THE ART & CRAFT OF SCREENWRITING
By Shailik Bhaumik
“With respect to the requirement of art, the probable impossible is always preferable to the improbable possible.” ― Aristotle, PoeticsA screenplay or script is a written work by screenwriters for a film, video game, or television program. These screenplays can be original works or adaptations from existing pieces of writing. In them, the movement, actions, expression, and dialogues of the characters are also narrated. Screenplay written for television is also known as a teleplay. A screenplay can be an original piece, or based on a true story or previously written piece, like a novel, stage play or newspaper article. At its heart, a screenplay is a blueprint for the film it will one day become. Professionals on the set including the producer, director, set designer and actors all translate the screenwriter’s vision using their individual talents. Since the creation of a film is ultimately a collaborative art, the screenwriter must be aware of each person’s role and as such, the script should reflect the writer’s knowledge. For example, it’s crucial to remember that film is primarily a visual medium. As a screenwriter, you must show what’s happening in a story, rather than tell. A 2-page inner monologue may work well for a novel, but is the kiss of death in a script. The very nature of screenwriting is based on how to show a story on a screen, and pivotal moments can be conveyed through something as simple as a look on an actor’s face. Let’s take a look at what a screenplay’s structure looks like.
Tips for Writing Dialogue:
Dialogue is one of the only things in a film that the entire audience will give their attention to at the same time. Bad dialogue can wreck a film. Great dialogue can win the heart of its audience.
- How to write expository dialogue:
While there is no manual on how to write dialogue, expository dialogue is where most scripts fall apart. You need to set up the world as well as your characters within it. Most beginner screenwriters try to avoid exposition as much as possible, but the truth is: you need it. In a bad script, expository dialogue exists purely for the audience’s sake.
Cult Critic Tips:
You need to explain the world your characters are living in, who your characters are, and where they want to end up. Instead of writing dialogue to tell us this information, show it to us in action-based scenes.
2. Use an outsider:
In real life, people don’t explain things to each other that they both already know. Yet something about opening up Final Draft and formatting dialogue to the industry standard makes us do crazy things. A simple way to make your exposition flow naturally is to have your characters explain information to an outsider. It’s a simple dialogue rule.
Cult Critic Tips:
Take a scene between two characters and throw in a third listener. What could have been a boring back and forth conversation becomes a game of who has the talking stick. There aren’t any dialogue rules, but this tip’s a great one.
- Don’t ask dumb questions:
It’s great when a character asks a question. It’s a natural way to grab the audience’s attention and introduce key plot elements. However, overdoing it can lead to characters that are always confused and/or dumb.
Cult Critic Tips:
When writing dialogue, don’t avoid questions so much as avoid overly formal ones. Formatting dialogue is formal, writing it, however, should sound natural. If you only would answer someone in one word, then write it.
- Hide important information:
If you find your script bloated with exposition, one solution is to force your characters to learn something. As the characters in the film learn information, the audience learns with them, removing the need for expository dialogue.
Cult Critic Tips:
Sneaking in information is arguably the hardest part of how to write dialogue. Writing dialogue should take place from your character’s perspectives. Have us see through their words what they seek.
- Writing dialogue for characters:
Bad movie dialogue is usually purely for plot. It’s a common screenwriting tip.
Dialogue should cut to the core of characters, making the plot feel like a character motivated decision, other than some sort of imposed structure.
Take a look at the characters in your film and map out their starting points and endpoints. Their dialogue should:
- Establish who they are
- Hint at where they are going or what they will learn.
6. Use subtext often:
In good movie dialogue, there is a distinction between what a character says and what a character means. Having characters only say what they feel has two major problems. First, it’s boring on screen. Second, it’s unrealistic and ruins the illusion of cinema.
Cult Critic Tips:
Adding a layer of subtext to your dialogue creates depth and is one the most important keys of how to write dialogue. It’s one of many ways to keep your audience engaged and invested in your story. When you know what you’re doing. Writing dialogue needs to be treated like every other part of your story. It needs to build, climax, and resolve itself. It needs to come out of actions and reactions to antagonists.
Writing tricks to help get you through your screenplay:
- Say all of your dialogue aloud to make sure it works and each character is distinguishable.
- If you’re stuck on a scene, close your eyes, open a completely new document, and begin free associating without thinking about the words you are typing.
- Start writing and reward yourself with snacks after a set period of time.
- Set a deadline.
- Create an argument between characters if a scene feels flat and contains a lot of exposition.
- Get up out of your chair and go do anything else and come back to it.
- Instead of watching a movie, listen to it.
- Transcribe a few well-written screenplays to get a feel for the writing if you are struggling. It’s a technique F. Scott Fitzgerald used with Charles Dickens novels.
- Write one page per day and after four months you’ve written an entire feature film.
- Altered states can help free your mind. If you’re the clean-living, non-alcoholic type, going for a run or meditating can produce the same effect.
- Unplug your internet.
- Do anything that makes you extremely uncomfortable, like taking your laptop into the freezing cold or writing immediately when you wake up without doing anything else.
- If you already know how it’s going to end, don’t finish a scene from the night before so that you can get your creativity flowing the next day and push right into the next scene.
- Make a collage of photos that relate to your story or resonate with you in some way.
- Put your script away and don’t read it for two weeks after finishing the first draft.
- If you’re having trouble envisioning a character, imagine a famous actor in the role and write for that person.
- Adopt a different writing persona by pretending you are someone else while writing. This will help you approach problems in a different way than you yourself normally would.
Spec Script vs. Shooting Script:
A “spec script” literally means that you are writing a screenplay on speculation. That is, no one is paying you to write the script. You are penning it in hopes of selling the script to a buyer. Spec scripts should stick stringently to established screenwriting rules.
Once a script is purchased, it becomes a shooting script, also called a production script. This is a version of the screenplay created for film production. It will include technical instructions, like film editing notes, shots, cuts and the like. All the scenes are numbered, and revisions are marked with a color-coded system. This is done so that the production assistants and director can then arrange the order in which the scenes will be shot for the most efficient use of stage, cast, and location resources.
A spec script should NEVER contain the elements of shooting script. The biggest mistake any new screenwriter can make is to submit a script full of production language, including camera angles and editing transitions. It can be very difficult to resist putting this type of language in your script. After all, it’s your story and you see it in a very specific way. However, facts are facts. If you want to direct your script, then try to go the independent filmmaker route. But if you want to sell your script, then stick to the accepted spec screenplay format.
Screenplay Formatting Software:
Screenwriting software makes producing an Industry-standard script simple and straightforward. Programs like Final Draft and Movie Magic Screenwriter put your words into proper screenplay format as you type, letting you focus on a well-told story rather than the chore of margins and spacing. There’s also a wide spectrum of outlining and development software at the ready to help you get your thoughts together before you begin writing. Popular story development software includes Dramatica Pro, a step-by-step guide to the storytelling process, Contour, a character-based structuring system, and Save the Cat!, a program centred on successful screenwriter Blake Snyder’s own proven methods.
And if you want a program that combines story development and formatting? Check out Movie Outline, an all-in-one development package that uses step outlining to build your story, scene-by-scene, and Montage, which includes both outline and submission tracking functions.
Script Presentation and Binding:
Just like the format of a script, there are very specific rules for binding and presenting your script. The first page is the title page, which should also be written in Courier 12pt font. No graphics, no fancy pictures, only the title of your script, with “written by” and your name in the centre of the page. In the lower left-hand or right-hand corner, enter your contact information. In the lower left-hand or right-hand corner you can put Registered, WGA or a copyright notification, though this is generally not a requirement.
Shailik Bhaumik is an award-winning filmmaker and entrepreneur. Known for his feature film “Dasein”, Shailik is the founder and Chairman of Human Lab Corporation, a Multinational Film Company whose mission it is to help Independent Filmmakers survive and thrive in this highly competitive industry. Shailik oversees worldwide operations including production, distribution, and marketing for HLC’s live-action films, as well as films released under the HLC banner.