Anyone in the creative industry knows that making something seem effortless is extremely difficult, and screenwriting is the perfect example. But not just anyone can sit down and write a blockbuster screenplay immediately. Why is it so hard?
Writing a screenplay is so hard because they need believable characters and time dedicated to world-building. They must also seamlessly blend dialogue and action in as few as 90 pages. Any of these is hard to do well, but doing all of them at once is ridiculously tricky.
This article will take a glimpse into screenwriters’ world and how they work hard to make a seemingly simple screenplay.
1. Writing Characters
Characters are the cornerstone of a story, and each one needs an identity, personality, mannerisms, preferences, accents, and traumas. The audience must believe they could be real. If these things don’t add up, they have to change.
Screenwriting is like creating a brand new puzzle and building it too. Now imagine doing this for a whole cast of main characters.
At the same time, it’s important for screenwriters not to reveal everything about a character. They reveal their characters’ personalities through their actions, appearance, and how other characters talk to and about them.
Finally, characters characterize themselves through narration and inner monologues.
Compare the masterful narration of Fight Club to the gratuitous and self-indulgent narration that appears in some films: you know it when you hear it. In comparing great narration with jarring narration it’s evident that there is such a thing as too much of a good thing, and it can make or break a movie.
For information on writing fleshed-out, well-rounded and believable characters, check out this MasterClass by screenwriter Judd Apatow.
Building a world doesn’t just mean creating an expansive universe with its own creatures and languages but also constructing the backdrop of the screenplay. For example, Zone Blanche is a French supernatural thriller set in the actual town of Villefranche.
However, the police station is the main focus of the series.
Although the location itself is real, this fictional story has to build up politics between the police station and the town, incorporate actual historical events from the town’s origins, and use these elements to further the supernatural aspects of the show.
Screenwriters must build these elements into a script in 90 to 120 pages, give or take. They must also perfect the delicate balance between overexplaining and being too vague to achieve a succinct yet descriptive look into the world on screen.
When world-building, screenwriters must:
- Decide if a world is based on a real place and how much this fantasy deviates from reality.
- Immerse readers with detailed descriptions.
- Stay consistent with the world’s rules.
- Stay consistent with the timeline they’ve created.
If the world in the story already exists, there’s even more pressure on the screenwriter to research and stay consistent with their details and timeline.
For instance, establishing the timeline and socio-political atmosphere in Apartheid South Africa is arguably far more challenging than establishing the political strain of a revolt in a fantasy world because fantasy provides limitless creative liberties.
3. Writing Dialogue
Writing dialogue is perhaps the most challenging aspect of a screenwriter’s job, which is usually complicated, so paired with the pressure of limited space and interlacing it with action, it’s not a cakewalk.
Screenwriters need to write dialogue that grabs the audience’s attention and tells them something about the character talking.
Every character has a unique personality, which has to come through in writing. Audiences, and critics especially, will be able to immediately tell if the dialogue is flat and exactly the same for every character.
Dialogue should account for:
- Accents: If a character has a thick accent, the screenwriter might use this to influence their lines in the script by writing them how they sound.
- Profanities: Does a character use profanities? How do they react to others using them? What do the ones they use say about where they come from?
- Idioms: The idioms characters use can tell a lot about their ages, nationalities, native languages, and belief systems.
- Relationships: How someone talks to their brother differs from how they speak to their boss, which needs to be very clear in the script to maintain realism.
- Gender: Social conditioning means different genders have different speaking habits, especially when they intercommunicate. This huge consideration will make dialogue seem more relatable and realistic.
These are only a few considerations screenwriters use when constructing dialogue. In essence, a screenplay must capture what a person acts and talks like and how they communicate with others.
4. Writing Action
The mantra writers repeat ad nauseum is “show, don’t tell.” Screenwriters must write exciting and realistic action sequences and stage directions without overexplaining them.
In addition to making action realistic, it has to make sense and be motivated by something. If the character can’t do martial arts, don’t write them doing it, and don’t make them hold hands with someone if they don’t like physical touch.
Finally, the screenwriter needs the vision to make the action look cinematic. Describing action in a believable but exciting way is indeed no small feat.
Here’s how it should be done:
- Describe what can be seen: Generally, it’s best not to direct from the writers chair. Leave the shot selection to the director (unless you are also the director!). Focus on what you want the viewer to see, and let the director find the perfect way to capture that vision.
- Focus on readability: Screenwriters must write a script that others on their team can read, interpret, and implement. It needs to be straightforward and transparent and should leave out confusing explanations.
- Include emotion: This applies to action and dialogue. The screenwriter should include an action as well as how that action is performed, e.g., instead of describing an action as “jumping,” use “excitable jumping” or “nervous jumping.”
- Use present tense: Scripts describe things happening at the moment, and audiences follow this stream of information as it happens. This is why screenwriters should predominantly use present tense.
The screenwriter doesn’t waste time and space on unnecessary details and things they can’t control but focuses all their energy on their role. A stunning example of the relationship between dialogue and action is The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring screenplay.
Screenwriting is hard because it’s an artform that professionals have honed over decades to a state of near perfection. When writers judge their own work, they often compare their writing to the greatest writing of all time. Remember to only compare yourself with other writers at your level of development if you want to avoid negative feelings of inadequacy.
There are lots of articles here on Letter Review to help you develop as a screenwriter. Practice, practice, practice! Good luck!