Writing for stage and screen, and Yourself

script reading service shotFans and followers of National Novel Writing Month may not be aware, but that month of writerly passions and furies used to have a sister scheme called Script Frenzy, where the aim is to produce 100 pages of fairly well-formatted script in 30 days.

Since I turned down a BA in Scriptwriting over a decade ago, I can’t claim to have always been drawn to the format, but of late I have found it of increasing interest.

Here’s why, and why you should too.

Scriptwriting is bare-bones storytelling. It lacks prose’s distractions of character description and setting, pushing dialogue and story to the forefront. I’m the first to admit I am sometimes guilty of writing poor dialogue, and often smother it in a telling rather than exposing it in a showing.

But in scripts you can’t just say that “he told her all about himself”, you have to show exactly how, and what words he used. There’s no internal monologues or third person narration to hide behind.

The test of good dialogue is whether you still know who is talking when the names are taken away.

Similarly, you can’t hide a poor story in pretty scenery when you can’t “see” the pretty scenery. While in script there is always an idea of where the characters and events physically are, there is no need to lavish attention on place and circumstance. The characters and their words and reactions must speak for themselves. Who we are to others is never really about what we think, and much more about what we do and say.

Concepts of place and reality also tighten down on the narrative devices you can employ. You can’t have a dragon appear from nowhere without everyone that saw it getting into some serious tunnel-vision mindfuckery about where it came from. Even in a full-on High Fantasy setting a dragon has to come from somewhere, which will have you writing caves into hillsides and hillsides into landscapes as a realm unfolds, a realm that makes sense rather than merely serving a purpose. When you start to think about real world applications and possibilities, you start to limit yourself to those real worlds, and work within a more rigid and logical framework.

With quantity-not-quality projects like NaNoWriMo, there is a tendency to over describe settings and people, perhaps focusing on every single strand of hair on a lover’s head, or count the tiles on the bathroom floor. Perfect if your protagonist is a little autistic or hungover, but having them stand slack jawed and stock-still while they take everything in doesn’t bode well in a visual medium.

Come to think of it those quantity-boosting tactics are probably why so much modern literary fiction is full of autism and drunks.

Scriptwriting has an advantage over prose when writing for length. Often in prose you might send a character off on an abortive mission just to kill some time and fill some pages, but with a script you’re working so unavoidably alongside characters that they’ll often resist your nonsense, stopping dead in their tracks and forcing you to keep things direct, succinct and relevant.

Then when the characters are writing the story, it pretty much writes itself.