Screenwriting is a wonderful medium to write in. It’s tight, disciplined and forces you to find a way to tell your story visually. But that’s the crooked-edged sword. Your story has to work on the page as prose, but the reader has to feel that they are watching the story on a screen while you read it.
Every second really counts. You have a limited time to tell a complex story – or multiple stories, if you have subplots – during which the tension has to keep rising so that when the story is complete, we feel a sense of catharsis. There are far more rules than in almost any other medium but if you can make them work for you, rather than obey them blindly, a screenplay is a unique and compelling way to tell a powerful story.
I never intended to write a book about screenwriting until last year. Coincidentally several people asked me when I was doing one and I realised I had been teaching screenwriting since 1996. By now, I had taught courses or given workshops in most Irish universities and many colleges in Ireland as well as privately and being on panels and festivals such as Cúirt talking about the subject. Maybe it was time.
I sat in KC Peaches, Dame Street, 45 minutes before I had a meeting with a writing client and challenged myself to jot down chapters and topics I could cover. It all spilt out. Spidery pages of notes. By the time I typed it up the following day, I had 9,000 words.
So I plugged away at the different topics, added more and eventually pruned others.
This book, I decided, would be the book I would love to have found when I started out. A book that wouldn’t tell you how to write a screenplay, but would actually steer you through the process. There would be enough theory so that you would know what you were doing from the start, but given incrementally, with examples – invented and film-based – to explain each point in a tangible way. In addition, because this is what I do in class, there are writing exercises designed to stimulate your imagination, but also to put the theory into practice.
My stint as Screenwriter in residence at Maynooth Uni and Kildare Co. Council Library and Arts Services 2016-7 gave me time to get the first very rough draft hatched. Six drafts followed, gathering feedback as I went from academics and teachers, screenwriters and former students, producers and directors. I was only going to be writing this book once.
I really needed to get it right.
The first draft of anything is often the most difficult – and exhilarating – to write but sustaining the energy to finish a screenplay is dependent on so many things. The first consideration is to make sure that your idea is suitable for the screen. So that’s where I start. But you also need to feel passionate about it, that you are the only person that can write this story and that you can live with it for up to two years.
Characters are the heart and soul of story. Once you have the right central character – because it is her story you will tell – then you cannot imagine telling the story in any other way. So that’s where I move next: creating three-dimensional, credible and interesting characters who will help you tell your story.
I look then at plotting, at structure, at the demands of the medium that can be seen as limitations or as tools that can help you tell a powerful story. You only have time, traditionally, to develop four to six main characters in any depth, for example. On then to writing the individual scene. There are three purposes and every scene should achieve at least two: to move the story forward, to reveal something about character and to entertain.
But how do you write a powerful scene? Dialogue, description, action. Show don’t tell: we can only know how a character feels in a screenplay by what they do on the page. By their behaviour. You have to find a way to externalise internal feelings, fears, hopes into external action. Everything counts: nothing is wasted. You don’t put anything in a scene that isn’t useful now or later. Flashbacks, voiceover, juxtaposition, creating false situations of scarcity…. all the tricks of the trade, broken down to see how and when they work.
There’s also formatting. Unless your script looks professional, it won’t get the attention it deserves. However, on a positive note, once you start putting scraps of scenes into the proper format, you’ve started your script. It looks like a screenplay!
After all that, I added productivity tools for the times when it’s hard to see the wood for the trees and a chapter on creative writing techniques to make sure you open your story up and make it the best it can be.
I want to give writers the confidence to push through to the end of their first script. Between the pressures of life, the size of a script and the amount of work involved, most people give up. But when you finish your first draft – which is the goal; no looking back, ploughing on forward – you will feel awesome. Then I’ve added a bonus chapter on rewriting!
But I also wanted to make a contribution to the equality debate so I decided to make all my pronouns female. It was illuminating – my default setting, based on decades of reading, is to make the central character male, the antagonist, male, the pronouns in writing exercises male. Not, I have to say, in my own scripts but this is what happens in every analysis of screenplays and every screenwriting book.
It is a political point I’m making and I’m surprised it doesn’t seem to have happened before.
(c) Lindsay Jane Sedgwick
About Write That Script:
Ever thought you wanted to write a script but weren’t sure where to start? Do you have a story in you that you know would be fantastic on the screen? After working as a screenwriter and teaching screenwriting for over two decades, I have written this book to help you to turn your ideas into screenplays, moving from an examination of what you need in terms of an idea that will work on screen all the way through to first draft. Screenwriting is a tight and demanding medium but it is also one of the most exciting forms in which to write. In Write That Script! I’ve brought together all the theory you need with examples to show you how the theory works – and tons of exercises to stimulate those writing muscles that will see you through to the end. After all, you can’t write your second script until you’ve written your first! “Lindsay was my first screenwriting teacher way back in 1996 and set me on my way to becoming a professional screenwriter. It is a delight to see all her knowledge, experience and enthusiasm distilled into a book that will add richly to the education of screenwriters everywhere.” – Christian O’Reilly, screenwriter “What I love about this book is that it’s all practical and actionable advice, with effective exercises and brainstorming tips. Great for those starting out and getting more familiar with the challenges of screenwriting, as well as those want to develop their craft in a committed and professional way.” – Danny Stack, writer director Nelson Nutmeg “A practical inspiration for getting that script out of your head and on to the page/screen from someone who has done just that and done it brilliantly.” – Paul Donovan, Producer, Deadpan Pictures
About The Angelica Touch:
Angelica, 14, has reached three conclusions. Firstly, her mother Molly, who manages a rundown hotel on the wild Drisogue peninsula in Donegal, is desperately lonely. (She’s not.) Secondly, it’s entirely her fault that Molly is still single. (It might be.) Thirdly, since she can hardly have a boyfriend of her own if Number 2 is true, it’s up to her to find her mother a man. (It really isn’t.) Given her dangerously impressive gift for matchmaking, Angelica’s solution is to develop a dating website for her mum. With the questions devised by Angelica and best friend, Grace, what could possibly go wrong?
Order your copy online here.
About Dad’s Red Dress:
Moving to Dublin from L.A. is the last thing Jessie wants to do but at least, this time, she’s determined to stop her life imploding. It’s bad enough that her kid sister thinks she has been abducted by the Virgin Mary – twice; once on a motorbike – and that her step-Mum makes nude, feminist sculptures; this time, Jessie will stop people finding out her dad cross-dresses. It’s not that she minds; it’s who he is but she’s tired of the the inevitable teasing and bullying that follows when someone finds out. It made life hell in L.A. Trouble is, she’s really not in control of what’s going to happen next. And life has a habit of surprising us in unexpected ways.
Order your copy online here.
They are also available at Books Upstairs, Dublin, Charlie Byrne’s Bookshop in Galway and direct via firstname.lastname@example.org