I just wrote a movie script in 21 days. (Well, technically it took me from April 1st to April 22nd, but I took one day off.) It was actually my second time (I wrote a script for a Mork & Mindy movie when I was 10), but this was the first time I did it the right way.
If you’ve seen Howard the Duck, you might think anyone can write a movie script, and you’d be right. But how exactly do you do it, and how does it compare to, say, writing a novel?
What NaNoWriMo is for novels, Script Frenzy is for movies, plays, TV shows, and comic books. It occurs every April, with the goal being to write 100 pages of scripted material in 30 days. The idea is that if you give yourself a tight deadline, you’ll be amazed at what you can accomplish. Your draft might need a lot of polishing, but that’s far better than never finishing anything.
Script Frenzy sets the finish line at 100 pages. The reason for this is because it’s a nice round number, and also towards the lower end for a finished script. Each page of a screenplay translates into roughly one minute of action, so my 103 page script would give about an hour and 43 minutes of screen time.
As far as actually getting it done, most of my productivity tips about novel writing apply here, so check out How To Write A Novel In 21 Days. I’d say Script Frenzy is a bit easier than NaNoWriMo. It takes less than half as many words (for me, 21,000 vs. 55,000), though it’s twice as hard to get the words to flow. Now, what does a movie script actually involve?
A movie script, known as a screenplay in industry terms, is not a movie itself, but the blueprint for one. It gives directions as to what the characters say and do. It tells the director what roles need to be filled, what stages need to be built, what effects need to be created, and what lines the actors need to read.
As the screenwriter, your job is to spell out exactly what happens in the movie. You also need to make it easy for people to scan it to locate specific things, such as which scenes can be shot at night, or which actors need to be flown to Niagara Falls for a particular scene.
To do this, a very specific format and set of conventions are used. Fortunately, the good people at Script Frenzy are nice enough to provide a Word template to handle the formatting and a quick guide to illustrate the process. I’ll just give an overview here.
Using the template, it’s pretty easy to get the hang of things. You select SLUGLINE from the Styles list, which sets the left indent to 0.75″ and switches to all caps. Then you type something like:
EXT. FRANK’S STREET – NIGHT
A slugline tells you where we are – interior or exterior, location, and approximate time. This tells the crew whether they’re filming at a set or on location, and when. It helps them shoot all the scenes for one set together, instead of needlessly jumping between locations.
When you select Action from the Styles list, we exit all caps mode, and you describe the scene:
Snow has recently begun to fall, and it is starting to stick to the street. FRANK and JANICE are walking back from the movie theater, neither having broken the uncomfortable silence since seeing themselves onscreen for the first time.
When you select CHARACTER, we go back to all caps, with a left indent of 2.75″. Then you simply type:
Character names are always capitalized before their dialog (and often, throughout the script). This lets people quickly see who is in what scene, as well as locate all the lines for a particular character. The name is followed by (O.S.) if they are offscreen (such as on the other end of a phone call), or (V.O.) if they are giving a voiceover (such as narration, or when another character is recalling something they said).
While actors don’t like being told how to say their lines, we can include a Parenthentical if we need to give direction to make our intent clear. For example:
Then we select Dialogue from Styles, which sets the left indent to 1.75″. Now we say what the character says:
Wow, that was a great movie. It’s a shoo-in for Best Picture.
OK, that’s most of what you need to know about formatting. But how do you come up with something to write?
Screenplays can be categorized as original or adapted. Original screenplays are not based on any existing work. Adapted screenplays are derived from previously published material (often a novel, but possibly a play, short story, poem, song, comic book, etc).
The advantage of writing an adapted screenplay is that a lot has already been worked out for you. Someone else has put a lot of effort into developing the characters and making the storyline come together, so you can just focus on translating it to the big screen. The disadvantage is that some novels aren’t easily translated. Look at Jurassic Park – great book by Michael Crichton, great movie by Steven Spielberg – but beneath the surface they have very little in common.
When writing an original screenplay, you’re free to do whatever you want, and you’re not burdened with anything from the book that won’t work so well in the movie. The downside is that you have to come up with everything from scratch.
Mine would be considered an adapted screenplay, since it’s based on my novel. However, it’s not a direct translation. It’s actually a prequel, covering events that happened a few days prior to the novel. Also, the main characters in the movie are minor characters in the novel.
I’d say that the main difference between a novel and a screenplay is that the audience can’t hear your thoughts in the latter. In a novel, a character can look at a fingerprint and then launch into a five-thousand word explanation of how the murder happened. If this were translated directly into a movie scene, the audience would just see the character looking at a fingerprint, then staring into space forever.
The fact that the audience can’t hear your thoughts makes some things much more difficult. For example, how do you reveal a character’s last name in a natural way? I’m not sure. I did it with a combination of seeing names on office doors, one character being addressed formally by a superior, some characters just not having last names, etc.
This is a very simple problem for a novel, but a non-trivial one for a movie. But having gone through this, I’m sure I’ll be noticing this kind of thing when I see movies from now on. I encountered a similar issue with my novel, when I wasn’t sure how to say that a character said something, and now I always notice that when I read books. But you take a stab at it, you learn, you get better, and you enjoy the process.
Another thing is that you have to think about pacing, and whether the audience would constantly have something to be excited about. You may feel torn between using a bunch of dialog to explain something that’s really deep, as opposed to just shooting a whole bunch of guns to keep the action up. This is probably the biggest reason why the book is usually better than the movie.
After you’ve gotten your screenplay written, congratulations, you are now a screenwriter! You can either enjoy your script for what it is, or you can actually have it produced and turned into a movie. Speaking of which, if your name is Mel Brooks, Jim Carrey, or Adam Sandler, please send me an email.