Screenwriting is a journey. From story conception to facing the blank page to typing fade out. As is the rewrite stage of rinse and repeat until it’s “ready.” For most screenwriters, the journey of getting the script to screen can take years if not decades to see the silver screen. Every writer’s journey is different – some hit it seemingly overnight (aka ten years in the making) or have varying pathways to a satisfying writing career.
Most screenwriters have very strict writing routines or others are pantsers and can just type away effortlessly. And for most, if not all writers, we write because we just have to. But what makes a great screenwriter? Practicing your craft, of course, is essential – daily if you can. Watching a lot of the great works from auteurs of yesteryear and present-day from film to television (this, in my book, is also considered practicing your craft – daily if you can).
Another key to becoming a great screenwriter is being an avid reader of screenplays and understanding what makes scenes jump off the page, why dialogue speaks volumes, and why characters are everything.
In this article, we’ll examine key scenes from screenwriter and Emmy award-winning television writer Lena Waithe’s screenplay Beauty. As well as discuss Lena’s writing process, key intentions behind writing action lines in order to have a relationship with the reader, director, and actors, finding her writer’s voice, and her personal connection to the characters in Beauty.
Logline: A gifted young Black woman struggles to maintain her voice and identity after she’s offered a lucrative recording contract, setting off a fierce battle between her family, the label, and her closest friend to determine who will guide her as she makes the journey to become a star.
Beauty is a slow burn, rich with character development seeded in internal flaws, buried voices and conflict, the pitfalls of religious dependency, and the young and the restless butting heads with the patriarchy. It is a film that garners more than one viewing - as budding filmmakers, screenwriters and all visual storytellers alike can learn a thing or two about storytelling from multiple viewings.
Clear and very specific creative choices are made from page to screen interpretation both by screenwriter Lena Waithe and director Andrew Dosunmu. One notable and distinctive creative choice is the absence of any audible singing by the titular character Beauty and her equally talented mother. It's not about how she sounds, it's about her journey to becoming who she wants to be rather than what others want her to represent.
As many films go into production, there are certainly a number of scenes rewritten or omitted, as is the case with this film - notably in the 2018 screenplay written by Waithe which is the version we explore in this article. The final filmed version has a few key scenes that have been reworked for tighter character development, such as with half-brothers Caine and Abel and their rumble while giving chase after Jasmine, the Colonizer character is originally written as a male character, but is now a female record mogul played by Sharon Stone, and there's a number of symbolic montages and vignettes, visually and stylistically crafted by Dosunmu.
Reader be warned, there are spoilers ahead - but that shouldn't deter you from watching this film, at your earliest convenience, all the while practicing your craft.
This interview has been edited for content and clarity.
Sadie Dean: There's just so many great Easter eggs you have in this screenplay to what we see in the final film. This is definitely one of those movies you have to watch over and over again to see what else you can find.
Lena Waithe: Thank you, thank you. That's always the best compliment when you can watch something more than once and still enjoy it. That was always how I kind of devoured movies and TV shows - I would always watch things again and again. It really means a lot, thank you.
Sadie: Oh, yeah, of course. There was a fun one I caught on my second viewing, the record company being named Colony Records and Sharon Stone’s character’s name being the Colonizer. Just one of many Easter eggs. So, jumping in - how did this specific story idea come to fruition for you?
Lena: Well, it really kind of happened a while back - I wrote this in 2017, which I found was a surprise for me because I wrote it soon after I’d written Queen and Slim. I wanted to tell a story about a family, and to sort of do it in a lens of like Dreamgirls or The Five Heartbeats.
There was an element that I didn't want to deal with, which was the singers singing and I knew very early that I wanted to alleviate the audience of that, it's more about everything else. And that really just sort of came together and I really started writing and then over time, it evolved - but always sort of stayed true to that story about a family and what it means to be Black and to have a gift and all the things that sometimes can come with that.
Sadie: Yeah, and I really enjoyed and respect that creative decision in that we don't ever hear her sing. But instead, we are watching her on this journey and her process her life experiences before she belts out that first note in the studio. I had the great opportunity to read the 2018 version of your screenplay, and I know there are a few minute changes from page to what we see on screen.
WRITING CHARACTERS AND ATTITUDE
Sadie: However, I do want to point out that you have so many wonderful descriptors for characters and just setting up a scene through action lines. One that notably stood out for me was the description of Beauty’s Mother in this scene:
This paints a picture of her internal conflict about what she's been through, how she views her daughter, and Beauty's friendship with Jasmine.
Your writing style is very succinct and vivid for both a reader and actor to take in. How do you approach character development through action lines?
Lena: Well, thank you. I think what I've always tried to do in terms of action lines, I always want to have a relationship with the reader, the director, and the actor. I'm saying things to you, that won't necessarily be explained on screen but it will have to be played and have to be directed, and it will have to be felt. But the person can read the action line, oftentimes, things that the audience will never see unless they go pick up the script.
I often will read interviews of people in magazines. I would always be really taken by the way the writer was describing their subject in that they're trying to paint a picture for you. And I really kind of was inspired by that - trying to paint a picture for the audience, the director, the people that read it before we film it. But also, for the actor as well; for them to kind of take that in, and then obviously add to it and bring to it whatever they desire.
That's something that I really enjoy and sometimes people tell me, ‘Lena, take that line out of the action and put that into an actor's mouth, that's a good line.’ And sometimes I will, sometimes I don't - I want it to be a beautiful dance as far as what's in the action line. I don't think they have to always be bland or boring. I think you can have fun with that. Just so that way people that are reading really do get a bit of an understanding and it is fun for them versus trying to do too much building on their own.
Sadie: I love that you mention reading interviews in magazines as a resource to paint a picture in your own writing. Definitely, something to take note of.
STATING THE THEME
Sadie: There's another action line descriptor you have in there about Beauty’s journey I’d like to discuss:
This too encapsulates and captures just everything about what this movie is – yet you lay this foundation so gracefully. Was there a North Star for you in terms of theme once you figured out the core of the story was about this family? Was there something deeper to explore for you as well?
Lena: Well, thank you so much for that. I'm happy that moment resonated in that action line, but I think that's ultimately what I wanted to talk about. I knew there was something exciting about where I wanted it to end. I knew I wanted to take the journey all the way up until she was introduced on the national stage because that's when everything changes. And to me, that is the right moment to back out because the audience can now play what they want like, ‘How does it all wrap up?’
Ultimately for me, it is about looking in the mirror, whether you're a person who has some sort of talent, or that people may need or can commodify or not, that is a constant battle. And then also to look at it through a queer lens. It's about how society tells us we're supposed to be, and we naturally go against that grain. And it's about how we have to look in the mirror every day and decide, ‘How do I want to show up in the world for myself, for my family, for our community?’ And that all becomes more complicated when you're a person that is about to become very public.
I really found a lot of joy in writing that scene in the office between Beauty and the Colonizer, played by Sharon Stone, where she tells her you have to wear a mask in order to be someone that other people look up to, and just a dichotomy of that and that people will be looking up to someone that isn't exactly who you are.
So then, what are we telling people to be? At that point, I was a public person by the time I wrote this, and obviously being a queer public person and all those things - Beauty’s character is dealing with things I didn't necessarily have to deal with and it was more difficult, and sort of also trying to get into people that kind of had to be invisible during the time so that way I could be seen. And I think there's also that element as well for me about really writing a thank you letter rather to those that had to sort of stay in the shadows, because they didn't have any other choice. But then also, obviously, there weren't people like myself who could step into the light.
Sadie: Right, and I'm sure it was a very therapeutic and cathartic process for you as well just to write this, get it on the page.
Sadie: The beauty of storytelling and movies. What inspired you to become a writer?
Lena: I think it really began with me as a kid watching television, watching movies, watching TV movies, really sort of being sucked in by characters. So much so people know that my production company is named for a fictitious HBCU in A Different World - that was sort of an homage to how inspiring that show was to me as a young person. And not just about the themes and the subject matter but the storytelling and the specific characters. That was something always I really took to. The fact that you can say Whitley Gilbert - people can imagine something in their mind. I got a chance to work with Debbie Allen and Susan Fales-Hill, they explained to me how they really concocted that character. How it was the algorithm, how it was this mixture of all these different things and people and inspiration.
That was that really inspired me in terms of characters, you know, Jasmine, there's pieces of me there, there's pieces of my mother in Beauty's mother, but also things I've witnessed and had seen and inspired by. So, I think I'm just really inspired by many different voices, whether I'm watching A Different World to being very much inspired by Shonda Rhimes but also love a David E. Kelley show as well - coming up watching Boston Legal or The Practice, but then also loving like Sex and the City and Girlfriends - really being able to differentiate between one writer's voice versus another and I think that's really what inspired me was, ‘What is my voice?’ and finding my voice. And really being inspired by others because that's just very natural.
I think I always focused on Beauty about her watching television, seeing people doing something that she wants to do. I think that was definitely a page out of my own book about staring at the TV and being inspired, but also knowing that I wanted to step forth one day and do it on my own. And I think that's sort of like my journey in that I was so inspired by so many people's voices that I wanted to find my own.
THE JOURNEY TO FINDING YOUR VOICE
Sadie: That perfectly segues into the next scene I wanted to discuss with you - the scene where Beauty’s watching all the different renditions of the song “Over the Rainbow”. She's excited watching it and you can see her taking note and formulating in her head, ‘OK, this is the style I'm going to make for myself.’
Then we're taken to the next section of us watching Beauty searching for that same hurt that Judy Garland has within herself and how to reflect that within her own voice – but the reality is that takes a lifetime to feel that kind of blues.
When approaching writing that scene, were you specifically pulling from your childhood watching your writing hero's words come to life on screen and making that pledge to yourself that you’re going to do this and forge your own way?
Lena: Yeah, I used it because I grew up a big fan of Wizard of Oz, I have a lot of Wizard of Oz tattoos. Obviously, a big fan of Judy Garland's voice, and then in the movie, when it cuts to Patti LaBelle, I used to listen to that version as well, I love LaBelle's voice, but I will listen to her version of that, because it was always so special. So, it was that thing of me wanting to hear that song but wanting to hear it from someone who interpreted it for my own community. And I think that that to me was definitely a piece of me, anybody that knows me knows how much I love Wizard of Oz, and how much I love that song and just the idea of playing with that.
And how to get something that is really sort of gentle and very white, you know, for lack of a better word, and taking it and making it something else that actually permeates even more to more people. That to me was always really interested in how the work that has to go into that, which people don't always understand how much it takes to actually interpret a song. It's actually very difficult, especially when it's not your own. I wanted to sort of convey the romance of it and the beauty of it and how it sometimes can begin.
And yes, there's a parallel too in terms of obviously me watching hours and hours of A Different World to years later having a half-hour show like Twenties, which Susan Fales-Hill who wrote A Different World helped guide me with that show – it was her re-telling the story of how ‘It was very sort of semi-autobiographical for me.’ So, talk about a full circle moment. I met Susan at that point, but we hadn't gone down that road yet - we had gotten to Twenties at that point - the script had been written. But I think that's where I was with myself as an artist when I was writing the script. I was still very much finding my own voice.
So, to follow Queen and Slim, I'm really happy that both these films are part of my canon and hopefully at some point somebody will do a double feature and find things that even I can't in the writing and the voice and what's happening or whatever theme starts to present themselves.
Beauty is now available to watch on Netflix.
Looking for more ways to practice your craft? Recommended reading on writing great scenes and writing character-driven storytelling:
SceneWriting: The Missing Manual for Screenwriters written by Chris Perry & Eric Henry Sanders
The authors also analyze Lena Waithe's screenplay Queen & Slim.
This is a book I wish I had available while in the throes of film school and finding my way into screenwriting. Very glad that it exists now. Scott analyzes a number of notable films and television shows from the ground up, leaving no stone unturned and inspiring you to tackle your pages (and re-watch every film and movie covered in his book).