Saturday, May 05, 2007

Adventures in Screenwriting

I’ve just started work on a screenplay. (!) I’ve been planning to do this for some time and even acquired the Final Draft software that facilitates the weird formatting for screenplays. (I taught myself how to use it months ago when it came, but of course I had to relearn it all yesterday.) The impetus for beginning now, though, is that I have an opportunity to take a screenwriting workshop with Hal Ackerman next month at Tinker Mountain (where I studied fiction with Pinckney Benedict two years ago). And while I could go empty-handed to the workshop, I’d rather have a chunk of script to start with and go into it with a feeling for what it’s all about.

I’ve collected a couple of books about screenwriting, including Ackerman’s Write Screenplays That Sell, and I’ll be plowing through those, both before and after the workshop. If all goes well, I’ll report on my studies here.

The truth is, though, I’m more interested in playwriting. I don’t see a lot of movies. Of course most of the theater I see is Shakespeare (at the American Shakespeare Center, as regular visitors here will know), so that’s not all that useful either. But I do read dramatic works from time to time and I studied some in graduate school. Drama, to me, isn’t that far removed from fiction and one can sit and read a play like a novel. Cinema is another form altogether, despite the obvious family resemblance. Anyway, because I’m thinking I’d like to return next year to Sewanee in their playwriting workshop, I’ll also be using Final Draft to work on a script I can use there. And, to that end, I’ve picked up some playwriting craft books also. Again, I'll report here on my studies.

As for the script I’ve now started, it’s an adaptation of a story I published last year called "Hand-painted Angel." One editor who saw the story suggested it would make a good screenplay and that has stuck in my head, although whether that editor knew what he was talking about or not I have no idea. As an exercise in both screenwriting and the art of adaptation, though, I can see that this is going to be time well spent, whatever comes of the actual screenplay that results.

5 comments:

Doyle White said...

For whatever it's worth and if you haven't read it- I would recommend Chris Vogler's "The Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure for Storytellers and Screenwriters." It's required reading for all Creative Executives (they guys that buy the screenplays and/or pick what gets made) in the Entertainment Industry.

As the story goes Disney hired him to write a manual for their creative exec's about what made up the ideal screenplay and used a version of his book as a handbook for picking scripts. Then Vogler decided to publish it- and the rest is history.

As for formatting- It's not as important as everyone makes it out to be. It's just another weed and seed standard. The only real hard and fast is the plot points that occur roughly every 30 minutes/pages (based on a 2 hour time frame). Readable is far more important. In as much as a story told in present tense and limited strictly to what can be seen and heard can be made readable. It should be a page turner, like that novel that no one can put down and plows through in two days.

The people (burnouts) who will be looking at the screenplay and who's job it is to find a reason to reject it, will have a harder time doing so if it's readable.

I would also recommend trying to get the short story published first, before shopping the screenplay. If you write the short story (or novel) a screenplay is adapted from- you're an artist. If you just sell an original screenplay, you're a hack and it was the Director's vision that made it a success (unless it's a failure- then it's the writers fault).

But that's just my 2 cents.

Good luck on your project.

Clifford Garstang said...

Doyle, thanks for stopping by and for the advice. I've made a note of the Vogler book and will look for it. I think I get the readability issue--it's no different in stories and novels when you're trying to get past an agent or an editor. And although this first screenplay is just an exercise for me, really, I did publish the story already, so it's an adaptation of published work. Does that make me an artist instead of a hack? Hah! Maybe.

Doyle White said...

You indeed are an Artist.

If the Entertainment biz worked differently than it did, then a screenwriter producing original material would be an Artist as well. But in Hollywood the awarding of that appellation to a screenwriter is more a matter of political savvy and repeat commercial success.

The problem with the industry as I see it is that the screenplay is considered (by those with the money) to be just a "loose blueprint" or "suggestion" of the story. That most times a script gets re-written over a dozen times by several different people before it gets produced doesn't help anything either.

The Screenwriter with his name on the by line is just as often not the original author. Perhaps a favorite of the project's director or producer, but usually the guy with more political clout.

My own personal analogy regarding the differences between prose (Novels and Short stories) and Scripts is as follows:

"A prose writer is like a painter free to dance around the canvas as he wishes. A screenwriter is like a blacksmith shoeing a horse. The damn thing doesn't have to look good it just has to fit."
-D.W. 1997


A screenplay from the get go is full of artificial standards and limitations which in my opinion makes the creation of an original story in that format all the more difficult. The best films I've seen are often adaptations, because prose offers fewer restrictions and limitations on what can be done.

The Author said...

Hey Cliff - Check out Lajos Egri's The Art of Dramatic Writing. He focuses on playwriting, but it was one of the books assigned to me in film school. Been years ago now for me, but I remember finding quite a bit in it of value.

Clifford Garstang said...

Hi, The Author! As a matter of fact, on someone else's recommendation, I picked that up recently. So now I'm doubly anxious to get to it. Soon!