewrite.
I enjoy it. I love rewriting scripts way more than I do rewriting novels. I guess it’s because rewriting novels is like hauling stone. Editing a script is fast, light, loose — the tool is far more “scalpel” than “dumptruck.”
Table Reads Are The Cat’s Knees, The Bee’s Pajamas
It’s critical to read your novel aloud.
It’s also critical for someone else — preferably lots of someone elses — to read your script aloud. We’ve had table reads for all our feature scripts and it is incredibly valuable. Your ear will pick up things: inadequacies, inadvertent alliterations, repetitions, linguistic quirks, muddy phrasing. The actors will do things with your words that you never expected, both for the awesome and for the unpleasant.
You do not merely want this. You need this.
Oh, And Have Fun
I adore screenwriting. It’s like I’ve opened a gnome door, and all these little fun goblins are in there having a party, and I’m inviting them into my brain. Where they make a nest and drink goblin beer and have giddy goblin babies. I have a blast doing it, and in reading scripts, I can tell when fun (or excitement or engagement) is in the recipe. This is true of novels, too, but because a script is so spare, so bare, I personally think that it comes out more… distinctly?
So, rock out and have fun, will you?
And that’s it. That’s all she wrote.
But I want to hear from you. Anybody tinkering with scripts out there? Got any “golden rules” you care to share? Don’t make me get the dirty panty-gag.