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What Is Screenwriting?

An insider’s view of writing for film

Illustration by Fran Pulido of two books that look like open books next to a microphone.

A screenplay is the beginning. It is the crucial component in a package of things (cast, director, locations already planned etc) to persuade people to invest money, private or public, in a film to come from that screenplay. It has to ‘sell the idea’ of that film. Changes will follow: there will be discussions, there will be revisions, though as the writer, you should expect to be involved. A director may want to work with you on the script; whether that is successful or not will depend how you and he/she get on, and just how much involvement is being sought.

A screenplay is a description of a film that hasn’t been made yet. That’s the film that you, the writer, create, the one you imagine. Personally, I don’t think I really see the characters I create, though I hear what they say. And I feel the scenes — the dynamic of the action, the tension between people, the emotions they carry and reveal. I try to convey these elements, whether I’m describing action or setting down dialogue: both are important. Screenwriting is not solely about dialogue — crucial scenes may have none at all. A screenplay is about structure: it contains the armature on which the film can be built.

The relationship between dialogue and real speech is tangential: dialogue needs to be precise, though people in real life rarely are. The artifice is that you have them say what needs to be said, not everything that could be said. It’s drama, not a transcription. And you need to think about the camera — what can it do? Body language forms a significant element in how we communicate with each other (or don’t) — that includes facial expressions, tone, hesitations… Dialogue can be sparse, but you have heard it in your head and you trust actors to amplify and enrich what’s on the page; likewise, their demeanour can give meaning to silence. Your script might say ‘She doesn’t answer, but turns away to tidy something on the table.’ This helps the director understand the tension you want in the scene; he/she doesn’t need to follow your script to the letter.

The old slogan ‘show not tell’ remains good advice. It helps us avoid scenes where characters are talking to each other for the prime purpose of giving the audience information. On the other hand, the notion that a screenplay must be ‘visual’ doesn’t mean the script must be filled with elaborately written pictures. It must have space for the visual to happen. The screenplay sketches images that haven’t been properly made yet, it has to be incomplete: if everything is conveyed in the dialogue, for example, there’s nothing left for the director to do. If you are using your characters to illustrate your opinion, the script won’t ‘come off the page.’ The actors can’t find the life in those characters.

The building block of a screenplay is the scene — if we have moved to somewhere else, it’s a new scene. The mortar between these blocks is the cut. It is simultaneously an end and a beginning. You can bring your viewer into an event or a conversation, and take them out of it, whenever you choose. In my latest film Waiting for You, there’s a scene early on when Paul has dozed off at the bedside of his dying father. His father wakes him suddenly and says ‘He ruined my life.’ Eh? Who?/ What? We don’t know yet, we want to find out, as does Paul. But then his mother arrives and Paul doesn’t share these hints with her. Why not? Next scene: funeral. A scene needn’t be a well-shaped thing, but it does need to justify itself: every scene means a new set-up for the crew. You are writing for an elaborate process: lighting, camera, sound — it all has to be right, and nobody wants to spend time and money on a scene that finally isn’t needed. Screenwriting is carving at a big block — removal is often what matters most.

Film is flexible as a narrative medium, and often held back only by the pressure of convention. Film has a facility to jump in time — to flash back or flash forward, and audiences will stay with you. They want to be challenged, to be surprised. So, for example, I end my adaptation of The Mill on the Floss not, as in the original, with those bereft visiting Tom and Maggie’s grave, but by a scene (which occurs in the novel but in the right place chronologically) when Maggie and Tom were children and full of affection towards one another. In another script of mine, someone is unconscious — will she survive? Then I cut to her on a sunlit beach. Is she dead, and this is from the past? Is she alive and this is in the future? Or might you, if you were writing this, then introduce something obviously unreal into the scene so the audience says ‘Oh, she’s dreaming.’ A screen image compels belief but you can subvert that belief. But as with any writing, the aim is to create a narrative that holds the audience. People are skilled in reading screen language: they can easily be a step ahead of you, and then their attention slips.

Most screenwriters write both original scripts and those adapted from another piece of work (usually a novel, perhaps a theatre play, or they may be working from real events, or real people.) In fact, the majority of cinema films are based on a pre-existing work so if you are averse to adaptation, you may be in the wrong game! But either way, a script is being created and from that script a film may be made. This might be written by someone who then wants to direct it, or it might be by a writer who has taken it to a director. There can be anxiety about authorship: most directors obtain a co-writing credit nowadays and it’s hard to know how significant this is. It’s often said there are three stages of a film: the script, the shoot, and the edit. The first stage may be obscured: we need to peer into the history of a finished film, trying to see what that process was.

A film may be marketed emphasising the name of the director. But if he/she is not credited with any part in the screenplay, then it may be that that director has been hired in to shoot it. The work is already done. Night Train to Lisbon was directed by Bille August, but written by Greg Latter and Ulrich Hermann. On the back of the DVD box, only August is referred to, and after his name goes the vital brackets (everyone in film marketing blurbs must have something in brackets) and in this case it’s Pelle The Conqueror, which August wrote (with others, in fact) and directed. It became known thereafter as August’s Oscar-winning film, probably rightly so, but that was in 1987 — how relevant is it to this film?

Surely the most interesting issue here is the script: the novel poses big challenges. It’s about one person uncovering the story of another person, long dead. The choice was made to use flashbacks, so that we meet characters in old age, then played by younger actors for scenes set in the past. I found this rather jolted my engagement in the narrative. Perhaps trusting in the older characters would have been better? A person recalling their youth, recounting love and loss, after years of silence and avoidance, can be compelling; the emotion invested can take us beyond mere exposition.

Ken Loach is unusual in giving so much credit to Paul Laverty, the writer who always works with him. Loach has said that ‘writers are still the most undervalued element in this whole process’ and attacks the emphasis in film schools that the director should also be the writer. I would suggest, rather, that some directors are gifted writers too; some are not, though feel they should be. Some directors are at the visionary end of the spectrum and need to create alone; Loach is at the other end, and never has. I’ve always sought a good collaborative relationship, while accepting a director moves towards a dominant role as production approaches. Loach has said too that he encourages his actors to improvise mostly as a way to help them feel their way into the role; most of it is cut in the edit and 90 per cent of the film is what Laverty set down in the first place.

If you write for the screen, then you must accept that your much-loved screenplay that was never filmed will be of little interest, and even a filmed one is only of interest to film buffs! I’ve been a screenwriter for a long time because when I arrive on set and see the director and a lot of other skilled people bringing my screenplay to life I feel such joy it keeps me going until the next one (likely to be some way off.) That joy outweighs the realisation that my script will, even by the time the wrap party gets underway, fall away like a dried up old chrysalis, job done.

Hugh Stoddart’s screenplays have included the feature Remembrance and The Big Battalions, a six-part series for C4. His most recent feature, Waiting for You, is currently on the film festival circuit.

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