While many gurus tout quick screenwriting tips, the craft of screenwriting is anything but quick and easy. Ray Morton examines the importance of tackling the heavy lifting of dramatic writing.
Ray Morton is a writer, senior contributor to Script magazine and script consultant. His many books, including A Quick Guide to Screenwriting, are available online and in bookstores. Follow Ray on Twitter: @RayMorton1. Read Ray's full bio.
In February 2018, music legend Quincy Jones gave a very candid (and slightly off-the-wall) interview to Vulture.com about a wide range of topics. The portion of the interview that got the most attention was Jones’s assertion that Marlon Brando and Richard Pryor once had an affair. One portion that didn’t get much attention was Jones’s opinion that most current pop music is pretty dreary and that the reason for this is that too many modern recording artists and producers simply don’t know their craft – that they don’t understand basic musical principles and they lack sufficient musical and productions technique. In the interview, Jones emphasized that music is a craft as well as an art and that talent and inspiration can only take a musical performer so far if he does not acquire and develop a solid set of core skills – the ability to read music; how to do musical notation and arranging; how to sing properly; how to play instruments; and so on. In the end, Jones opined, for a musical performer to do good work, he must learn his craft.
This interview came to mind recently after I had a rather difficult conversation with one of my screenplay consulting clients. This aspiring screenwriter had sent me a script to assess and provide feedback on. The premise of the submitted piece was strong – original, clever, and quite ambitious. However, the development and execution of that strong core idea left a lot to be desired – the plotting, story structure, world building and narrative logic, characterizations, and dialogue were all quite problematic. To be frank, as strong as the premise was, the script itself just wasn’t very good.
When I discussed the screenplay with its writer in a phone call, I dissected (as diplomatically as I possibly could) the various problems I found in the piece in accordance with the basic principles of dramatic storytelling and of screenwriting. From his responses – which were confused and increasingly defensive – I began to realize that the writer was having a very difficult time understanding the points I was trying to make because he had little-to-no understanding of the basic principles of dramatic writing; the basic principles of cinematic writing; or of the essential elements of screenplay technique, formatting, or terminology. In simpler terms, he did not understand the craft of screenwriting. The more apparent this became, the more defensive the writer became until eventually he began yelling at me. He made it clear he resented my implications that he did not know the craft and that there was even a craft to learn.
Although the poor fellow was obviously over-reacting (I assume out of frustration, embarrassment, and the fear that he lacked the necessary skills to bring his dream to fruition) and did later apologize, I can sort of understand where he was coming from.
Over the past few decades, many screenwriting teachers, authors, and gurus have promoted (either purposefully or inadvertently) the notion that screenwriting is (or should be) easy – something that can be accomplished in a relatively short amount of time (ten days, two weeks, one month, etc.) by following a few simple steps or learning a handful of secrets or slavishly obeying a rigid set of rules or by employing some tried-and-true formulas or paradigms or even by plugging a number of random elements into a computer program. The impression these folks give is that screenwriting is something of a lark and not a serious endeavor that requires education, discipline, and practice to master.
I see the influence of this thinking in many of the screenplays I read and consult on: in the scripts’ poorly-crafted narratives, characterizations, dialogue, and formatting; in the reluctance of many of their authors to do any substantial rewriting, reworking, or rethinking of their material beyond the initial draft; in the many aspirants who try to hire me and people like me to transform their supposedly sure-fire movie ideas into screenplays, having convinced themselves (or been convinced) that ideas are all that matter and that the actual writing of the piece doesn’t really matter and can be subcontracted out in the same manner as drywall installation.
However, the bottom line is that there is a craft to learn – a highly demanding craft that requires in-depth study and rigorous application to acquire and enormous amounts of practice to develop and perfect.
If you want to be a screenwriter, you must learn the basic principles of dramatic writing and the core tenets of writing for the screen. You must learn proper screenplay formatting, terminology, and technique. You should know the history of the form. You must learn that writing is rewriting – that first drafts, no matter how lovingly you have crafted them, are always terrible and that the only way to fully realize your material is to constantly revise it until it is the very best it can be. Finally, you must accept the fact that there are no shortcuts and that the only way to write an excellent screenplay is through hard, hard work.
How can you learn all of these things? Read good books and takes good classes that teach you the fundamentals of dramatic and cinematic writing (be sure the authors and teachers you are learning from have a credible track record in their fields. Listen only to those script gurus with a substantial list of credits or provable bona fides). Read screenplays written by good screenwriters to learn technique. Watch good movies to learn how stories are told well on screen. Seek advice and input from experienced professionals and listen to it.
More than anything – do a lot of writing and rewriting. It is only by continually practicing that you will eventually become good at that what you seek to do.
I recently had the chance to review a new screenwriting book that I think dovetails nicely with the content of this month’s column. Constructing a Story (Le Clown & l’Enfant, 2017), by French writer/director Yves Lavandier, is an English-language translation of Lavandier’s Construire un récit and it does an excellent job of laying out the core and the advanced concepts of dramatic storytelling and how they apply to telling tales on the screen.
Lavandier then explores the screenwriting process itself from initial idea and outline to final draft. He discusses all of these things on both an intellectual and a practical level (I've read many screenwriting books that have done one or the other, but this is the first tome I've read that does both and does them well). Lavandier peppers his examinations and explanations with excellent and useful examples from a wide variety of movies ranging from the artiest art films to the most popular commercial entertainments.
As good as all this material is, what impressed me most about the book was the author's insistence on rigor in the screenwriting process – that aspiring screenwriters must learn their craft; that they must learn the screenwriting "rules" before they break them; that it is vitally important for writers to think through their material and to have a clear understanding of their goals and themes and the points they are trying to make before they begin writing; and that it is necessary for screenwriters to revise their material ruthlessly and constantly if they want it to turn out well. This emphasis on rigor is an important one that is absent from most popular screenwriting instruction.
Obviously, this is an emphasis I endorse and applaud and, for me, makes this book an invaluable resource.
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