Screenwriting is visual writing…a skill set you learn.

You go into a theatre, sit in the dark, a film flickers across the screen. An usher doesn’t come down the aisle with sheets of paper explaining what you’re watching. You get the story from the progression of what you see and hear. So in laying out the blueprint, the screenplay, you have to include the dialogue, the visuals, and the description of the dynamic. We see as well as hear. How you lay it out is the question. What you lay out and how you do that has to have an emotional progression, that you choose, that you sculpt, to tell your story. There is a camera present and this changes the game.

There is a wonderful article in the February 27th, 2012 New Yorker by David Denby  He talks about the silent film era and suggests what has been lost by not giving adequate attention to the visual magic that having a camera as your medium can evoke.  A camera can express, “a quintessence of mental or spiritual state that lies beyond words just as music lies beyond words,” and that we can see that, “the actors could bring out shadings that had no immediate analogue in language. The ineffable had been reintroduced in to art.”

Because of the film “The Artist” there is now a buzz about silent film.  Although I think the Artist is a mediocre film with nothing original but the gimmick, it has started a conversation. That is good. We are writing for a visual medium. What we see is what we transpose to the page. If you follow the visual and emotinal logic it will inform the way you transpose what you see to the page. The road map, with all the nuance that the writer’s craft allows for, and the insights, all the flavor. We are writing for the director and the editor and the actors.  Who hopefully then bring all their wonderful skills to the project and fulfill our intention. Best of all possible worlds.

You meet a film person in Hollywood and after being introduced the first thing they say is, “tell me the story”. “Tell me in 3 lines.” “Give me the slug line…” And you’re off to the races. Everybody has at least one script, “with an agent,” “in pre-production,” “in the car.” Of all these efforts labeled as scripts maybe 1% have any worth. Producers, agents, the town, is drowning in scripts. Hence, “readers” generally an entry level job, several of whom have some years later taken my class and I have heard their stories. And this is not a comment about them. They are legitimately doing their job as best they know how. But they make up the front line, fielding the onslaught of missiles, the barrage of “scripts,” they make the critical first decision in the pipeline. “Is this a screenplay?” “Is it worth a second read?” The pipeline is jammed. Who can blame producers for having a front line. How these scripts get that far is another matter that I won’t go into in this piece. As my landlord said years ago when I took my apartment which was designated as a professional apartment, “Everybody that writes a postcard is a writer! Show me a contract.” Fortunately I had just signed one. I got the apartment.

What I find in most of the scripts sent me for consultation is that there is a hint of an ear for dialogue. This no doubt is the reason many people consider pursuing their dream of being a screenwriter. Of the multi layered understanding needed to write a good screenplay the one that stands out the most as missing is understanding of the visual. Most beginning writers are still explaining. Clever dialogue does get people in the door and  Hollywood being home base for both TV and movies, getting to write two lines a week for a TV show is a foot in the door and why not.  But that foot in the door can seduce you straight into meat grinder mode and you may never get out. Having said that, television these days, and I am not the first to note this, has more well written shows than there are well written movies.

Many writers rush to take the shortcut and look for the answers in software, but software is not gong to write your screenplay for you. And inspiration will only take you so far. Someone is going to have to supply the perspiration. Craft matters. You have to know what you are doing. You have to learn it.  It does not come under your pillow. Most writers are not willing to spend the time. Write ten scripts. Ten scripts that go nowhere. Then they try again with a flurry of tips and formulas they’ve scavenged spending the next two years trying to fit those ten scripts into the quick tips and formulas and those scripts don’t work either. Or they spend all kinds of energy looking for an agent, or submitting to contests.  Worse, asking everyone in their lives their opinion. They end up with patchwork. It’s madness. What a waste of a dream. The waters are muddy with amateurism and mediocrity and because of the glut, the pitch has become the all important focus for most writers. Bass akwards. Sell the idea make a few bucks, who cares. Someone bought your screenplay as source material. Maybe.

Craft matters. There is a skill set to learn. Understand what you are doing and why.

About Irv Bauer

Screenwriter/Educator: IRV BAUER, has taught Screenwriting at the New York University’s Film School, at Sarah Lawrence College, and The Australian National Film School as well as in Master Classes at Cornell and at many other prominent venues. At the University of Bridgeport and The Minneapolis Playwright’s Lab he taught Playwriting as well as at the New Dramatist's in New York. At the University of Washington he taught Adaptation at the graduate level. In addition, Irv has taught workshops and seminars on screenwriting all over the world including special seminars for film and media communities in London, Paris, Sydney and New York and Los Angeles. His enormously popular annual two-week Summer Screenwriting Intensive in New York in July and Spoleto, Italy in August are attended by students from all over the world.
film, screenplay, screenwriting, script, Uncategorized