Screenwriting is arguably the most pivotal device in the whole process of filmmaking. It is the stage at which all of the dialogue, scenes and set pieces are written down into a document that is the blueprints for the entire finished film. Obviously during the filming process ideas can be tweaked, changed or even entirely taken out, but this is why scripts go through multiple drafts in order for them to be of the highest standard prior to filming. As a media producer, screenwriting is probably the area I have always struggled with. It’s not just about writing great dialogue and moving the story along at the same time, it’s about realising the characters and making them seem like real people as opposed to heavily scripted lines. In order to try to understand the thought process behind screenwriting more, I read excerpts from Stephen King’s book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (2000) which highlights the author’s experiences as a writer and a guide-book for those wishing to become writers or screenwriters. In the book, King brings up 6 main tips during the writing process. I will look at each of them individually and say whether I agree with them or how I would amend his statement.
“1. The basics: forget plot, but remember the importance of ‘situation’
I won’t try to convince you that I’ve never plotted any more than I’d try to convince you that I’ve never told a lie, but I do both as infrequently as possible. I distrust plot for two reasons: first, because our lives are largely plotless, even when you add in all our reasonable precautions and careful planning; and second, because I believe plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible.
A strong enough situation renders the whole question of plot moot. The most interesting situations can usually be expressed as a What-if question:
What if vampires invaded a small New England village? (Salem’s Lot).
What if a young mother and her son became trapped in their stalled car by a rabid dog? (Cujo).
These were situations which occurred to me – while showering, while driving, while taking my daily walk – and which I eventually turned into books. In no case were they plotted, not even to the extent of a single note jotted on a single piece of scrap paper.”
This statement I am divided over. I understand the point King is making here in that you can often explore some nice character moments and subtleties in character interaction if you just focus on situations rather than plot, but this can only take you so far. I disagree in that plot should always be the driving force in what is happening. You can have character development scenes and spontaneous moments that happen, but each must compliment the story and serve a purpose in the whole. If a scene does not serve plot or advance the story in any way, you run the risk of completing a script with lots of filler that could all be taken out and streamlined. The writer must always have a clear idea of where the story is going to go in order to advance it accordingly. If it is made up as it goes along it runs the risk of meandering and not being a cohesive whole. Therefore a balance has to be struck between situation and plot.
“2. Similes and metaphors – the rights, the wrongs
When a simile or metaphor doesn’t work, the results are sometimes funny and sometimes embarrassing. Recently, I read this sentence in a forthcoming novel I prefer not to name: ‘He sat stolidly beside the corpse, waiting for the medical examiner as patiently as a man waiting for a turkey sandwich.’ If there is a clarifying connection here, I wasn’t able to make it.
My all-time favourite similes come from the hard-boiled-detective fiction of the 40s and 50s, and the literary descendants of the dime-dreadful writers. These favourites include ‘It was darker than a carload of assholes’ (George V Higgins) and ‘I lit a cigarette [that] tasted like a plumber’s handkerchief’ (Raymond Chandler).”
Agreed on this account, although this applies more to novels rather than screenwriting. In screenwriting, there may only be a few similes or metaphors used in dialogue but often the language used to describe the scenes will not be as fancifully written and be much more stripped down and to the point.
“3. Dialogue: talk is ‘sneaky’
It’s dialogue that gives your cast their voices, and is crucial in defining their characters – only what people do tells us more about what they’re like, and talk is sneaky: what people say often conveys their character to others in ways of which they – the speakers – are completely unaware.
Well-crafted dialogue will indicate if a character is smart or dumb, honest or dishonest, amusing or an old sobersides. Good dialogue, such as that written by George V Higgins, Peter Straub or Graham Greene, is a delight to read; bad dialogue is deadly.”
This to me is the most important point. You can have the greatest story known to man but if it is filled with terrible and unnatural dialogue then the whole film falls apart, regardless of the strength and complexity of the story. It is important to make characters feel like real people in order for the audience to have someone they can relate to. All characters don’t have to be nice as that isn’t the case of real life. But you can make bad characters interesting and even in some cases of films, likeable. All of this stems from the quality of dialogue and the writing.
“4. Characters: nobody is the ‘bad-guy’
The job boils down to two things: paying attention to how the real people around you behave and then telling the truth about what you see. It’s also important to remember that no one is ‘the bad guy’ or ‘the best friend’ or ‘the whore with a heart of gold’ in real life; in real life we each of us regard ourselves as the main character, the protagonist, the big cheese; the camera is on us , baby. If you can bring this attitude into your fiction, you may not find it easier to create brilliant characters, but it will be harder for you to create the sort of one-dimensional dopes that populate so much pop fiction.”
This is also quite a relevant point. In films, some of the best lines and personalities come from the side or supporting characters. These people often help to flesh out the world around the main characters and help to enrich the overall story. The attention shouldn’t be taken away from the main character though as they are the characters we are supposed to be following on the journey of the film, but a roster of supporting characters can often make the final piece more memorable.
“5. Pace: fast is not always best
Pace is the speed at which your narrative unfolds. There is a kind of unspoken (hence undefended and unexamined) belief in publishing circles that the most commercially successful stories and novels are fast-paced. Like so many unexamined beliefs in the publishing business, this idea is largely bullshit… which is why, when books like Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose suddenly break out of the pack and climb the bestseller lists, publishers and editors are astonished. I suspect that most of them ascribe these books’ unexpected success to unpredictable and deplorable lapses into good taste on the part of the reading public.
I believe each story should be allowed to unfold at its own pace, and that pace is not always double time. Nevertheless, you need to beware – if you slow the pace down too much, even the most patient reader is apt to grow restive.”
King basically sums up my thoughts on this in the final sentence of his point. I would again say this applies more to novels than a script. With a novel you can have the book be as long as you wish and cover great stretches of time in your narrative. In a film however, you are limited for time in that the usual attention span of a viewer is around just over 2 hours. Most big blockbuster films now tend to be around 2 and a half hours, but the very limit seems to be just under 3 hours. In this case, the pace has to be brisk when it is appropriate, or, to loosely reference King, even the most patient viewer is apt to grow restive.
“6. Do the research, but don’t overdo it for the reader
You may be entranced with what you’re learning about flesh-eating bacteria, the sewer system of New York, or the IQ potential of Collie pups, but your readers are probably going to care a lot more about your characters and your story.
Exceptions to the rule? Sure, aren’t there always? There have been very successful writers – Arthur Hailey and James Michener are the first ones that come to my mind – whose novels rely heavily on fact and research. Other popular writers, such as Tom Clancy and Patricia Cornwell, are more story-oriented, but still deliver large dollops of factual information along with the melodrama. I sometimes think that these writers appeal to a large segment of the reading population who feel that fiction is somehow immoral, a low taste which can only be justified by saying, ‘Well, ahem, yes, I do read [fill in author’s name here], but only on airplanes and in hotel rooms that don’t have CNN; also, I learned a great deal about [fill in appropriate subject here].’ “
Agree on this point. Very often films contain huge levels of exposition and factual information that makes the film appear cleverer than what it is. However, as King says, if the story needs that level of factual information and completely relies on it for its story and characters, then that is fine. However, most audiences of to see a film for escapism so most may be turned off by relentless facts if story and characters are not at the forefront or the focus.
To me, the point that Tarantino makes here follows Stephen King’s reasoning in his first point. Tarantino isolates each page he writes and focuses on situation and the moment of that particular scene; not getting bogged down or too submissive to the overall future plot. Tarantino is one of my favourite directors in the business, but I will be the first to admit that some of his more recent films such as Django Unchained, Death Proof and Kill Bill vol. 2 contain a lot of dialogue scenes that really did not need to be in the film and without them could have benefitted the film in terms of pace and overall plot. Although Django Unchained won an Oscar for best original screenplay, I personally found it to be very self-indulgent on Tarantino’s part and contained a lot of scenes that, on the surface, were cool and witty, but they could have been lifted from the film entirely and they wouldn’t have been missed in terms of the grand scheme of the story at all. In this case, I will always say that if a scene does not serve the story, it is filler and should be removed from the film. Even in character development, that should always be a part of and serve the story. I think Tarantino’s approach to script writing works for short films certainly, but for feature films and television shows, the filler needs to be done away with.
In conclusion, the apparent celebrated screenwriting device used is to treat each page like its own thing rather than obsessing over where the script needs to get to. I will try this approach next time I have a go writing a script as my usual writing process is the exact opposite as I always look to serve the story and get the plot moving. However, I this could highlight the difference between character driven films and plot driven films. The former always trumps the latter.