Monday, April 28, 2008

Poetry Train Monday - 47 - Screenwriting 101

Susan asked for a how-to last week, so here's an introduction to screenplay form.

I posted the script for one of my third year films on the Poetry Train, along with backstory poems presenting three of the main characters. This is the son's poem, this is the mother's poem and this is the step father's poem.

The first thing you realize when writing a script is how much of what you've learned about writing prose needs to be hurled out the window. The only things that appear in a script are:


And that's it. That's a script. It's about as opposite from what you need for prose as you can get.

There's a reason for this. A script is one piece of a collaborative medium. Each person working on the film does his or her job, whereas a writer does every job. The best writing makes certain that the reader feels what the character feels. That's one person - the writer - doing the same for the reader what an entire credit roll does for a film. Of course the moviegoer sees, hears and feels what the character does. The Director of Photography (DoP) ensures we see, the sound department makes sure we hear, and the actor draws us in and makes us feel what he feels.

That is the single hardest thing to keep in mind when writing a screenplay. We must put away the urge to tell how a character feels. We can only show. Here's an example. I'll write a scene from Sleeping Beauty in prose form.

Prince Florimund swept the cobwebs from the doorway and entered the room. His heart skipped and his breath caught in his throat. The princess lay upon a bed, slanting sunlight streaming over her like rays from heaven.

All around her, slumped figures dressed in ancient finery slept as well. Florimund took several quiet steps forward, but even these echoed in the heavy stillness. He looked around him, but nothing stirred in the dusty shadows. He moved toward her, his heart squeezing as he gazed on her beauty. As he reached her, his knees no longer held him. He knelt, the battle to reach her still drawing his labored breath.

Slowly, very slowly, he leaned forward. He must kiss that mouth. He was glad he wasn't called to resist her. He knew he would never win that fight.

Now I'll redo this scene in screenplay format. As I mentioned last week, Blogger doesn't allow for center justification, so I've included the image at left to show the proper centering of dialogue.

The bold text is the setting. Here's where we tell it, short and sweet:


'INT' indicates 'interior'. 'EXT' indicates 'exterior'. Then we include the action. This is what we can see the character do as an observer.

eg PRINCE FLORIMUND enters the room from the passageway. He sees PRINCESS AURORA asleep on the bed, surrounded by COURTIERS slumped all around the room, also sleeping. Florimund walks through the maze of sleepers till he kneels beside the bed. He leans forward to kiss her.

And that's it. Everything from the prose scene is there in the script form, minus how Florimund feels and what everything looks like specifically. The only reason to include the sun's rays shining on her face would be as a plot device. If it was essential to the story that the sun's rays shine on her, they would be included. If not, even if that's the way you as the writer envision it, it's not your job to show it onscreen. That's for the DoP and the director to decide upon.

And that's it. A screenplay is dialogue joined by action directions and setting tags. Nowhere is it more essential to move the story along through dialogue than in a screenplay (well, okay, a play.) When writing the dialogue you must resist the urge to write how the character says it. That's for the actor and director to work out. Let's go back to Sleeping Beauty again for a bit of dialogue.

The prince kissed the sleeping beauty below him with tender reverence. A sweet tingling rose up from her mouth to his. He withdrew enough to see her lashes flutter. Florimund inhaled sharply. The princess stirred, her silks rustling, a soft rousing sound escaping her throat. At last she opened her eyes, and Florimund saw how deeply blue her eyes were.

Her gaze wandered the room for a moment, then rested on him. His whole body quivered with the wonder of it. Before he knew what he was doing, he reached forward and took her hand in his.

"You're all right now," he said.

Her brow furrowed. "Do..." Her voice was thick after so many years of silence. She tried again. "Do I know you?" she whispered.

He shook his head. "No, my dear. But I know you. You're the woman I've dreamed of. And now a dream no longer."

In the days that followed, Florimund barely left her side. She wanted him near and he wanted to be there. It was just as the royal seers had foretold. He would never mock those old fools again.

After a lifetime of longing for her, the next few months of preparation seemed both excruxiating and delirious with joy. Then on a breathless morning, he rose, dressed in his finest and ascended the cathedral steps to take her as his bride.

And now let's see what this looks like in script form.


Florimund kisses Aurora, who awakens.


You're all right now.


Do I know you?


No, my dear. But I know you. You're the woman I've dreamed of. And now a dream no longer.


Preparations are being made for a celebration.


The prince is attired by his courtiers.


Florimund walks up the cathedral steps. Royal families crowd the front of the cathedral. Florimund stands at the altar waiting for his bride.

And that's it. We don't say that Florimund is excited, nervous, filled with love. That's not the screenwriter's job. In the prose version I skimmed over a segue that telescoped several months of preparation for the wedding. In the screenplay, it's implied through the edited cut from the awakening kiss to wedding preparations.

There you have it - Screenwriting 101. Pay attention to the next few movies you watch. Perhaps take a favorite movie and try to write out the scenes you like in screenplay form. It takes practice learning to leave out all the detail that prose writers have to put in.

The Prince Wakes Sleeping Beauty From Her Sleep With a Kiss by Heinrich Lefler


Ann said...

Very cool: interesting and informative. I'm doing the 7 things meme for the poetry train (kill two birds with one stone and all that). :)

Missy said...

Wow! You put a lot of work into that post. Thank you. I've tried my hand at screenwriting and love the format. Writing short stories and novels is a completely different animal.

Mimi Lenox said...

Prose versus screenplay writing is complicated and takes dedication to one OR the other. I prefer prose but have dabbled in the theater and playwriting as well.
Very thorough explanation, Julia.

Wylie Kinson said...

I 'attempted' a screenplay once. ONCE.
I'm done.
It's so different from writing a book, I just couldn't wrap my small brain around it. I'm far too wordy - far too inclined to describe things ad nauseum!

Danika / OpenChannel said...

LOL. Way to go!

Every novice screenwriter should read this entry before attempting a screenplay. I can't tell you how many times I've written "Save it for your novel" on a script I'm critiquing.

Poetry and screenwriting have more in common, to me... they are both about economy. I think being a poet first made me a better screenwriter, because of writing in imagery.

I also think it's easier to go from writing screenplays to writing novels than the other way around. Even novelists should take note of the "show not tell" rule.

Thanks for taking so much time to share this with us.

Sniz said...

Awesome! As a prose writer, this is so interesting to see the contrast. I can totally see it and why it is needed and how hard it would be to train a prose writer to be a script writer. Thanks for doing this!

TTYS - Sniz

Julia Smith said...

Danika - I started off writing poetry and prose, then had to learn to peel all the excess stuff from my screenwriting. THEN I had to learn to put all the detail back into my prose! No wonder I'm nutty.

Olga said...

It's hard to write in that form, I do a lot of puppet plays and writing scripts for them are hard, too much talk and it bores your watchers, which are mostly little kids!

Akelamalu said...

You put a lot of work into that post Julia, very informative indeed! Thanks for sharing your expertise.

tHe_NeW_cYnIc said...

Wow...that is a lot of work! I tried writing a script for my student documentary film...lots of hard work!

the teach said...

A fantastic lesson on how to write a screenplay! Using the prose and then writing the script is an excellent way to teach it. Thank you! :D

Annette said...

This is awesome, Julia. I love how you showed the differences by using examples.

I understand now why some (a lot?) of authors probably don't write the screenplay when their book is made into a movie. It's a completely different form altogether.

Susan Helene Gottfried said...

I didn't think I was a control freak until I read this...

Julia Smith said...

Your wish is my command, Susan.

Toni said...

Thanks so much for sharing your gift with all of us, Julia. This was such an interesting post to read. I *loved* that you provided examples so I could better understand the contrast between the two. I have oftened wondered about scripts and how writing them differs from writing prose.

Shelley Munro said...

Interesting post, Julia. It makes me realise how skilful the actors need to be with their character portrayals.

Red Garnier said...

VERY VERY COOL!!! Julia, your posts are just amazing. I feel like such a bad blogger, lol! :)

Amy Ruttan said...

Awesome information!! Very cool to learn about script writing. :D

Anonymous said...

great illustration;thanks for sharing your expertise

Jill said...

It is a good thing that there is all the visual to boost the feeling we have, because I don't like that a part of a magic is lost.
But it is still fun to see what it does look like!

gautami tripathy said...

You kind of educated me here! Thanks.


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