Emails To A Young Screenwriter

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Astrid’s first question that she emailed me was a good one.

How do you write a screenplay?

“I took only one screenwriting class during my BA and, to this day, I’ve only managed to complete very short scripts,” she wrote.  “Every time I sit down to write a screenplay I find that I want to write all sorts of stuff (thoughts and philosophical pondering) that will never be transformed into action.”

She’s right – It won’t.

“How do you deal with the economic language supposed to reign in scripts?” Astrid wanted to know.

If you write books, short stories, or anything other than screenplays, you’re going to have to  change your writing style.  Here’s what you need to remember – Always think of writing for film as utilizing only two elements:

1) Action (Show it, don’t tell us about it).

2) Dialogue (Skip the long speeches unless it’s an Oscar quality premise).

As you develop a story always ask yourself:  What are my characters doing and what are they saying?  Nothing else should end up on the page.  Why your characters are doing what they’re doing is called “motivation” and while those motivations should be clearly understood by your audience (tip: show, don’t tell), avoid scenes talking about them.  If you are a brutal editor – meaning that you’re not afraid of red penciling and cutting your work – then overwrite, if you want to.  Just make sure that when you turn in that script it’s not over 110 – 112 pages.  And understand this:  Usually what a character thinks, especially what the screenwriter thinks,  and any “philosophical pondering” doesn’t play in film.  Those kind of scenes “lose” an audience.

Always Remember Your Audience

I read Franny & Zooey by J.D. Salinger in junior high school, and I was very affected by one of its passages – the story of the Fat Lady.  Zooey is a young girl who is on one of those “quiz kid” radio programs every week, and she’s becoming very jaded, cynical, and resentful about having to perform every week.  Her brother (Seymour) gives her some advice: to shine her shoes every time she’s going into the studio to be on the air:

“Seymour’d told me to shine my shoes just as I was going out the door with Waker. I was furious. The studio audience were all morons, the announcer was a moron, the sponsors were morons, and I just damn well wasn’t going to shine my shoes for them, I told Seymour. I said they couldn’t see them anyway, where we sat. He said to shine them anyway. He said to shine them for the Fat Lady. I didn’t know what the hell he was talking about, but he had a very Seymour look on his face, and so I did it. He never did tell me who the Fat Lady was, but I shined my shoes for the Fat Lady every time I ever went on the air again — all the years you and I were on the program together, if you remember. I don’t think I missed more than just a couple of times. This terribly clear, clear picture of the Fat Lady formed in my mind. I had her sitting on this porch all day, swatting flies, with her radio going full-blast from morning till night. I figured the heat was terrible, and she probably had cancer, and — I don’t know. Anyway, it seemed goddamn clear why Seymour wanted me to shine my shoes when I went on the air. It made sense.”

That passage really stayed with me and because of it I developed a strong instinct for what will keep an audience interested (“in their seats”) and what will “lose them.”  Losing an audience is when they go to the refreshment stand for popcorn instead of being so hooked by what’s on the screen they don’t want to leave their seats.   Any self-analysis by a character, any injected philosophical wonderings by the screenwriter simply won’t play.

You can always overwrite a scene in a screenplay but then you have to go back and cut the fat out – anything that doesn’t entertain or keep the tension in a scene has to be red pencilled.  As a writer, it’s important that you understand what your character is thinking (what’s their background and their back story) but it’s how you use that thinking – whether in a dialogue quip or a bit of action that makes for a powerful screenplay.  Just keep the “Fat Lady” on that porch entertained.

Know Your Strength and Weaknesses

My strength has always been with dialogue so writing lines for my characters has never been a problem for me.  (If you’re not good at writing dialogue, I have suggestions about how you can improve those skills – More about that in the next post). I’ve always hated writing description and action.  I confess I used to skip reading a lot of it if it went on too long in novels.    Unfortunately,  writing action demands an ability to write description.  But you can’t go on for long paragraphs; you have to be succinct in your description of the action.  Action – or movement of a story without using words – used to be the most difficult part of writing screenplays for me.  Luckily, my first writing jobs were in episodic television and unless you’re writing a cop/detective show (with a lot of chase sequences) television is known to be a medium that’s heavy on dialogue. The big challenge came for me when I moved out of episodic television into movies.  I made that transition because I was brave enough (or stupid enough) to take on a rewrite assignment for a three-hour movie-made-for-television.

Normally, it takes months to write such a long movie (180 pages).  However, there was already a script that the network was on the fence about “green lighting” (giving a go ahead for production) and the producer wanted another writer to do a “pass” to see if the rewrite could convince the network to go into pre-production.

They gave me ten days.

That was a lot of pressure to take on a complete rewrite of a 180 page teleplay in such a short amount of time, but luckily the structure of the script worked fine.  All I really had to do was write a new opening sequence to hook the audience, add a couple of new scenes for character development, and do a “Page 1 Rewrite” of most of the dialogue in the script.  The action sequences played well enough to leave alone so I was thankful for that because (as I said) I hated writing action.

Because of my three hour rewrite the movie was green lighted and went into production.  I was thrilled until I was notified that I wouldn’t be getting a screen credit.  A screenwriter only shares a credit when he/she changes at least 50% of the structure of the screenplay.  I had written several new scenes, and changed every line of dialogue, but I didn’t alter 50% of the telling of the story.  I was using the same characters that the original writer had created – even if they were saying my words, and not his.  So that writing job provided me with a couple of valuable lessons about screenwriting: I was paid for my rewriting but because I didn’t have a screen credit I never got to share in any residuals every time that film played on television.  But the fact that I had stepped in and “saved” a production from being scrapped added to my credentials as a screenwriter, and I started to get other assignments.  Working on that script also showed me that if I was going to write features (which was my goal) I had to somehow learn how to write action.

Keep Learning, Keep Growing

The big growth for me as a screenwriter came when I was hired to write a sequel to a television movie about a little deaf boy.  I wanted to get a better understanding of sign language so I set out to find someone who could come over to my apartment and teach me sign.  I was very agoraphobic at the time and I couldn’t just seek out a class somewhere and go there every week.  By luck, I was at a theatre awards function, and after I had stayed my obligatory half hour (before all the people and anxiety finally kicked in) I headed for the lobby.  While there I saw a young man and woman signing to each other.  I stopped and decided to ask them a little about sign language and when I introduced myself I learned that the woman was a deaf actress and the young man was her hearing interpreter.   She would use her hands to sign to me and he would use his voice (and hands at the same time) to interpret.  I was fascinated watching how they worked together and I expressed an interest in learning sign.  I  asked them if they had any suggestions on how I could do that.

The woman paused a moment and then signed (as the young man spoke): “Let me think about it and I will call you.”

Several days later, the phone rang and when I answered it a male voice said, “Hi, this is Julianna Fjeld.  We met at the NRT Awards.  I’ve been thinking about what you asked me, and I decided that I would like to teach you sign.”

All of this was said in one long sentence, and all I heard was this male voice saying, “I want to teach you sign.”  I thanked him gratefully and then asked (because I had forgotten the male interpreter’s name), “What was your name again?”

He answered, “Julianna Fjeld.”

Well, I was pretty sure that Julianna was a woman’s name so I persisted again by asking the man, “No…What’s YOUR name.  You’re the one wanting to teach me sign.”

There was a pause at the other end of the phone, and then the young man said to me very slowly, “…Let me explain how this works.  I’m Julianna Fjeld.  I’ve called you on the phone to talk with you, and I am using my friend Dave’s voice.  But when you’re talking to me, you are talking to ME, and not Dave.”

Whoa.  Talk about being schooled in deaf culture.

That was the first big lesson I learned from Julianna Fjeld, and it wasn’t the last.  She offered to be my sign language teacher…in my home.

How could I say no?

Get Out Of Your Comfort Zone

I was so nervous about being alone with a deaf person (who I assumed I wouldn’t understand and we would sit awkwardly for hours in my little apartment until I started having panic attacks inside my house as well as outside) I recruited my boyfriend, and two of my closest friends to join Julianna and me in our little sign language class.  Well, I was worried about nothing because as soon as we met Julianna we were all communicating like the best of friends.  She’s one of the most amazing communicators I have met in my lifetime.  She not only taught me how to use my hands to communicate but how to see the world with open eyes.

For the first time in my life I became aware of the “visual” in our world.

Sign Language for French

Words and dialogue remained important to me, but now the element of silence took on a life and a power that was equal to the words.  I grew as a writer because of Julianna.  First, through her sign language classes, and then through the power of a film that we made together.

One day I asked Julianna if she had ever read, In This Sign –  a wonderful novel by Joanne Greenberg about a deaf couple with a hearing child.  I had read the book several years earlier and it was one of the most powerful novels I’d ever experienced.  When I signed the title of the book, Julianna’s hands quickly (and excitedly) joined with mine to spell out the title with me.

Her eyes widened and her hands spoke quickly, “I have the rights to the book!”

She went on to tell me that she had loved In This Sign so much she tracked down the writer who was living in Colorado where Julianna was born and raised.   She told Joanne Greenberg how much she loved the book – that it was so powerful she wanted everyone to be able to experience the story as a film.  Well, Joanne was so impressed with Julianna that she offered her the option to her book…for $1.00.  You would have to know Julianna to understand why an author would trust her so much to make such a deal.  But Julianna is so amazing, and such a wonderful life force that it made perfect sense to me why she got the rights for only $1.00.  As it turned out, Joanna Greenberg had made a very wise choice.

Julianna immediately went to work trying to get any of the studios interested in making a film from the book.  She was able to set up something at Warner Brothers but they wanted to use hearing actors and Julianna was against that because the deaf culture would be offended.  The deal with Warners was not going to happen.

“Do you still own the rights?” I asked her.

“Warners gave me back the rights before they ever hired a screenwriter to write a script,” she explained.

That was good news because I knew a producer who I thought might be interested.

When I called Marian Rees (of Marian Rees Associates) and asked her, “Have you ever heard of a book called In This Sign?” I thought she’d jump out of the phone with her excitement.  It was one of her favorite books.

“I’ve been trying to make that book into a film but Warners has it.”

“Not anymore,” I told her with a smile.  “But I know who owns the rights.”

That began the transformation of the novel, In This Sign, into the television film, Love Is Never Silent with Julianna as one of the executive producers and me as the writer.  The screenplay profoundly changed me as a screenwriter – action sequences no longer bored me, and I found a new excitement in writing them.  And because of the success of Love Is Never Silent (the film won an Emmy for Best Picture) I was able to transition into writing screenplays for films – a medium that relies heavily on action and the visual.

But now I could write action.

So you can learn how to write action just as you can hone your skills as a writer and learn the “economic language” that is supposed to “reign in screenwriting.” What’s important to remember is that even if you are hired as a screenwriter and you’re making money as a professional, your talent should always be evolving, getting better, and adapting to whatever needs are there for the medium you’re working in.

(Tomorrow’s post:  If It’s Screenwriting, What’s Acting Got To Do With It?)

(Got questions, comments, or thoughts?  Don’t be shy – I’ll answer them below.)

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