by Jeff Willis
Much of my time at Mount Hermon this year will be focused on screenwriting, I thought I’d take a few minutes to highlight some of the many ways in which screenwriting is different from other types of writing. Here are a select few:
- Screenplays don’t contain that many words. An average feature-length screenplay might have 20,000 words in it. That means there’s precious little space to devote to flowery descriptions of scenery, or the nuanced details of a character’s appearance. Scripts are incredibly economical, almost downright stingy, with the amount of words they use.
- Present tense, in real time. Screenplays are written in the present tense, and events unfold on the page in real time. A script should read like a movie playing out on screen, so passages like, “They had dinner, watched a movie, and went to bed” aren’t effective because you’re cramming three hours of action into a single sentence on a single page.
- Audience perception. The objective of a good screenplay is to help the reader imagine what the eventual motion picture will look like, and audiences only have two of their five senses at their disposal: what they can see, and what they can hear. As tempting as it may be, the nuances of smell, taste, and touch can’t be conveyed unless you communicate that information in a way the audience can visually or audibly process. For example, just writing, “the room smells bad” doesn’t work. In order to make that piece of information apparent to the audience, you have to give them a visual cue like, “He walks into the room. Sniffs. Wrinkles his nose.”
- Dialogue-driven. Most screenplays are heavily reliant on dialogue to advance the narrative, develop character, and entertain the audience. The dialogue has to be spot-on because, when an actor actually delivers lines and people watch it on screen, inauthentic or clunky dialogue will stick out like a sore thumb. If you write scripts, your dialogue has to be snappy, realistic, and engaging.
- The piece of commonality that the two prior points share is that both require a casual style of writing. Sentence fragments are okay, as is slang, creative use of paragraph breaks, and a wide array of other tools and devices that would probably be frowned upon by Strunk & White. But the purpose is to tell a compelling story and get people to imagine the movie in their heads, not to get the text of the screenplay approved for publication in a formal academic journal or at your local bookstore.
- Marketable, cost effective. Stories in print are a relatively inexpensive form of entertainment. The production costs are effectively the same whether you’re writing a modern-day contained family drama set at a lake house, or a futuristic sci-fi adventure with spaceships and aliens and lots of battles and explosions. But the production cost of that family drama movie might only be a few million dollars whereas the sci-fi adventure movie could cost hundreds of millions of dollars. With screenplays, you have to be aware of both the marketability and cost effectiveness of your material, otherwise you might find yourself writing a script to a movie no one can afford to buy and produce.
The foregoing was just a small sampling of the ways screenwriting differs from other forms of fictional prose. There’s much, much more to screenwriting than just this, though, so I’d encourage those of you who would like to learn more to attend either the Major Morning Track or Night Owl Q&A that Bob and I will be teaching together. Between us, we have more than forty years of experience in the entertainment business on both sides of the table, and we’re excited to help those who want to delve into the screenwriting medium.
Jeff is presenting afternoon workshops focusing on the business side of things, teaming up with his friend Bob Saenz to teach a Major Morning Track for screenwriting, as well as a
Night Owl Q&A about the entertainment industry.
Jeff Willis is an entertainment executive with fifteen years of experience managing creative and business affairs for industry-leading companies including Marvel Studios, Disney, Skydance, and Blumhouse, among others. He’s a produced screenwriter, published author, and business consultant for writers and other creatives. www.allwritesreserved.com.