Directing: What I’ve Learned So Far, Part 3

May 24, 2009 at 9:13 am 3 comments

On Story and Screenwriting:

It is said that there’s only a handful of stories that can be told, and all stories told are variants of these.  While I don’t know if that’s 100% true, it is very difficult to find variety these days in movies, books, games, etc.  What keeps us going back to the theatre is how the stories are told.  If it’s a romantic comedy, it’s usually something along the lines of Boy Meets Girl, Boy Embarrasses Himself Trying To Get Girl, or something like that.  However, each person telling this story has their own unique way of telling it.  Annie Hall is different from, say, The 40-Year-Old-Virgin, but on paper they might seem like similar movies.  Don’t focus on creating a unique story, focus on telling your story well. Remember, whatever idea you have, most likely its already been done.

Screenwriting is different from other types of writing in that the style and format are always in flux, and there’s not really room for detail.  Before you sit down at your computer to write a screenplay, you must learn the format. A screenwriting book that teaches format is a good place to start, and there are tons of websites that have screenplays available to read.  Be warned, however, that many ‘published’ screenplays on the Net could be shooting scripts, which have their own format and are not to be used as ‘spec’ scripts, which is what you write when you want to sell your story.  Another good step is to invest in screenwriting software, or plugins for Word (or your word processor of choice) that will format for you.  Keep in mind that not every program is perfect and you must pay attention to make sure the formatting is correct. Screenplay format is so important, many agents, executives, producers, etc. will not even bother reading the rest of the story (no matter how good it is) if the format is bad.

This book by David Trottier is a great place to learn format

This book by David Trottier is a great place to learn format

As I mentioned before, you don’t have room for lyrical, Nobel Prize-winning prose in a screenplay. Be concise, get to the point.  If there’s a fight scene in your story, don’t explain exactly how one character fights, and the movement they make.  That’s boring.  Honestly, I have this problem when reading books.  For example, I was reading The Bourne Identity and Robert Ludlum has a habit of describing, in specific detail, how the characters fight.  This leg moved this way, so-and-so’s arm swung that way, blah blah blah.  That style of writing bored me so much that I couldn’t finish the book (I do mean to, one day).  In screenwriting, a simple “They fight” is all you might need.  Let the director and choreographer worry about the details.  In other places, such as descriptions of settings, details also need to be to-the-point.  If your scene takes place in a jungle, don’t go into detail about the sweat dripping down the characters’ faces, or how the midday sun beat down upon them and baked their skin.  Just set it up as, “They trek across a hot, sweaty jungle” or something to that effect.

If you’re a director, or a producer, consider going to someone else to write your screenplay.  You could have an amazing idea, but you may write poorly; in that case, having a professional (or as close to ‘professional’ as you can get) writing it will probably be your best bet.  Just like with editing, doing everything yourself may cause you to lose sight of what’s important in the story. You may get attached to certain scenes or lines, and may be wary of removing them in rewrites, even if it may seem necessary.

The Final Draft series of screenwriting software is among the best.

The Final Draft series of screenwriting software is among the best.

As for story structure, most people go with the Three Act Structure.  It’s concise, simple, and most successful movies follow this, like Star Wars and Jurassic Park.  There are some that don’t go this route, which is fine (Raiders of the Lost Ark is said to have more than four acts), but I would advise against it for first-timers.  Remember, you must learn the rules first before you can break them. Another thing to remember is that all stories must have conflict.  I’d even go so far as to say that it is impossible to tell a worthwhile story and not have conflict.  Whether it’s Good Guy vs Bad Guy, or Good Guy vs Himself, or whatever, the main character must want something and there are forces at work against him.

Recently, Christian Bale was asked how the filmmakers got him to be a part of the new Terminator Salvation movie.  He said that the script had to be so good that it could be performed without fancy visuals and still tell a compelling story.  Apparently, the script he read was good enough to meet this criteria, and he’s now the new John Connor of the franchise.  This should be true for all movies.  In the rehearsal process, a table read is usually done so that everyone involved (cast, director, producer, writer, etc) can hear the lines spoken out loud and to fix any problems before formal rehearsals get underway.  During the table read, there is not fancy CG imagery or editing, it’s just the actors and their lines.  The story must make sense when told from this point of view.  If the actors alone can’t tell the story, there’s something wrong with the script.

When you’re writing a student film or a low-budget indie flick, consider your budget beforehand. Don’t write a Hollywood action movie if your budget is $50 and you can’t get access to fancy equipment.  Locations are also something to thing about; a 15-minute short doesn’t need 30 different locations.  If possible, keep your locations to a bare minimum needed to tell the story.  Usually, that’s enough.  Also, don’t cram in a dozen different characters.  The less speaking roles, the better, since this will make casting and shooting go by much smoother, and more unnecessary speaking parts may confuse the audience.

Although, in Hollywood, screenwriters are treated as second-class-citizens, that doesn’t mean your story must be treated this way.  As a director, this is your version of someone else’s story.  Even if you wrote the story yourself, consider what looks best on screen.  Remember, filmmaking is, above all, a visual medium for telling tales.  If it looks good on paper, but for whatever reason, it doesn’t work on screen, it must be changed or it must be removed.  There’s an old saying in Hollywood, “You can make a bad movie from a good script, but you can’t make a good movie from a bad script.” This is 100% true.  Even the most ridiculous premise for a story may have just the visual punch needed to make a good movie.

(images from

Directing: What I’ve Learned So Far, Part 2 – On Crew


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3 Comments Add your own

  • […] Directing: What I’ve Learned So Far, Part 3 – On Story and Screenwriting Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)The All-American Heroes…Killing the JokeWriting About An Elusive Art – Part 3Positions wanted to complete our crew […]

  • 2. Eric  |  June 6, 2009 at 12:17 pm

    I agree that simplicity is key, but sometimes when writing action, “They fight” would be a bad way to describe a scene, especially if studio execs are reading your script. I recommend reading any action script by Shane Black, William Goldman, or J.J. Abrams, among many others. These guys have a VOICE and they show it in their writing. Too many young screenwriters don’t know how to have fun when writing action.

  • 3. Eric  |  June 6, 2009 at 12:21 pm

    For example, below is action as written in a script for “LOST”. Writing “They fight” would not be adequate or acceptable in this situation:

    And as Ducket turns around —

    BAM — Sawyer shoots him. Right in the stomach.

    Ducket DROPS. He lands on the ground, back against the dumpster. Not quite dead. Not yet.

    Sawyer kneels down next to him. Duckett gasps, shock splashed all over his face.

    Sawyer calmly reaches into his pocket and pulls out his LETTER.


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