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Writing With One Hand Behind Your Back

Posted by Mark W Travis on Monday, January 9th, 2012

We’re all storytellers, each and every one of us. We tell stories all day long – at meetings, dinners, on the phone, taking walks – and even to ourselves. We post stories on Facebook and Twitter. We text our friends and colleagues. We live in a world immersed in story. And then occasionally we record our stories in novels, newspaper articles, short stories, plays, poems and screenplays. In many ways we are master storytellers because it is an art form that we practice every day. But, also, in many ways we are novices, neophytes, fledglings, because we stumble and falter with the telling of so many stories. We struggle with the extraordinary demands of each form or genre or delivery system. We’re like infants trying to take those first steps when inside we feel the desire to run.

Each form of storytelling has its opportunities and limitations. In the novel the visuals have to be created with words. Journalists struggle with maintaining the required objectivity while feeling the pull to infuse their stories with an element of personal intimacy. Playwrights battle the limitations of the stage and the restrictions of time. But, one of the most severe sets of limitations is experienced by screenwriters. The screenplay appears so seductively simple with its standard format and three-act 120-page structure. But its simplicity is deceptive. Regardless of the story you want to tell, the genre you have chosen or the theme or subject matter – your hands are tied. You are limited to only four storytelling tools. There are only four elements that you are allowed to use. They are basic, they are necessary, but they are not enough.

Quite simply they are:

  1. LOCATION. You are allowed to describe and define the location where each scene takes place. You can give as much description as you want, but for the sake of time (remember, only 120 pages) and in order to maintain the forward momentum of the story you want to keep it brief. The fewer words the better, just enough information to let us know where we are.
  2. CHARACTERS. You can tell us who is in each scene. You can have as many characters as you like but again for the sake of time (remember, you are attempting to create the illusion that the reader is seeing a film, not reading a novel) keep it brief. Be “laser”. Get to the point and move on.
  3. BEHAVIOR. This is where things begin to get interesting. You are encouraged to describe and define the behavior of the characters, individually and collectively. Now you have the characters in motion and we can begin to get a sense of what they are thinking, feeling, intending, etc.
  4. DIALOGUE. And, finally, you can write what these characters say, what they say to each other or even to themselves. They can speak as eloquently or passionately as you like about anything.

And that’s it. That’s all you get to write. Quite simply, your task is to write what we will see and what we will hear on the screen. And what you don’t get to write, what you can’t describe because it can’t be seen or heard are the feelings, the emotions, those deeply unexpressed desires and fears of your characters. Of course you can slip in bits of dialogue about the history or back-story of a character that will help. You can also have your characters attempt to reveal what is going on inside in their dialogue or behavior. But for the most part, the core of your story, the inner life of your characters cannot be expressed on the screenplay page.

Your story and your characters are driven by these deep feelings, desires and emotions.  This is what your story is all about. And you can’t write it. This inner, subtextual world is the genesis of your story, the stimulation and the reason for the story. And on the screenplay page it has to remain unwritten, implied, suggested, subtextual.

We go to see films to experience the inner life of the characters, their hopes and dreams, desires and disappointments, their fears and fantasies. And we have to remember that the screenplay is not the blueprint we would like to have. It is a snapshot. It is only a result, a documentation of what happens as these characters are pursue their most deeply felt desires and objectives, as they fight their most deeply felt demons, obstacles and fears.

As a writer, if you really wanted to bring your reader into the core of your story, into the deepest and darkest corners of your characters inner lives, then you should write a novel. But if you want to engage your audience in the cinematic experience of living with your characters for a concentrated and intimate two-hour journey, then you need to write a screenplay.

The challenge of writing for the screen, this Zen-like, Haiku-like art form is a noble and magnificent challenge, mastered by few, admired by many and embraced by the masses.

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