Blogger in Residence, Penny Hanley, looks into what you need to know to take the plunge and to get your start at screenwriting.
‘There’s never been a better time to be a writer!’ said screenwriter and creative producer Mike Jones last Friday at Canberra’s National Film and Sound Archive. Opportunities for screenwriters are expanding enormously. He demonstrated with impressive statistics how new digital media platforms are leading to vastly increased audience numbers for what we writers have to offer: narrative.
We can write stories and screenplays for an increasing number of media platforms. We can tailor our narrative to an audio book or cinema screen, a Virtual Reality experience or mobile app, an online web series or a video game. Or all of these!
Jones assured the audience that the most important thing remains the ability to write a good story or screenplay and that new technology just means that our potential audience is expanded. He said that collaboration is increasingly important and is part of the process of developing narrative projects to fit across a wide range of media platforms.
Victor Willis, Project Manager at ScreenACT, the ACT Office of Film, Television and Digital Media also emphasises that new digital platforms enable more opportunity for collaboration and for interactive storytelling. Whether you want to do this or to focus only on writing for traditional cinema, the question of what skills can be learned remains relevant.
The energy starts to shape itself
Can screenwriting be taught? Award-winning screenwriter Dr Rie Natalenko thinks so. She told me recently on Skype: “Structure can be taught, and so can characterisation, dialogue and all the conventions of screenplay writing.” There are many online courses available and she recommends the FAST Screenplay system (Focus, Apply, Strengthen, Tweak).
Natalenko also recommends Linda Aronson, who teaches screenwriting in her books and online at www.lindaaronson.com.
Good drama requires conflict, and conflict is having characters not get what they want. Screenwriter Steven DeSouza in The 101 Habits of Highly Successful Screenwriters (Karl Inglesias, 2001) talks about a great story being “a delicate balance between foreshadowing and thwarting the audience’s expectations”. Michael Schiffer rewrites over and over again from the beginning “until it begins to form up and the energy starts to shape itself”.
In Making A Good Script Great (1994) Linda Seger writes that there are three elements necessary for success: marketability, creativity and script structure. “Structure is good timing,” she writes. It’s learning the best way to execute your story so it will make sense to your audience. Most industry professionals do believe that screenwriting can be taught.
Silencing your inner critic
If writing a screenplay seems daunting, consider that if you write two pages a day, five days a week, in ten weeks you’ll have 100 pages. Everyone I spoke to or read on this topic agreed that persistence is vital. As Van Gogh wrote long ago, ‘Great things are not done by impulse, but by a series of small things brought together.’
Screenwriter Robin Swicord advises, “You always have doubts as a writer. You overcome them by just writing.” Scott Rosenberg is against labouring over a screenplay trying to perfect it. “It should be vomited out as fast as you can manage… Then finesse it, massage it, sweeten it.”
The collaboration inherent in the approaches necessary with digital platforms would help here—it’s reassuring to have a ‘sounding board’ to spark ideas off and test different solutions to narrative problems.
Websites mentioned above form part of the resources available for mastering screenwriting. Others include university courses, e.g., the University of Canberra and the Australian National University, both offer screenwriting and related subjects.
Many people recommend famous guru Robert McKee, who states on his website: “Actions and reactions create revelation and insight, opening the door to a meaningful emotional experience for the audience.”
Most of the quotations above are from The 101 Habits of Highly Successful Screenwriters by Karl Inglesias (2001). Screenwriting software such as Final Draft and apps like Scriptor and Dramatica are available from www.writerstore.com/software and you can get a free, multiplatform writing program at www.trelby.org
You must dive: keeping up with change
The last word should go to prolific French screenwriter, Jean Claude Carriere, who reminds us of the complexity of the language of film, that it is made up of images and sounds and includes acting. “The world is changing all the time, and so is movie language— it’s impossible to stop it. You must be in the flow of the river, not looking at the river passing by—you must be inside, you must dive.”
Penny Hanley has been a film critic, book reviewer, artists’ model, caterer’s assistant, and deck hand on a yacht. Then after a 20 year editing career, she became a freelance writer. She has had a novel and 20 short stories published. Books commissioned include Creative Lives: Personal Papers of Australian Artists and Writers (NLA, 2009) and Inspiring Australians: The first fifty years of the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust (ASP, 2015). She has a PhD in Communications from the University of Canberra and a BA (Hons) in English Literature from the Australian National University. Penny loves books, cinema, travel and dancing the Argentine tango.