I’m a novelist and I just finished writing a screenplay. Why, you may ask, would I do something as silly as that? I’ve never written one and have no experience selling one. If you’re a writer like me, restless and always tossing around new ideas in your head, then you know that the monkey chatter in a writer’s brain never stops. So after finishing my most recent novel, I sat down at my desk and wrote.
And boy, did I learn a lot in the process. Writing a novel and writing a screenplay are two altogether different beasts. I’d never undertaken the task of writing a screenplay, and hadn’t realized the level of difficulty. The challenges it presents are far different than writing a novel. For one thing, brevity is key. In some ways it’s more like writing poetry, but always with an eye toward the visual. You can’t write a sentence like, “Jimmy frowns, thinking about his nagging mother,” because the audience will never know why he’s frowning. Furthermore, the writer must understand how to properly format the screenplay. It’s almost like writing code.
You might ask if I turned one of my novels into a screenplay? I did not. I’ve had this movie idea bubbling in my head for the last year now and it came to me in a series of visuals. Good. Now I had the first step down: the concept. Now I had to figure out everything else involved in the process.
I didn’t have the time to teach myself the basics until I finished my novel-in-progress. So I took my time and finished my novel, sent it into my agent, and waited for his response (he loved it). Then I took a week off and thought about my story. Once I was ready, I delved into it. I have to admit, it seemed daunting in many respects. And yet in one other way, I went into it blissfully ignorant of the difficulties and obvious pitfalls. Not to mention, the odds of seeing your screenplay make it to the big screen are extremely low. But if you don’t at least try, you’ll never know.
In my spare time I read a lot of screenplays that had similar themes to mine. I learned through trial and error, and also from some friends who know the genre much better than I do. My son is a film major at the U and he read it and gave me some great suggestions. As did Jule Selbo, a Maine crime novelist (her novel, TEN DAYS by Pandamoon Publishing, comes out this summer ). She taught screenplay writing in college and worked for many years in Hollywood. Her feedback over coffee was invaluable and I can’t thank her enough.
Like publishing, when writing a screenplay you have to consider what kind of story you are telling. What’s fresh and new? What will appeal to a wide audience? I thought my idea was cutting edge and had many of those elements, while at the same time using the traditional story arc. I processed all the feedback and then went back and rewrote and changed many scenes where necessary. I needed more scene headings for exterior and interior locations. White space was good. Too much narrative bad. Show don’t tell. The description had to be just enough to give direction but not too much that it was excessive and extraneous. My characters needed ages. And I quickly learned that it’s not the screenwriter’s job to provide camera shots and soundtracks. Yes, I made both mistakes.
After rewriting and rewriting, I think I ended up with a pretty good script on my hands. Sure, it still needs more work. And I have a few more ideas that I’ll try to squeeze into the story. Most Hollywood scripts are around 110 pages, and I’m just under that mark. So any changes that I make will need to be brief and relevant to the story.
So what is my screenplay about. It’s called THE VAULT and it’s a thriller with some dark comedy thrown in. I have some ideas about who might play who, but that’s not for me to decide, although if you’re free Denzel Washington, I got a killer part for you. I have a meeting with an L.A. agent at the end of the month and we’ll see what she says about my logline and synopsis. It might not amount to anything, but as they say in Hollywood: at least I got a meeting. I’m proud of what I wrote and will continue to market it where and when possible. But for now it’s onto the next novel.
Then maybe the next movie idea.
I really enjoyed writing my screenplay. It stimulated different parts of my brain and really helped me in thinking about how to tell a story. I have other ideas I’d love to pursue at some point in the future. Of course I still love the breadth and scope of writing novels. That’s my first priority. In my opinion, there’s nothing as comforting and satisfying as a good book. Don’t think I could ever give that up. But now that I better understand the nuts and bolts of writing a screenplay, and all the rules that go with it, I can’t wait to give it another shot.
Maybe I’ll stalk Quentin Tarantino out in L.A., corner him in an elevator, and hand him my screenplay. You never know, he might actually like it.
I highly recommend Robert McKee’s “Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting (1997), also, not surprisingly, helpful for novel writing.
Good luck in your efforts.
Always fun to tackle something new.