Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Screenwriting for Better Novels

One of my smaller works in progress is a short story adaptation to film that I am undertaking for a friend. I have some (basic and quite pretentious) experience in writing screenplays, including a foray into the annual Script Frenzy, but screenwriting for me is nowhere near a honed skill. However, I do love the challenge of writing for screen as it forces a writer to impart character, plot, and setting through visuals alone. I am always amazed at how my writing improves through the experience.

For example, in novels, the writer is the director, location scout, camera operator, editor (for the most part), etc. You as the writer, are virtually the only name in the credits of your novel (unless you're like Sarah and have your own live-in craft services chef). However, when writing for screen, the writer only serves a small part in the creative process. While screenwriters are allowed to describe the general appearance of their characters and settings, they can only put in the few details salient to the plot. Even though you have to show the world you building, it's not your job to dress it fully. Your job is to get the foundation laid, and the rest of the crew will put up the walls and the plumbing and the crown molding. And you have to be prepared for the house to look completely different from your vision.

Also, there is no interiority in screenwriting. You can't go on and on in an internal monologue about how the salt shaker on the restaurant table reminds Dan of his favorite stones to skip during childhood summers with his now-dead drug addict uncle. We have all read and written interiority like this, and it can work in a novel, but a screenwriter would have to creatively attack this idea in another way. For example, there could be a scene showing Dan and his uncle in flashback, or Dan could talk about his childhood in expository dialogue, or, because Dan is a secondary character anyway and we are talking about salt shakers here, the writer should leave it out and use precious space for more important details.

Screenwriting challenges a writer by restricting choices and forcing new paths of creativity. These restrictions are not appropriate for every story or tolerable for every writer, but they do focus fiction writing in interesting ways I have learned not only to see my world more clearly, but to focus on the most important parts of it. If you want to join me in the screenwriting world, check out Celtx for open-source screenwriting software and go to Script Frenzy's resource guides for a crash course in screen formatting. It's definitely worth a try.

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